Apr 29, 2018: 5th Sunday of Easter (B)

1st Reading – Acts 9:26-31

When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples,
but they were all afraid of him,
not believing that he was a disciple.
Then Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles,
and he reported to them how he had seen the Lord,
and that he had spoken to him,
and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.
He moved about freely with them in Jerusalem,
and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord.
He also spoke and debated with the Hellenists,
but they tried to kill him.
And when the brothers learned of this,
they took him down to Caesarea
and sent him on his way to Tarsus.

The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace.
It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord,
and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.

Our first reading today describes Saul’s first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion.  The prominent theme in this passage is the marvelous transformation that the grace of God can effect: even a persecutor can become a disciple.

When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.

The apostle Paul is still known as Saul, his Jewish name.  He was once a formidable prosecutor of the early Church:

Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.  (Acts 9:1-2)

However, he has now become a disciple of the Lord (Acts 9: 1-22 recounts his conversion story).  He initially meets resistance from the disciples.  They do not object to his message, but they doubt his claim of conversion.

Then Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles, and he reported to them how on the way he had seen the Lord and that he had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.

It takes another member of the community, Barnabus (Acts 4:36), to intercede for Saul and witness to his transformation into a believer.

If God can raise Jesus from the dead, surely God can re-create Saul.  In fact, Saul’s rebirth as a disciple is a sign of the grace that has been unleashed by the resurrection.  It was the risen Jesus that Saul encountered (Acts 9:5, 22:8, 26:15), and it is that same risen Jesus that he now proclaims.

He moved about freely with them in Jerusalem, and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord. He also spoke and debated with the Hellenists, but they tried to kill him.

The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews who were fierce Mosaic loyalists.  His attempt to persuade them about Jesus and their violent reaction is reminiscent of Stephen’s debate with the so-called Synagogue of Freedmen (Acts 6:8 – 7:60).

And when the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea

While Saul may not have convinced the Hellenists about Christ, he certainly convinced the disciples in Jerusalem of his genuine conversion.

Caesarea is a seaport on the coast of Palestine, south of Mount Carmel. It was built by Herod the Great and named after Caesar Augustus (it is shown on some maps as Caesarea Maritima to distinguish it from another place called Caesarea, which is referred to as Caesarea Philippi).

and sent him on his way to Tarsus.

Tarsus was Paul’s birthplace, near the coast of Cilicia. It could have been accessed from Caesarea Maritima either by sea or land.  The disciples may have sent him to his hometown out of fear that he would be martyred like Stephen.

The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace.

Because of the persecution they endured, Christians have dispersed across a widening geographic region, where various communities have developed.

The placement of this report on the condition of the church is interesting.  It suggests that there is a relationship between the peace the church enjoyed and the sense of security it must have felt knowing that it no longer had to fear the passionate opposition of one of its chief persecutors.

It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the holy Spirit it grew in numbers.

This summary follows a pattern found elsewhere in Acts: the church faces a great crisis; it is rescued in a way that leaves no doubt that it is the Lord who rescues them; confident in the Lord’s protection, the church finds peace and continues to flourish (see Acts 5:17-42).

2nd Reading – 1 John 3:18-24

Children, let us love not in word or speech
but in deed and truth.
Now this is how we shall know that we belong to the truth
and reassure our hearts before him
in whatever our hearts condemn,
for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us,
we have confidence in God
and receive from him whatever we ask,
because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
And his commandment is this:
we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and love one another just as he commanded us.
Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them,
and the way we know that he remains in us
is from the Spirit he gave us.

In today’s second reading, Saint John both instructs and exhorts his audience, two functions exercised by teachers in the wisdom tradition.  This passage also links in a very significant way three important theological themes: Christian love, confident belief, and faithful obedience.

Children,

In this passage, John addresses his readers in two different ways, as children and as beloved.

“Children” (tekníon) is used both as a term of endearment and an expression of authority over the addressees.

let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.

John’s first exhortation is to active love.  It is not enough to proclaim love for God; its authenticity must be demonstrated through concrete action.

“It is not enough to have good intentions. You must also put them into effect with genuine willingness and a happy heart.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 388), Catena]

Now this is how we shall know that we belong to the truth 

“This” refers to the active love just mentioned.  By sincere and active love we shall come to know that we are children of the truth.

and reassure our hearts before him in whatever our hearts condemn, 

Here “heart” (kardia) refers to the conscience, not our affections, which would be splanchna.

for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.

Although our conscience is not infallible, God is. Our hearts may be deceived; he cannot be.

There seems to have been a sense of guilt somewhere in the community.  The writer assures them that the love God has for them far exceeds any guilt they may experience.  In his omniscience, God knows our sins; but he also knows our temptations, our struggles, our sorrow, and our love.

Beloved,

The second form of address for his audience, “beloved” (agapētoí) makes a connection between the love God has for them and the love they should have for one another.

if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God

John calls them into a faith that is rooted in confidence of God’s divine love.

and receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.

This is the ideal condition of things, because true children of God cannot ask what displeases their Father, and their petitions spring from the certainty that they will receive from him whatever they ask.

“Our conscience gives us a true answer, that we love and that genuine love is in us, not feigned but sincere, seeking our brother’s salvation and expecting nothing from him except his salvation.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 416), Homilies on the Epistle to the Parthians 6,4]

And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.

Although only one commandment is placed before them here, its focus is twofold.  They are to believe in the name of God’s son Jesus Christ and to love one another.

Recall that in Semitic usage, “name” is equivalent to the full identity of the person.  This exhortation calls for a statement of faith in Jesus’ divine nature, the basis of authentic Christian faith, and commitment to a way of life that demonstrates loving behavior, the basis of Christian living.

Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit that he gave us.

The mutual abiding character of the union that joins believers and God is clearly stated: faithful believers abide in God and God abides in them.  This mutual indwelling is accomplished by the Spirit, which was given to the believers by God.

This last comment completes the sketch of trinitarian theology found in the reading.  Viewing it from the perspective of trinitarian relationships, we see that Jesus is called the Son of God, and the Spirit is identified as the gift of God that was bestowed upon the faithful.

Viewing it from the perspective of trinitarian involvement in the lives of the faithful, we see that Christian confidence is grounded in the great love of God; the focus of Christian faith is commitment to the divine name (identity) of Jesus Christ; and the assurance of divine indwelling is the gift of the Spirit.

Gospel – John 15:1-8

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me
will be thrown out like a branch and wither;
people will gather them and throw them into a fire
and they will be burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

Today’s gospel reading is the allegory of the vine, which calls to mind the song of the vineyard found in Isaiah (5:1-7).  There the prophet condemns the house of Israel and the people of Judah for their infidelity.  He proclaims that this vine will not be pruned or hoed but will be allowed to fall into ruin.  In contrast, Jesus claims to be the true vine, the one that faithfully brings forth good fruit.

Jesus said to his disciples: “I am the true vine,

We must be careful about how we understand the descriptive adjective “true,” lest we perpetuate any unacceptable anti-Judaic sentiments.  While it is clear that in this passage, lines are drawn between those who accept Jesus and those who do not, these lines do not distinguish one nation or religious group from another.

In the first place, the metaphor itself does not contrast Christian faithfulness with Jewish infidelity.  We will see that in both cases the vines have to be pruned of unproductive branches, indicating that neither community is completely faithful.

We must also remember that the vines in the earlier metaphor were described as “choicest.”  Israel was a favored nation.

and my Father is the vine grower.

Jesus is the unique mediator of God’s grace.  He is the vine, but it is God’s vineyard.

He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.

It is God who prunes and trims, and as we will see in the final verse of this passage, it is God who is glorified in the abundant yield.

You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.

The Father has been operating this cleansing process upon the disciples by their presence with Christ throughout his ministry and receiving his instruction, or word (rhēmata).

Hebrews 4:12 tells us: the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.

The metaphor of vine and branches characterizes the intimate nature of the relationship between Jesus and his followers.  The vine bears fruit through its branches, and the branches bear the fruit of the vine.

Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.

Without Christ, the disciples have no independent fruitfulness or stability.

Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.

Some commentators see this as a reference to the last judgment, but the present tense suggests that this is describing the immediate consequences being severed from Christ.

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.

The basis of this union is the acceptance of and fidelity to the words (rhēmata) of Jesus.  The importance of allegiance to these words, this teaching, cannot be overemphasized.  It is this message that shapes the religious identity of the disciples.  The bond that is the source of union is faith.  It joins one to the vine and to the other branches.  It also entitles one to the blessings of God.

By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

The vitality expressed by this image is unmistakable.  The vine and the branches are alive with the life of God.  This union is offered to all who would listen to the words of Jesus, accept his divine claim, and live in union with him and his other disciples.

Connections and Themes

Easter. The readings during the Easter season all geared toward the mystagogical catechesis, the instruction that unpacks the hidden mystery experienced in the sacraments of initiation received or renewed on Easter. The chosen readings provide us an extended meditation on the mystery of the resurrection and on our own incorporation into that resurrection through the mysteries of initiation.

This week, the Easter drama continues to unfold.  On the first Sunday we were dazzled by the wonder of the resurrection.  Next we paused to discover the presence of the risen One.  On the third Sunday we recognized ways in which the Easter proclamation was heard and known.  Last Sunday we saw that the fruit of the proclamation is salvation.  Today we see that salvation brings an ecclesial community into being.  This community is joined to Jesus as branches are to a vine; it is a multifaceted community; it is devoted to good works and to prayer.

The vine and the branches.   Jesus announces, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” This is a daring image.  It claims that the community lives and acts only with the life of Jesus.  It is also an intimate characterization of the community of believers, who share the same divine life.  The Church, the extension of Christ in the world, is truly a mystery.  It thrives on Christ’s resurrected life, which surges through all its members.  We live in Christ as Christ lives in us.

A multifaceted community.   The early Church was a multi-ethnic community.  It included inhabitants from Jerusalem, from all of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, even Damascus.  Some of these people were firmly rooted in Jewish customs, others were more Greek in their culture.  The community included disciples who had been followers of Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry as well as persecutors like Saul, who had been converted.  This community is the fulfillment of the promises made so often in the past, that the saving power of God would reach the whole world.

Our own ecclesial community of believers is also multi-ethnic.  Where formerly parishes or liturgical assemblies might have been more homogenous in ethnic background and economic status, today there is much greater diversity and rapid change of character.  Like the early Christians, we too are often suspicious of newcomers.  They may come from groups with whom we have known conflict.  They may speak a language that is foreign to our ears, or they may have religious customs that leave us uncomfortable.  In the face of all of this variety, the Church can still be at peace, it can make progress, it can enjoy the consolations of the Holy Spirit.  It is for us to open our hearts to the various manifestations of God’s power and to fashion a community that in its diversity gives glory to God.

Devotion to good works and to prayer.   All of the readings underscore the good works in which the believers are engaged.  Saul commits himself wholeheartedly to the proclamation of the gospel, preaching to the very people he once persecuted.  The author of the letter of John insists that it is not enough to talk about love.  Believers must demonstrate their love for God and for each other in deeds.  Joined to Christ as branches are part of the vine, we too are enlivened and thereby bear fruit in abundance.

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