Theme: Unbreakable bonds
Last week we were invited to reflect on Christ as a cornerstone and a good shepherd, this week the imagery is drawn from agrarian life referring to the vine and its branches challenging us to consider how binding is our union with Jesus. Organically bound to Christ upon whom we depend for life as branches of a vine, we are called to remain loyal so as to produce fruits.
First reading: Acts 9:26-31
Paul’s conversion dramatically changed his life but the disciples initially refused to believe that he was an authentic disciple, bound with them authentically to Christ. For a time, they even sent him again to Tarsus; only gradually and not without conflict was the former persecutor accepted as a proclaimer of the good news. Paul’s experience compels us to examine ourselves and see what fears we carry within that influence us to suspect others out of prejudice.
The Damascus experience was a turning point in Saul’s life. After encountering the risen Jesus, his values and ideology changed as did his career and life-style. From Damascus onward, Saul the persecutor became Paul the believer and apostle to the gentiles. His former vehemence against the Church paled before his newfound loyalty and commitment to the Gospel. Paul had realized that crucifixion was not the end of a troublemaker but only the beginning of a new chapter full of surprises. After falling off from the horse, he understood for the first time that Jesus’ death was not a sign of God’s displeasure toward the crucified, but rather the unfathomable act of God’s love in giving up the Son for the salvation of many cf. Romans 5:6-10. After Damascus, Paul recognized that the new order of salvation was open to all and that the fullness of time had come in which God’s saving activities were to be accepted in faith as a gift freely given to sinners cf. Galatians 4:4.
Initially, his conversion was held suspect by the disciples in Jerusalem, fearful that it could be a trick to join and destroy them from within. The disciples had yet to comprehend that the power of God could also transform individuals like Saul. Barnabas had to act as Paul’s mediator and introduce him to the Apostles. Later, the two would be paired and mandated for missionary service to the community in Antioch cf. Acts 11:29-30. In Acts 9:31, Luke says that despite the flap caused by Paul’s dramatic conversion the Church was at peace. This peace however, was not restored because Paul had been removed, but because of the good news cf. Luke 1:79. Despite their differences, the community was growing and evolving as Church which Luke credits to the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit and elimination of human prejudice.
Second reading: 1John 3:18-24
With gentle and kindly wisdom, John advises us that it is love in deed and truth which makes things happen and not merely words. Underscoring the perennial discrepancy between human speech the ‘talk’ and behavior the ‘walk’, 1John urges us to “love in deed and truth and not merely talk” 1John 3:18. This exhortation remains relevant for all generations. At the time when John was ministering in Ephesus, some of his community members did not believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God who had come in flesh to the point of breaking away. These secessionists denigrated Jesus’ essential nature of the incarnation. They valued knowledge of God but did not agree with the ethical claims of the teaching. Claiming to love God, they overlooked the necessity of loving their brothers and sisters in the faith.
John insists that the integrity of faith is contained in words and works. To speak and to think of love is not enough. Love is more than the sentimental pap of a greeting card. To understand the implications and ramifications of love, 1John reminds us that love is keeping the commandments and doing what is pleasing to God cf. 1John 3:22. Only then, can we dare to be sure that God is with us and that God will grant whatever we ask. Children that are secure in the love of their parents know that even the most difficult requests will be granted.
Gospel: John 15:1-8
Whereas 1John called upon his audience to translate the loving relationship they shared with God into deeds; Jesus counsels his disciples that their union with him, as branches on a vine, must issue forth in abundant fruit. For a relationship to be enjoyed all in it ought to overflow in commitment. When John describes this commitment in terms of bearing fruit, he is not simply referring to good works and a virtuous life. For John, love and keeping the commandments are so much a part of the life coming from faith. Consequently, a branch which does not bear fruit (i.e. a believer who does not love and keep the commandments is already a dead person walking). Sterile and dead branches are good for nothing but fuel for the fire. Believers who do not love and keep the commandments are like dead wood.
While this interpretation is admittedly harsh, it is in keeping with the continuing challenge of John’s Gospel, meaning, to confront the crisis situation posed by the presence of Jesus and to choose rightly. To choose Jesus is to choose life; not to choose Jesus is to choose death. As it is expressed in today’s gospel that “he who lives in me and I in him will produce abundantly, for apart from me you can do nothing” John 15:5 it appears to be a matter of all or nothing at all. Only in Christ is the life of the believer. Just as even the most fruitful branches on a vine are drastically pruned by the vinedresser in order to increase their fruitfulness so also will believers be trimmed clean.
The references to being trimmed and being clean already should be understood in terms of Jesus’ dialog with Peter during the washing of feet cf. John 13:8, 10. Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet, an action that foreshadowed the washing they would experience through his death on the Cross and in which they would participate through the washing of Christian baptism. Today Jesus assures us that we are also cleansed by means of the word he is speaking to us. Cleansed by baptism into his death and resurrection, we have to continue being cleansed and pruned by his word with the support from the Paraclete. To this day, the Holy Spirit remains with us trimming and pruning, teaching us everything, reminding us of all the words that Jesus spoke, enabling us to love him and to keep his commandments cf. John 14:24, 26.
We have to allow the Lord to appear to us so that we can mend and transform our ways. We need to fall off from our self made horses so as to regain our lost glory. When this happens we shall experience signs of growth and love one another. It is in that way that we are able to bear fruit in plenty because we are credible branches.