Go Out and Teach all Nations — Three Lessons from Acts

"Conversion of Saint Paul" (detail) by Caravaggio

“Conversion of Saint Paul” (detail) by Caravaggio

In Mathew’s Gospel 28:16:20, we learn of Jesus’ Great Commission. It is the very last thing He said to the Apostles: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” An echo of the Great Commission is found in John’s Gospel, 20:20-23, when Jesus greets the Apostles with “peace be with you,” then He shows them his wounds and tells them “as the Father has sent me so I send you.” With that He breathed the breath of the Holy Spirit on them and gave them the authority to loose and bind sins here on earth as they fulfill their duty to colonize heaven.

So as the Father sent Christ, so Christ sends out the Apostles, “as sheep among the wolves” and as He tells them earlier in the Gospels, they are warned to be “as wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” Just as the Apostles went out to teach all the nations and to baptize new members into the Body of Christ by the living waters, they laid hands on new priests and bishops who laid hands on every new Christian for the last two thousand years. We proceed born anew of the spirit into the ranks of the citizens of the City of God. We are called to advance the unified purpose of carrying out the Great Commission each in our own turn and in our own way unique to our gifts.

The present age has obscured the nature of the Great Commission. We are prone to material reduction which leads to an inversion of the hierarchical importance of the spiritual and material realities. We live in a time that encourages self-reference over referring to the authority of truth capable of conveying the authentic meaning of our deposit of Faith. Finally, we have cultivated a certain kind of blindness to truth where we are prone to allow our eyes to be covered by the scales of erudition. To recover an authentic understanding of Christ’s command to go forth as He was sent by the Father, it would be of great instructional value to see how this command unfolded in a few episodes of the Acts of the Apostles as they went forth to fulfill the Great Commission.

St. Peter restores the image of Christ

We live in an epoch of extreme material abundance. The scientific revolution has yielded unprecedented material wealth in the West and our response has been an increasing materialism, first at the expense of theological considerations and more recently at the expense of philosophical inquiry. There has been an inversion in the sciences from the understanding that Theology is the highest and most certain way of knowing truth. Theology is to be supported by the right use of intellect discovered by philosophical inquiry while the material sciences remain subservient to verify by deduction the theological and philosophical truths handed down by our forefathers. Today, that hierarchy has been reversed where the material sciences are presumed to be the highest way of knowing. Science is now served by the intellect and theology has been relegated to antiquated superstition. Even in the Church this inversion has impacted us. We may find ourselves prone to minimize or exclude the spiritual dimension from our corporeal works of mercy.

In The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 3, we see an excellent example of St. Peter putting the primary emphasis on the spiritual work even as through the power of Christ a man is physically healed. As Peter and John were heading to the temple to pray, they encountered a man lame from birth who was at the gate of the temple asking for alms. When the crippled man asked them for alms, Peter responded, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, walk.” By miracle, the lame man’s feet and ankles were made strong and he was able to walk for the first time.

Peter didn’t have silver or gold for alms but it ought not to be missed that there is a totality of what happened that includes a physical as well as a spiritual miracle. St. Leo the Great comments on this passage in his Sermon 95 when he says “what more sublime than this humility? What richer than this poverty?” Though Peter had no money to give, what he was able to give was a spiritual work of mercy and a miracle of grace, not only the miracle of physical healing. Leo the Great goes onto explain that St. Peter “gave not Cæsar’s image in a coin, but restored Christ’s image on the man.” St. Peter, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, restored the image of Christ on the beggar’s heart and as well he was healed physically. We ought to recover the proper understanding of charity today by remembering that when it comes to the Great Commission, our duty to do corporeal works of mercy is accompanied by the even more important duty to restore the image of Christ on all men’s hearts.

St. Philip and the Ethiopian

The Enlightenment period led to a kind of humanism that increasingly excluded notions of God and supernatural authority from the intellectual life. Over the centuries, there has been an increasing emphasis on self-reference embodied by the aphorism that “man is the measure of all things.” Modern education is built upon the sands of self-reference and we find it increasingly difficult in this age to defer to an objective authority. We are encouraged instead to be the arbiters of what is true, not objectively, but for ourselves. The difficulty here is that we cannot measure what we discover against a thing outside ourselves and this leads in the end to a kind of radical skepticism. There is an episode in The Acts of the Apostles that illustrates how we ought to learn the truths of the Gospel message.

