On this first day of May when people throughout the world celebrate the importance and dignity of labor, the readings from our liturgy remind us of our mission as Christians-as they do throughout this post-Easter season. Pope Francis has made this a constant theme of his pontificate-not just in what he says but in what he does. The Church must not be turned in on itself. It has to avoid the "stale air" of a closed room. Christ calls us to reach out to the world in love and compassion, especially to those most in need.
As the biblical readings today testify, the Pope’s call to mission is not something new but reaches back to the very heart of our Christian faith. Today, for example, we hear of the irrepressible zeal of Peter and the other apostles. The religious authorities were deeply disturbed by the apostles’ preaching and had warned them to be quiet, but to no avail. Finally, in the segment right before the passage we hear today, the authorities had thrown them into prison. But no prison could bottle up the Spirit of God and the apostles are miraculously freed from their cell. When the authorities tell the guards to bring the prisoners to them for interrogation, the amazed guards have to report that the apostles were somehow freed and were back preaching the gospel again!
When finally the apostles are brought before the council and reprimanded for not keeping quiet, the apostles still refuse to be silent! "We must obey God rather than any human authorities," Peter boldly says. Like Jesus before them, they live under the threat of death and are scourged for punishment, but their witness to the gospel continues without hesitation.
The gospel passage for today has a similar theme. It is taken from Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus early in the Gospel of John. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about himself and the mission God has given him: "The one who comes from heaven…testifies to what he has seen and heard." "The one whom God sent speaks the words of God. He does not ration his gift of the Spirit."
The early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles describes the witness of the early Church in dramatic terms: Peter preaching to the crowds of pilgrims who come to Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost; Peter and the other apostles bursting out of prison and preaching the gospel despite the threats against their lives posed by the authorities; Steven giving witness even as he is being stoned to death as the first martyr of the young Church. Later in Acts we travel with Paul as he fearlessly proclaims the gospel throughout Asia Minor and on into Greece and finally Rome itself.
There are still Christians today who are called upon to give courageous witness to their faith and to the gospel message, even in the face of threat. But for most of us, witness to the gospel may come in less dramatic but still demanding settings. Learning to forgive and seek peace when we have been hurt by someone’s harsh words to us; supporting efforts to bring justice to the poor in our society; taking responsibility for caring for the environment-seeing it as God’s sacred creation; being willing to share our faith with friends or neighbors when the opportunity presents itself; nourishing that faith with prayer and reflection.
The readings today urge us to make our own the words of the responsorial Psalm for this beginning of May: "I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth."
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.