APRIL 29th, 2018: FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
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.
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.
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."
To correctly interpret Scripture, we must take ourselves out of our day and age and put ourselves in the day and age of Scripture’s original readers. For instance, most of us who read today’s Christian Scriptures are members of various institutions which have been promoting the “Christian religion” for centuries. We have specific rules and regulations we’re expected to follow, clear-cut dogmas to which we’re committed to adhere. Our first century Christian authors, on the other hand, were part of a movement, not members of an institution. Instead of following definitive rules, regulations and dogmas, they were simply expected to follow a person: the risen Jesus among them. How they accomplished that often differed person to person, but as we hear in today’s three readings, there were certain “things” which applied to everyone.
It’s clear from today’s gospel pericope that John and his readers considered themselves branches of a vine which, because of Jesus’ resurrection, had been growing for just over 60 years. The Christ and his/her disciples had been one throughout those three generations. “I am the vine,” John’s Jesus proclaims. “You are the branches.” Unlike many religious institutions today, the evangelist was much more interested in his readers becoming one with the Christ than in becoming one with the institution. The goal always is to “bear much fruit;” to bring as much life into this world as the vine originally produced. No one could pull this off by himself or herself. It all revolved around being branches of the risen Jesus.
Of course, those branches could only produce fruit by being “pruned.”
Years ago I heard an interview of well-known botanist reflecting on his recent visit to Japan. He traveled there to advice fruit growers how to get more production from their trees. “The problem was immediately clear,” he said, “they almost never pruned their trees.”
He quickly picked up a pruning tool and began sawing off some of the over-abundant branches. After a minute or two demonstrating the proper technique, he turned around to ask for questions, amazed to see several of the growers with tears in their eyes. “I had destroyed the natural, beautiful symmetry of their trees.”
He handed the pruning tool back to them and said, “You can produce beautiful trees or you can produce fruit. You can’t do both. The choice is up to you.”
In some sense, that’s also the dilemma facing Christian churches. We can create beautiful, inspiring, well-ordered institutions, or we can produce the fruit Jesus expects of us. We can’t do both.
Though Luke shows us a very ordered church in his Acts of the Apostles, it’s clear from today’s passage that, behind the scenes, a lot of pruning was going on. Instead of immediately receiving the newly-converted Saul with open arms, the Jerusalem community is standoffish. How can they be certain his Damascus Road conversion story is really true, and not just a slick gimmick created to arrest more Christians? If it weren’t for Barnabas, the future Apostle to the Gentiles would have been left out in the cold. But even after he’s rendered “acceptable,” his confrontative style creates so many problems that the community’s solution is simply to give him a one-way ticket back to Tarsus. To say the least, he was disrupting the church’s order.
That also seems to be why the author of I John zeroes in on the basics of the faith, totally ignoring its “beauty points.” We’re to be judged only on how “we keep (Jesus’) commandments and do what is pleasing to him.” There’s no other way to produce fruit.
Is it possible some Catholics today are trying to take the pruning tool out of Pope Francis’ hands? Maybe there’s still time to stop him reshaping the church.