5th Sunday of Easter – May 14, 2006
WHEN PAUL ARRIVED IN JERUSALEM HE TRIED TO JOIN THE DISCIPLES BUT THEY WERE ALL AFRAID OF HIM (Acts 9:26)
This week’s text from Acts introduces us to St. Paul, the main character of the second half of the book of Acts. Paul first appears in Acts at Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:58) not as Paul but as Saul. In the narrative both Stephen and Saul are portrayed as zealots for their causes, Stephen for Jesus and Saul for the Jewish establishment.
Before Stephen’s stoning, the church in Jerusalem was living in peaceful co-existence with the Jewish establishment. Despite the Apostles “court order” by the Sanhedrin to “cease and desist” preaching and healing in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:40), the community grew in harmony with the larger Jewish community attracting even priests of the Temple to the community (Acts 6:7).
The charismatic, outspoken Stephen pushed the limits of the growing harmony between the house church of the first followers of Jesus and the temple establishment. Stephen, one of the seven deacons ordained to serve the poor, went beyond his ordination call and spoke boldly and courageously about the great divide between Jesus’ new covenant of love and the Temple establishment support of the old covenant of the Law. This was brought to a head when Stephen spoke boldly before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7) which led to his immediate stoning.
Saul, every bit the zealot Stephen was, took up the cause of the Temple establishment and the fixed Jewish tradition and actively endorsed the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1-3). Immediately after the stoning, Saul conducted a house-to-house search for believers in Jesus, arresting and imprisoning many. Everyone in the community left Jerusalem except for the Apostles.
Saul then sought permission to take his persecution of the early church to Damascus where the followers of Jesus were getting established. It was on the road to Damascus that Saul encountered Jesus and was renamed Paul becoming no less the zealot, but now for Christ. It was in Damascus that Paul first preached the message of Jesus.
“After a long time had passed” (Acts 9:23) in Damascus Paul made enough enemies within the Jewish community that a plot to have him killed was discovered (perhaps three years) plenty of time for Paul to grow in the faith and early traditions. When Paul’s friends discovered the plot against him they helped him escape the city in a basket they lowered over the city walls.
It is at this point in the story that we read this week’s text from Acts. From Damascus, Paul made his way to Jerusalem in hopes of connecting with the disciples. When he reached Jerusalem the disciples were afraid to meet with him because of his past persecution of the Church. It took Barnabas to convince the Apostles of the authenticity of Paul’s conversion and of his work for the faithful in Damascus. After this Paul lived freely within the community in Jerusalem. Paul began to boldly proclaim the faith to the larger Jewish community. He soon ran afoul of the Hellenist Jews, who then started plotting to have him killed. It looked like what happened to Stephen was about to happen to Paul. When some of the disciples heard of the plot against Paul, they quickly got him out of town and sent him to his hometown of Tarsus where Paul stayed until Barnabas called him to Antioch to help with the newfound gentile believers and the start of Paul’s career as the Disciple to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-26).
A TRUE VOCATION TAKES YEARS TO DEVELOP – A LOT OF THINGS CHANGE AND SOME THINGS STAY THE SAME:
Even though St. Paul was knocked down on the road to Damascus by the Risen Lord and converted in one day, it took perhaps five years between Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and his finding his place and vocation in the Church at Antioch with Barnabas. The one thing about Paul’s character that remained throughout his life was his zeal, both in persecuting the Church or proclaiming the faith.
The last place Paul visited before he joined Barnabas in Antioch was his home town of Tarsus. Nothing is known about this visit in Acts. I wonder how one of Tarsus’ Jewish community’s most famous and infamous son’s return to his home of birth was received? How did Paul’s visit play with his childhood friends and family?
My own conversion to the nonviolent Jesus and career as an ‘outlaw peacemaker’ has been a long and many-phased journey. Anyone who knew me as a student at St. Anthony’s grade school and Dowling High School could not have guessed my peacemaking ways. I was the kid who had the biggest collection of war toys and army men. I was the one who played war games most intently and longer than any of my friends. I watched the movie “The Sands of Iwo Jima” multiple times and cried every time John Wayne got shot. In high school I was a blind patriot, a backer of the Vietnam war and a harsh critic of anyone against the war.
