The liturgy continues to show us some of the results of Jesus’ Resurrection as it is played out in our own lives and in our own times. The first reading brings in St Paul, who had to experience the presence of the Risen Christ before he could change his life from persecutor to missionary.
Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31
Our readings from Acts this season have previously focused on Peter and his preaching. This section moves ahead several chapters, to the point as Luke begins to concentrate on Paul who will be centre stage in the second half of the book. Here Luke uses his Jewish name, Saul; later he will adopt a name more familiar in the Gentile world, and the one which we use. As a strong Pharisee, Saul had been zealous in trying to root out the Christians and their influence. Our selection begins shortly after his conversion, an event so well known even outside Christian circles that the expression ‘Damascus experience’ is a common metaphor. Luke’s account of how this happened is shortly before this, in Acts 9:1-18.
After his conversion there was a period when Paul seems to spend the time learning more about Christ and deepening his relationship with Jesus. When he felt ready to preach himself he started in Damascus, but then came to Jerusalem. It is not surprising that there would be suspicion about Paul among those who had known him as a persecutor. Barnabas, who supports him now, will later be his companion on some of the missionary journeys (Acts 13:2ff). Paul’s time in Jerusalem comes to an ironic end when the former persecutor is now in danger himself and has to flee.
Nicholas King, in his translation notes that there are a number of themes in this short selection which are important in Acts, among them preaching Jesus as the Messiah, the power that accompanies the preaching (which was the gift of the Holy Spirit), the violence threatening the new Christians and their solidarity.
Psalm 21/22:26-28, 30-32
The response fits into the preaching or missionary activity of Acts, predicting the spread of the Lord’s worship both in place and in time to the future generations of which we are part.
1 John 3:18-24
More from the First Letter of John, as it continues to emphasize God’s love and our corresponding call to love one another. It is by living in love, carried out in action, that we show we are children of God. ‘To quieten our conscience’ may be a reminder of our assurance of forgiveness (which we heard last week) when we have failed and are ‘accused by our conscience’.
It is also by living in love, that we are able to pray effectively, for what we then ask for grows out of love of God and others and thus fits God’s will. It is not a promised that all our requests – some selfish, some short-sighted, some depending on the freedom of others – will be answered as we may wish in this world. The desires coming from God’s love are part of the everlasting NOW – partly experienced in our lives, part to wait for in the fullness of time.
Following last week’s parable of the Good Shepherd, today’s Gospel reading
has another comparison for Jesus’ relationship to his disciples. No one image can be perfect or complete in itself for the mystery of God and God’s grace in dealing with us; a variety of comparisons brings a greater fullness and depth. Together, they invite us to meditate and to open ourselves to the experience of being loved and loving.
Like the sheep, vines and vineyards were familiar to the world of Jesus’ time and had also been used in the Old Testament that would have been known to the first generations hearing this story. Israel was said by the prophets to be the ‘vineyard of the Lord’, sometimes praised, but also blamed for not ‘bearing good fruit’. Although this is not spelled out in this account, some see in Jesus’ words a claim to replace the old Israel.
John takes the vine comparison to a new level, one which stresses the close connection the Christian has to Christ. While shepherding played on the idea of being guarded and cared for, the comparison of vine and branches suggests a deep unity between Jesus and his disciples: they draw their life from being attached to the Lord as closely as parts of a plant are dependent on the root and stem. God the Father is here called the ‘vinedresser’ – the one who trims vines for growing more and better grapes – and this leads to the theme of disciples not only needing to be connected to the plant stem, but to ‘bear fruit’. The parable does not spell out what that fruit is, but living in love will be the theme that follows this selection in the Gospel (as also in the second reading) so acts of love and caring are a good guess. Also not detailed is what it means for the branches to be ‘cleansed’ or pruned – it is an experience noted throughout the New Testament that we are never to stay in one place, in our sin or weakness; rather we are challenged to grow in love. That usually means some selfishness must go and that purification can be difficult to live through. But in this part of the Gospel, John is stressing the positive meaning of closeness to Christ.
We also have an example of how comparisons cannot be pushed too far – they are there to guide us towards understanding, but are only guides and not absolute in themselves. In this case, the vine metaphor breaks down when the branches are told to ‘remain’ with the vine. Such a choice is beyond the ability of a twig, but while the power and love of our becoming a part of Jesus comes from God, we as humans have a choice about accepting that gift and remaining close to Jesus and the Father.
As in the previous reading, it is when we stay in Jesus and the words he preached that our requests can be answered, giving us fruitfulness in our dealings and showing the ‘glory’ of the Father as we are seen to be the true disciples of Jesus in the way we love. In this union with Jesus, we pray as he prayed that the will of God will be done (an important part of the familiar Lord’s Prayer, but one we may not always take in its fullness.) This is also the theme of the previous reading.
Because the evangelist has placed this story at the Last Supper, there may be secondary reference to the wine of the Eucharist which carries the life of Jesus into us. Another aspect is seen by C. K. Barrett in his commentary: that because we are all ‘branches’ of Jesus, we are also closely related to each other – the other ‘branches’ given life by Jesus. This idea is found over and in both John’s Gospel and the John Letters.