Wednesday in the Fifth Week of Easter
Acts 15:1ff. A council of Christians in Jerusalem, to resolve the dispute: what is needed, in order the join the church?
John 15:1ff. The unifying image of vine, branches, vinedresser and the necessary pruning.
Discovering our Roots
Many biblical readings reach into the roots and sources of our life and calls upon us to locate our origins in Jesus. For the Jewish people circumcision was the seal of the covenant, not only upon the flesh but also upon the transmission of life. Through this mark, the Jews not only reached back to their ancestral patriarch Abraham (Gen 15), but also manifested their willingness to be known as a follower of Moses, and if need be, to die out of loyalty to the covenant of Mount Sinai. Circumcision was much more than a ceremony. It was a family and ancestral symbol of loyalty to one another and to Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, who united them as his very own people (Ex 19:5-6).
Jesus himself was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (Luke 2:21); so was St. Paul (Phil 3:5). Each, therefore, scrupulously followed the Mosaic law. Jesus may have differed with some of the Jewish groups like the Pharisees about the interpretation of the law and about the binding force of some traditions. Yet, Jesus himself told his followers to obey the rules set down by the priests, even if the priests’ example was not worthy of imitation (Matt 23:3).
Circumcision reached into the roots and sources of life where bonds of love and loyalty were maintained between the people and with their God. And Jesus belonged at the heart of this relationship. Moreover, he said: I am the vine, you are the branches. He is the Way whose footsteps we are to follow. As the gospel began to spreac the question became serious: was circumcision to be required of all Christian converts, if they were male? And if female, were they required to undergo the ceremonial bath and to follow the strict dietary laws?
This question has long been settled within Christianity. Paul’s theology triumphed, that Jesus had brought the Old Law to its finality and fulfillment. Because of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, it was no longer necessary first to be a Jew in order to become a Christian. Yet, the revolutionary effect of this question upon early Christianity and its relation with Judaism has a continuing impact upon our lives and decisions today.
When the scriptures force us to think deeply, to return to the roots and sources of life, we are brought into contact with the basic issues of life and death. As a result, all other questions fall away. We can no longer nitpick at small things, argue about pennies and nickels, force an ultimatum for reasons of personal pride. Heroic decisions are asked, yea demanded of us. These decisions may be as crucial as healing family feuds, going the extra mile to retrieve a friend, taking great risks and even financial losses to bring a true Christian environment into one’s family, answering the call to prayer, day by day, at ever longer periods of time, awakening a new awareness to the many social injustices in our society. These kinds of decisions reach so deeply that they are bound to transform our attitudes and our external life style. They will influence our circle of friends, separating us from some and making new friends of others.
These are the moments when we realize how desperately we rely upon Jesus. As we act courageously upon these inspirations, we realize ever more forcefully that the spirit is not our own; it is the spirit of Jesus. Now we know that Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. Deep in our heart, we know for certain that Jesus has been inspiring these desires and hopes, that Jesus has been strengthening us in our long travail of decision-making, that Jesus has brought these secret hopes to extraordinary fulfillment. Jesus says: without me you can do nothing. We can now add: with Jesus we can do everything.
When we are thus servants of the spirit, a spirit that is at once Jesus’ and our own, a spirit that is like the sap which flows from vine to branches and back again, then Jesus says also to us: “If you live in me and my words stay part of you, you may ask what you will and it will be done for you. My Father has been glorified in your bearing much fruit and becoming my disciples.
In this wondrous interchange of life, we are challenged by the Spirit of Jesus to follow through with momentous decisions. Just as the early Church could reach beyond the practice of Jesus and no longer demand circumcision, we too are being asked to leap forward from ideas and devotions that separated us from others and to make heroic decisions of forgiveness, patience, social justice and concern for the oppressed, a thoroughly Christian homelife. Then, our own hopes can be trusted as divinely inspired and we can be confident: you may ask what you will, and it will be done for you. When we live this deeply-at the roots-in God, then there is an immediacy and certainty of God’s force and direction in life.
First Reading: Acts 15:1-6
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers.
When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” So the apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter.
Gospel: John 15:1-8
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”