The happiness of the Easter season is well-reflected in the lyrical psalm to be heard at this Sunday’s Mass. “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy,” the liturgy intones, invoking psalm 66, in which the Jewish community praises God for his powerful acts for Israel, for the exodus from Egypt and the entry into the promised land, but also for relief from some recent, but unspecified calamity hinted at in verses 8-12. The first Christians had little difficulty in adapting this psalm for their own use since they were still basking in the glory of the resurrection and ascension of the Christ, and the arrival and bestowal of the Spirit at Pentecost. Yet, a very specific calamity had recently beset the early Christian community at Jerusalem.
The Roman authorities were willing to let the very first Christians operate in peace since they were all ethnically Aramaic Jews, and at first, continued to frequent the local synagogues and the Jerusalem Temple. The Romans were familiar with their religious routine and saw no need to disturb the status quo. But before too long, the early Christian Church began to attract Greek-speaking Jews and even pagan converts who were not a part of predictable Jewish life. This innovation drew the attention of the Empire’s officials. Even within the early church itself, Greek-speaking Jews were somewhat considered a fringe group, and their requirements were coldly neglected by the old time Jewish converts. This neglect led to the institution of the diaconate, the selection and ordination of seven men who could care specifically for the needs of Greek-speaking converts, especially widows. The Romans, however, had a less kindly response to the early church’s growing popularity throughout the Greek and pagan world.
Roman authorities launched the first official persecution of the church, and the new order of deacons was among the first to suffer. The Book of Acts recounts, “On that day, there broke out a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” The apostles, being old-time Jews, were apparently left unmolested, but the Greek-speaking deacons were among those driven to foreign parts. Their dispersion turned out to be one of the church’s first ventures into universality. The commission given by Christ at his Ascension, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature,” began to bear fruit as a result of this persecution. Once again, God brings good out of evil.
Philip, one of the original seven Greek-speaking deacons, on the run from Jerusalem, “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Christ to them. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing.” The ever-optimistic St. Luke concludes this initial venture into Samaria with this happy analysis: “The rejoicing in that town rose to fever pitch.” Philip’s adventure into the wider world was not to end in Samaria. In his travels north toward present day Lebanon, Philip encountered a servant of the Ethiopian queen. He was certainly not a Jew, but rather, a “God-fearer,” someone earnestly seeking the truth but not involved in formal religion. God’s supernatural presence within the encounter of Philip and the Ethiopian is emphasized by the guidance of an angel, by the mention of the Spirit and by Philip’s sudden departure once his work was done: “…the Lord snatched Philip away.”
Philip would continue his ministry to the larger world, settling north of Galilee and raising a family. St. Paul would prevail upon Philip’s hospitality during his own journeys: “On the next day we resumed the trip and came to Caesarea, where we went to the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven, and stayed with him. He had four virgin daughters gifted with prophecy.” Note that by this time Philip had merited the title “the evangelist,” someone celebrated for his zeal and effectiveness in spreading the faith.
As with the enslaved Jews in Egypt, and the suffering Christ on the Cross and the persecuted Greek-speaking Christians of Jerusalem, God always brings good out of evil, light out of darkness and life out of death. God tests but he always rescues. This is certainly cause for rejoicing.