Our first reading at Holy Mass on Sunday, from… Acts. Chapter? Five.
The Supreme Court of ancient Israel conducted a “trial” of the Apostles. “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name?!” ‘That name,’ namely… Jesus!
St. Peter gave his famous response. “With all due respect, Your Honors, must we not obey God rather than men? After all, we have seen Jesus since He rose from the dead. He told us to proclaim the Gospel to all nations.”
Then the Sanhedrin re-iterated their previous order, and dismissed the Apostles. That’s all that happened, right?
Trick question, my friends! Today we can identify the serious Bible scholars. Our Sunday Lectionary skips eight verses in our reading from Acts, chapter 5.
What did we miss? The rabbi with whom the young St. Paul studied—that rabbi sat on the Sanhedrin. Right! Gamaliel. What did Gamaliel say about jailing, or scourging, or otherwise punitively trying to thwart the Apostles’ activities?
Gamaliel cautioned his fellow judges: Let’s leave these Galileans alone. If what they say is not true, then their movement will die out of its own accord, as many so-called Messiah Movements have died out before. But if their endeavor does indeed come from God, then we will not be able to destroy it. And do we want to fight with God?
So then the Sanhedrin dismissed the Apostles on their own recognizance. And St. Peter and Co. rejoiced in what they had suffered for the sake of the Gospel. Because the Apostles of course knew that God really is in charge of history.
Gamaliel helped the Sanhedrin to focus on the central question, the perennial human question: Who governs the course of history? What does the future hold? The Future, an old friend of the People of God.
God made an alliance with Abraham, based on the future. Generations later, the Lord gave the Divine Law to one of Abraham’s descendants, namely… Moses. The Mosaic Law concluded with a promise about the future. In the ensuing centuries, the prophets of Israel received divine communications about… the future!
In other words, the religion of the Old Covenant fundamentally had to do with the future coming of…the Messiah.
Now, I don’t think this is merely ancient history, my friends. I think we can go so far as to say this: the “Messiah” is: the person who holds the future in his hands.
That’s not a strict Hebrew definition, but nonetheless it is true to put it that way. We human beings get anxious about the uncertainty of the future. This anxiety of ours can utterly overwhelm us. We find the medicine we need, the answer, the source of calm and hope, in one thing: The Messiah. Within the human soul, a profound force operates, seeking the trustworthy Messiah who truly holds the future in his hands.
During the century previous to ours, “modern man” had a tendency to imagine that our own human ingenuity could control the future. Twentieth-century man thought of technology and “progress” as the Messiah. That’s called being a ‘technocrat.’ During the 20th century—precisely a hundred years ago, in fact—President Woodrow Wilson told the American people that we would fight World War I in order to “end all wars.” An amazing technocratic-idealist thing to say.
But, as we now know, a century later, “human progress” has turned out to be a false and fickle Messiah. Our delusion that our own ingenuity can produce a perfect future has probably caused more anxiety about the future than human beings have ever experienced before, in the entire history of time.
What about the 21st century? Careful observers have pointed out a strange imbalance in our pre-occupation with presidential campaigns. The coverage which cable news gives to presidential elections dwarfs by a huge proportion the actual impact that the President of the United States has on the day-to-day existences of 99% of Americans.
After all, the Constitution of the United States intentionally limits the powers of the President. But you wouldn’t know that from tv. To quote one of the wise observers: “The occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure, and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes.”* In the 21st century, presidential politics has become much less a real practical matter, and much more a big game of “Pick Your 15-Minute Messiah.”
What’s the answer?
How about keeping all the other foolishness to a minimum, and focusing on the actual, real Messiah?
According to St. John Chrysostom, rabbi Gamaliel himself eventually embraced the Christian faith. The work of St. Peter and Co. did, in fact, proceed from God, rather than from some human fantasy. One man actually does hold the future in His hands—Jesus of Nazareth.
And what does the real Messiah ask of us? It’s all in His concluding dialogue with St. Peter, which we read at Sunday Mass. Feed My lambs. Tend my sheep. Forget yourself. Take care of others. Take care of others until it hurts. Then you can follow Me to eternal life.