1 May 2013. Wednesday of the 5th week of Easter
Acts 15:1ff. A council of Christians resolves the question: what is required, to join the Church?
John 15:1ff. The vine, the branches, the vinedresser and the pruning.
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.”
Discovering our roots
It may seem odd to us that it needed a formal Council to resolve the question whether all male Christians need circumcision. But for the Jewish people circumcision was the seal of their special covenant with God, to have the divine blessing upon the transmission of life. This distinctive mark in the flesh linked them back to their ancestor, Abraham (Gen 15), and also showed their willingness to follow God’s Law given through Moses, and if need be to die in loyalty to the covenant. Circumcision was much more than a rite-of-passage ceremony. It was an age-old symbol of loyalty to one another and to Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, who chose them as his very own people (Ex 19:5-6). Jesus himself was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (Lk 2:21). So were all his apostles, including St. Paul – who was proud of being so! (Phil 3:5). While Jesus differed sharply with some of the Pharisees about the binding force of some traditions, he told his followers to obey the rules set down by the priests, even if their example was not very good (Matt 23:3). So why change from such a well-established and meaningful practice? The question was acute, after Peter had baptised the Roman, Cornelius, and then hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Gentile converts were won for Jesus through the work of Paul and Barnabas and others.
Of course, this question has long been settled within Christian history. By the second half of the first century Paul’s theology had won the day, that Jesus had brought the Old Law to its finality and fulfillment, and that Baptism fulfilled all that Circumcision had meant, and more. Being baptised into Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, it was no longer necessary first to be a Jew in order to become a Christian. The realisation by those early Christians of the centrality of Christ should continue to impact upon our lives and decisions today.
Through St. John we know Jesus as the life-giving Vine, and ourselves as his branches, drawing life from him. Deep in our hearts, we know for certain that we can rely on him. Just as Jesus said, Without me you can do nothing, the corollary is also true: With Jesus we can do everything. When we are imbued with the Spirit that Jesus shares with us, this Holy Spirit is like the sap flowing from vine to branches and back again. The most worthwhile values in our lives are related to this dynamic, for he says: “My Father is glorified in your bearing much fruit and becoming my disciples.”