It was not until I went to college (1969-1973) that I started to question the war in Vietnam and even this was a very timid questioning compared to many of my contemporaries. The most radical thing I did in college was to read the New Testament and begin my walk with the biblical Jesus. From college I went to seminary. Three years later I dropped out of seminary, fell in love, and helped start the Des Moines Catholic Worker. Seven years later I fell out of love, went back to the seminary on the rebound and got ordained a priest in 1985. I was both a parish priest and a peace activist for 18 years, had a heart attack in September 2001, two weeks after 9/11, and resigned the priesthood in August 2004. Somewhere in the middle of all this I stopped being a student of life and became a fully-vested Catholic Worker and a follower of the non-violent resister, Jesus.
As different as I have become since my school years, when I meet classmates and friends who have known me all my life, even though few could have guessed that I would have chosen the path I’ve chosen, most would say I’m still the same person I was when I was a kid. I imagine it was the same for Paul when he returned to Tarsus in today’s text from Acts.
I AM THE VINE, YOU ARE THE BRANCHES (John 15:5)
For the next two weeks our gospels come from John’s fifteenth chapter, “the vine and the branches” chapter. It’s part of the long four-chapter section called Jesus’ final discourse, sandwiched between the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest.
I used to have a difficult time with the dialogue in John’s gospel. It’s hard to understand. It does not flow like regular conversation. It’s misdirected questions and repetition confused me and Jesus’ long monologues were difficult to follow. It wasn’t until I understood that John is using a unique literary style akin to a quasi-poetic form, that I’ve come to appreciate them more. If we were producing the four Gospels on stage, John’s gospel would be a musical opera.
John’s “Jesus’ final discourses” section used to be one of my least favorite sections. They were just too long and heady for me; that is until I found myself in a similar situation as is found in the gospel’s narrative, the last few weeks leading to my participation in the Gods of Metal Plowshares witness in May of 1998. I was dealing with a lot of fear about the action and possible consequences. I was not on good terms with my bishop and the diocese. My personal relationships were strained. I was looking at an action that could put me behind bars for a long time, perhaps years. I was preparing to leave my mother, who was suffering with Alzheimer’s, mindful that when I returned if my Mom was alive, she might not know who I was. I had a lot of personal demons working on my heart and spirit. I turned to the Scriptures for help and comfort and, sure enough, I found Jesus’ final discourses in John’s Gospel the most helpful. Something about its repetitive cadence and themes of impending suffering and loss and its hope-filled promises for those who remain faithful helped me deal with my fears and anxieties. This was a personal confirmation of my belief that the three most important things when reading the gospels are location, location and location.
The vine and branches theme is a long and familiar tradition in the Old Testament to describe God’s relationship to his chosen people (Isa 5:1-7; Ps 80, Jer 2:21, Ezek 15:2; 17:5-10; 19:10; Hos 10:1). God is the vine grower and Israel and Israel’s kings are the vines and branches.
In this week’s gospel God the Father is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. John uses this simple and accessible image to explain God’s new and improved relationship with the human family through Jesus. With Jesus as the vine, he becomes the living source for being fully human and in sync with God. We, who are the branches, have two options. We can remain one with the vine and produce its fruit or we can deny the vine’s life force and produce no fruit.
Now the agricultural context in which the Gospel was written helps to extend the meaning of the metaphor. For a vine to produce good fruit, it needs to be pruned. Its non-producing branches have to be cut off so the healthy branches can bear good fruit. In this week’s Gospel, God, the Father, will be the pruner; he will cut off all non-producing branches. This suggests that if we do not embrace Jesus and his new covenant of love seeking justice, we will be cut off the vine, made useless, good for nothing, to be burnt and thrown away.
In the context of Jesus’ “last discourse” the vine and braches metaphor is a hope-filled promise for the disciples to remain faithful to Jesus and his ways in the difficult times to come.