In Acts 8:26, St. Philip was sent by an angel of the Lord to the south from Jerusalem towards Gaza. He came across an Ethiopian minister to the Queen who was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah. Philip was told by the Spirit to join the Ethiopian. As he approached he asked “do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian answered “How can I, unless someone guides me?” As he was instructed to do, Philip explained to the Ethiopian that the passage was about Jesus Christ. He proceeded to expound upon the Gospel message and in response, the Ethiopian asked Philip to baptize him.

We are gifted the deposit of Faith flowing forth from the Incarnate Christ and the Sacred Scriptures. By Sacred Tradition and the teaching office of the Magisterium we are afforded a sure and comprehensive means of recovering an authentic Catholic identity. Our memories ought to be invigorated by the Gospel Message faithfully delivered by the Apostles, interpreted by the Holy Spirit. If we follow the spirit of the age, we are in danger of subordinating these awe inspiring sources of truth to our own opinions. Let us recover the right order of things by the example of the Ethiopian who rightfully said “how can I know unless someone guides me?” It is Holy Mother Church whose head is Christ that is to guide us by the faithful teachers in service to the sacred truths embodied in Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Once we turn to the proper sources of truth, we might turn an open eye to modern education.

St. Paul’s Conversion

We live in an age that boasts of universal education. We consider the privilege of an education to be a right. By political fiat, we attempt a mass distribution of what is attainable by far less than all. The devastating result has been a redefinition of the term “education” to mean something far less universal and comprehensive than what it meant in the past. Just as in any other age, we are prone to sophistry instead of philosophy. Any teaching that does not align with the truths of Christ is false teaching and the majority of what is taught in the modern schools is error. All false instruction acts as scales over our eyes to conceal Christ’s light of truth.

Let us consider St. Paul. We learn in chapter 9 of The Acts of the Apostles that he was born Saul of Tarsus into the Pharisaic tradition in the Tribe of Benjamin. He was educated at the school of Gamaliel, a most respected and erudite Rabbi. St. Paul was considered one of the most highly educated men in all of Ancient Israel and as such he was respected as an authority in the persecution of the earliest Christians. As if undergirded by his erudition, Saul was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” When he was on the road to Damascus to round up more Christians for persecution he was blinded by the light of the Lord as Christ said to him “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Saul opened his eyes he could see nothing for three days.

Anani’as was instructed by Christ to lay hands on Saul so that he might regain his sight by the light of truth. Anani’as was apprehensive about approaching Saul but the Lord assured him saying “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the gentiles and Kings and the sons of Israel.” Saul recovered his sight when he was filled with the Holy Spirit but not before “something like scales fell from his eyes.” The light of Christ blinds the erudition of man. As we prosecute the Great Commission it ought not to be by our own lights which are darkness compared to the light of Christ, but by that eternal light which is inaccessible to the proud. Our emphasis on human learning in this age ought to be subordinated to the Gospel Truth if we are going to effectively follow Christ’s Great Commission.

Go out and teach all nations

The Great Commission to “go out and teach all nations” is complicated in the digital age. If we are to comply fully with Christ’s command when he said “so the Father has sent me so I send you,” then we might be wise to take instruction from the Acts of the Apostles and make extra efforts to subordinate material acts of charity to re-imprinting the image of Christ on our brothers and sisters hearts. We might also strive to turn to the teaching authority of Holy Mother Church for our guide to understanding the Scriptures and therefore learn the authentic Gospel Truth. We might also put our faith in the Light of Christ instead of the erudition of man so that we don’t have scales in our eyes that prevent us from seeing the truth that emanates from God.

Colonizing heaven in this age requires adaptation, creativity and an honest look at how we approach our duty to evangelize. However, the Gospel message and principles of Christ’s Great Commission are eternal and we must discover the difference between our delivery methods and the unchanging and eternal content of what we are delivering. In the Acts of the Apostles we see the unfolding of Christ’s exhortation to grow the Body of Christ carried out by the faithful Apostles inspired by the Holy Spirit. We have the same duty and so will those who come after us. Let us carry out our commission with fidelity and courage and use the saints as our models of imitation as we strive to imitate Christ who sends us forth as His Father sent Him.

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