Fifth Sunday of Easter (B) (May 6 2012)
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
First Reading (Acts 9:25-31)
This reading presupposes the narrative of Acts thus far. The early church in Jerusalem, in good part Aramaic or Hebrew speaking, combined their belief in Jesus with attendance at the Temple worship. Stephen was chosen as deacon from among the Greek-speaking Jews of Jerusalem (also known as Hellenists), and preached fearlessly that the implications of the Christian message went far beyond this. He was accused by the Hellenists of preaching that Jesus of Nazareth spelled the end of the Temple and Mosaic observance. The Hellenists had Stephen stoned. Those stoning him laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul (later known as Paul), and Saul was consenting to Stephen’s death. Saul got letters to have Christians in Damascus arrested and brought to Jerusalem, but had his “Damascus experience” and conversion on the way. He preached Christ openly in Damascus and the returned to Jerusalem to do the same. The Christian community he had recently persecuted there was naturally cautious, but was reassured by Barnabas, a totally dedicated and respected member of the Christian community, a known trouble- shooter. The Hellenists now turn on their former admirer Saul. To save his life from them he was spirited away to the seaport Caesarea Maritima and from there to his native Tarsus.
Responsorial Psalms (Psalm 21). All the earth shall remember and return to the Lord
Second Reading (1 John 3:18-24).
Central to John’s Gospel and to this First Letter of John is the truth that God is love, a love that calls for response from us. The opening words of the present reading lay stress on this. This love must not just words but real and active (literally “in deed and in truth”). Believers are called to be “children of the truth”, of Christ’s way of living. These opening word are followed by a text not altogether clear to us, but possibly addressing a concern of those to whom the letter was first addressed. Central to this section is the word “conscience”, literally “heart”. In biblical thought the heart is not the centre of emotion, but rather of thought, self-knowledge, self-awareness. The Holy Spirit gives believers the awareness of being children of God, and this section speaks of love in deed and in truth as giving, or deepening, this awareness. In case of doubt on the matter God comes to the aid of believers, giving courage to stand in his presence and call on him, with assurance of being heard. The text then returns to the keeping of God’s commandments and living as God wills. When we mention “commandments” we naturally think of the Ten. This text, however, has two special commandments in mind: belief in Jesus Christ as Son of God and the commandment to love. The entire text is about a life in union with God, awareness that God lives in us (individually and as a Christian community), a divine life brought to our attention by the Holy Spirit, God’s great gift. It is a text centering on prayer and reflection on God’s love.
Gospel (John 15:1-8).
This is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper. In chapters preceding the present one (chapter 15) Jesus has spoken of his imminent departure. With this text and chapter he turns his attention to the continuation of his work in the future through his disciples, his Church, and the empowering presence of God and the Holy Spirit with them. Today’s passage is about Jesus as the vine, a kind of parable, but with a very definite purpose. From their knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures, his Jewish disciples and the early Church would have understood the message clearly. In Israel’s tradition Israel was known as the Lord’s vine, or vineyard, criticized at times for being unfaithful (Isaiah 5:1-7), and threatened because of the neglect to tend it (Matthew 21:33-44). Jesus, now to depart this world visibly, declares himself as the true vine, the true Israel, an of his Father attending to keep it pruned, in order to bear fruit. Jesus is thinking of the future Church, his body, and in a sense himself, and his desire to have the vine, the Church, holy, bearing fruit abundantly by bringing Jesus own saving message to the world. If there are weaknesses and abuses in individuals or bodies, his Father will see that they are either purified or lopped off. Jesus calls for true discipleship, one that is real his followers by remaining united to himself, through reflection on his words, and awareness of the power of his presence, of his divine grace, with them. There is no Christian, life, no Christian witness, no bearing of true fruit, without this. The Church is not a political or cultural body. It is the Body of Christ, living through prayer, reflection, devotion to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and other sacraments.
B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day
A loving Father purifies his Son’s Church
The Holy Spirit brings to believers an awareness of their dignity as sons and daughters of God, inspiring them to call him, as his Son Jesus did, “Father”. This is the spirit of self-awareness, bringing with it confidence in God’s saving presence at all times. With the human person and the human community there has been, and is, a self-awareness that has guided human advancement throughout the ages. Sometimes this can bring to light shortcomings, or downright scandals, within the Church, especially in ministers of religion or those associated with them. Ireland is experiencing this in an acute form in our own day.
It is good to reflect on what is happening in the light of the teaching of Christ himself and of the early Church. Jesus speaks of himself as the vine, and his Father as the vinedresser. The vine is the Church he has founded, his Body, his bride. When shortcomings or scandals come, his Father will work to restore her to the sanctity that should be hers. The apostle Paul puts the same truth in different words. Paul himself laid the foundations of the church in Corinth, but the Church’s sole foundation is Jesus Christ. On the foundation laid others may build, some with gold, silver, precious stones; others with wood hay or stray. A divine visitation will test this inferior material (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
A period of upset, arising from scandals and other factors, can be trying for Christians. The concurrent presence of a number of factors must be borne in mind: first the scandals themselves, whether great or small; then the presentation of these in the media; the use of the scandals and confusion by secularist or even atheistic groups for the purpose of denigrating the Church in general and to terminate her involvement in educational or public life.
On occasions like these it is good to reflect on what Jesus has to say on himself, and his Church, as the vine and his Father as the vinedresser. In this discourse at the Last Supper Jesus is preparing his followers for trials ahead. Earlier, when speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his beloved sheep (the Church), Jesus had said: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30). That same spirit is present in the parable of Jesus as the vine, and his Father the vinedresser. God purifies the beloved Church of his Son as a kind and understanding Father, not severe remote judge. And it is well to bear in mind that this cleansing is for all the “branches” of the vine, lay as well as clerical and religious.
In this context of ongoing self-awareness we may also reflect on words of the opening prayer of the Mass for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, in which we pray: “God our Father … give us true freedom and bring us to the inheritance you promised”. Freedom is a word of which religious and thinking people down the centuries have been proud, and on which they have strongly expressed their views. Greeks and Romans prided themselves in freedom, which held for citizens only, not the slaves. In a debate on the issue Jesus tells his listeners: “The truth (which he preaches; that is, himself) will set you free” (John 8:32), to which the Jews reply: “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been slaves (in bondage) to anyone”, to which Jesus replies: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin”. By the Christian Gospel Paul preaches freedom from the limiting, nationalistic, observance of the Jewish law, but reminded one of his churches: “Christ set us free so that we should remain free”; “You are called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opening for self indulgence, but be servants of one another in love” (Galatians 5:1, 13). Paul put himself outside the Jewish law, but only to be under the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21).