Fifth Sunday Of Easter
The context of the first reading is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Eventually, he would become St. Paul, but that would take the next thirty years. He had been a violent persecutor of the Christian movement in Jerusalem. He had witnessed and was involved in the lynching of Stephen, one of the first seven deacons. He was a learned scholar of the Torah and the traditions that grew out of its interpretation. His zeal for the Torah singled him out for a special mission from the high priest in Jerusalem – to travel north to Damascus in Syria to capture “followers of The Way, (Christianity), and bring them in chains to Jerusalem.” The goal was to wipe out this “heretical” movement. To understand the mindset of Saul of Tarsus it is legitimate to compare him to some extremist Mullah intent on destroying what he considers a heretical faction of Islam. En route to Damascus Saul experienced a complete conversion. His zeal for Judaism now became zeal for The Way.
As our reading begins, Saul is back in Jerusalem trying to join the Christian Community. They refused to believe that he was now a disciple of Jesus. On to the scene comes Barnabas, a former Jewish clergyman (Levite) from Cypress, and an early adherent of The Way. Acts 4:36-37 describes his introduced to the apostles, “He sold property that belonged to him, and brought the money, and laid it at the feet of the apostles.” (Still an acceptable method for introducing oneself to power!) Barnabas knew about Saul’s activity after his conversion, witnessing to Jesus already in Damascus. Barnabas helped Saul win some acceptance, but a characteristic of Saul/Paul quickly asserted itself – the aptitude for making enemies angry enough to kill him. When the Apostles in Jerusalem were aware of this, and no doubt with a sigh of relief, they sent him home, back to Tarsus (southeastern Turkey today). One gets the feeling that this meant, “Don’t call us. We will call you.”
It will be Barnabas who years later will bring Saul back into action. At the end of the story, Luke implies a connection between Saul’s departure and the well-being of the Christian Community, “The church throughout Judea…was at peace…!” The Responsorial Psalm (22) gives us some hints about the future of Saul/Paul who would become the Apostle to the Nations (Gentiles). “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord. All the families of nations will bow down before him.” The Psalm involves in this turning to the Lord even those “who sleep in the earth and who go down into the dust.” The people’s response seems to come from the mouth of the future apostle Paul, “I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.”
The second reading continues a series of readings from the First Letter of John. The reading opens with a stab at self-righteousness, reminding hearers to “love not in word or speech but in deed and in truth.” An alternate expression of this thought, “Not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.” There is much talk of love in this letter, leading us to conclude that the love expected of fellow-Christians in this community had a long way to go. The author warns that God knows what is in their hearts. He assures them that those who do his commandments will receive whatever they ask of God. What commandments? “Believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.” This instruction is similar to the instruction on the greatest commandment in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole being and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The gospel of this Sunday is the parable of the vine and the branches. It begins, “I am the true vine.” Here John follows one of the principles of catechesis in his gospel. Jesus replaces/ perfects something from the Old Testament. If Jesus is the true vine, there must be a vine that is not the true vine. John found the foundation for this parable in the parable of Isaiah 5:1-7 and in Psalm 80:8-15. Isaiah calls his parable “a love song.” The Lord planted a vineyard on a fertile hill. He planted choice vines. He did everything possible to make his vineyard successful, but it yielded sour grapes. The Lord withdrew his protection and his care of the vineyard. He let it become a wasteland. The interpretation: “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel and the people of Judah.” Psalm 80 comes closer to the thought of John’s parable. It is not a vineyard as in Isaiah, but a vine which the Lord brought out of Egypt, cleared out enemies, and planted the vine. It expanded from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates. Then it failed. This vine is also Israel.
John is involved at the end of the first century of Christianity in the debate between Judaism and Christianity, Judaism’s daughter. We know from Jewish literature of the time and from New Testament documents how bitter that debate was. Here once again, just as last Sunday in the parable of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, John indulges in disparagement of his opponents and their religion by using their Scriptures against them. There is no ecumenical tone to this debate or to this parable. Leaving that issue aside, the parable is also catechesis for Christians.We have seen in past columns on the First Letter of John how divided was the Christian Community in which John’s gospel and letters originated. The Father is in charge of the vineyard and its vine just as God was in charge of Isaiah’s vineyard and Psalm 80’s vine. He’s the pruner. Any Christian who does not bear fruit, or as John’s First Letter says, does not “love in deed and in truth,” will be cut off, thrown into a fire and burned. The oft-repeated symbols of “remaining in me” and “bearing fruit” have the same meaning found in our second reading, “Believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another in deed and in truth.” What makes this possible? It is from the Spirit he gave us.