Scripture notes – 5th Sunday of Easter – Year B – 28th April 2024

The resurrection of Jesus is just not a ‘past event’, but a ‘now’ with power to affect our own day to day lives. The readings today give us reflections on what that means.

The readings are available online here.

Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31
Selections from Acts this season have been focused on Peter and his preaching. This section moves ahead several chapters, to the point as Luke begins to concentrate on St 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 dedicated 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 ‘road to Damascus’ is a common metaphor. Luke’s account of this is in Acts 9:1-18.

After his conversion there was a period when Paul seemed to have spent learning more about Christ and deepening his personal relationship with Jesus. When he began to preach himself, he started in Damascus, 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 this week from the First Letter of John, emphasizing 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’.

Often people think of the commandments as the ‘Ten’ given to Moses. But here they are reduced to two, as Jesus also did when asked which is the ‘first’ or most important. (See Mark 12:28-34) We are to live in God’s love, and to love all others. The first words remind us, this ‘love’ is not a warm feeling or attraction as ‘love’ often means in common speech: Christian love is shown in action. The author does not give us detailed examples of what this means, as spelled out in Chapter 13 of the First Letter to the Corinthians. He seems to assume these are known to the community he writes for.

It is also by living in love, that we are able to pray effectively, for what we then ask for comes out of love of God and others and thus fits God’s will. It is not a promise that all our requests – some of which are selfish, some short-sighted, some depending on the freedom of others – will be answered just as we wish in this world. The desires coming from God’s love are part of the everlasting NOW – partly experienced in our present lives, part to wait for in the fullness of time.

John 15:1-8
‘The resurrection is in one way a story about how Jesus never leaves those he loves, and never changes the way he relates to them.’ (Rowan Williams, Candles in the Dark). Today’s Gospel gives us the image of the vine and its branches which assures us that Jesus is always there for us in the fullness of his life and his love. No one image can be perfect or complete in itself for the mystery of God and God’s grace in dealing with us, and, like the Good Shepherd of last week, this one offers one way of appreciating what is offered to us.

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’. John takes the vine comparison to a new level, one which stresses the close connection the Christian has to Christ. 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.

Few of us live among vineyards now and although we could think of other plants, grape vines are a particularly good example as they need much pruning to grow more and better fruits. Jesus calls God the Father the ‘vinedresser’ – the one who knows what is necessary for fruitfulness and carries it out. As disciples we not only need to be connected to the plant stem to have life, but also 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). Also not detailed is what it means for the branches to be ‘cleansed’ or pruned. It is noted throughout the New Testament that we are never to stay in sin or weakness; rather we are challenged to keep growing in love. That usually means that all selfishness and negligence must go; 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 like the vine cannot be pushed too far – they are there to guide us towards understanding, but are only guides and not factual realities. In this case, the vine metaphor breaks down when Jesus tells the disciples to ‘remain’ with the source of life. Such a choice is beyond the ability of a twig, but while the power 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 in love.

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.

Another aspect is seen by C. K. Barrett in his commentary on John: that because we are all ‘branches’ of Jesus, we are also closely related to each other – the other ‘branches’ given life by Jesus. This connection is stressed over and in the Gospels and in the Letters of John.

Joan Griffith

Suggestions for prayer or reflection

    • In practice: what does it mean for me to ‘remain’ in Jesus?
    • Can I see ‘fruit’ in my life? Am I looking for it in the form of success and achievements – ‘bear much fruit’? Or in the form of blessings, ‘gifts of the Spirit’?
    • If I look back on my life so far, can I see it as a story of being sustained, joined to others, bearing fruit, but also ‘pruned’? Do I see my life – especially hard times – differently if I tell my life-story this way?