by Father Mike Stubbs
Every summer, missionaries visit the parishes of the archdiocese to tell us about their ministry.
They do this partly to raise money so that this important work might continue. After all, a collection for the archdiocesan missionary cooperative plan accompanies their talk at Mass.
But they also speak about the missions because the work that they have undertaken there is done in the name of the church — that is to say,
in our name, because we are the church. In reporting back to us, the missionaries are reporting back to a portion of the church that they repre- sent.
In Sunday’s first reading, Acts 14:21b-27, something sim- ilar is happening. When Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch, they report back to the church about the missionary trip they have just finished: “From there they sailed back to Antioch, where they had first been commended to the favor of God for the task they had now completed. On their arrival, they called the congregation together and related all that God had helped them accomplish, and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.”
Paul and Barnabas had received their mandate to travel as missionaries while they were at Antioch: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, completing their fasting and prayer, they laid hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3).
It was altogether appropriate that Paul and Barnabas should receive their commission as missionaries from the church in Antioch. After all, Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, after Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt.
Accordingly, Antioch had become a center for the Christians. In fact, “it was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11: 26). According to tradition, Peter first served as a leader for the Christians in Antioch, before moving on to Rome. That tradition claims that Peter was bishop of Antioch before becoming bishop of Rome.
Many scholars believe that Matthew’s Gospel was written in Antioch. That could partly explain why that Gospel places such importance on Peter, given Peter’s association with Antioch. Paul also mentions Peter’s presence in Antioch, in connection with a disagreement that the two of them had on how to interact with Gentile converts to Christianity: “And when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong” (Gal 2:11).
Bringing the Gospel to a larger audience sometimes resulted in controversy. In any case, the Christian community in Antioch played a decisive role in spreading the new faith to the Mediterranean world, as testified by Sunday’s first reading.