- When I first listen, I only hear a summary report of meetings and travel from place to place. Three men: Saul, Barnabas and the Lord Jesus. Four cities: Jerusalem, Damascus, Caesarea and Tarsus. What does it all mean?
- Let me remember that I am reading from a book of origins, our origins. It may seem far away now but it was set down within a half century. These were not distant patriarchs magnified over generations in family stories, but real people known personally to the author.
- And what do I hear about the early church? Here is a community acting in consultation and consensus, cautious in its scrutinizing of the witnesses to the Lord’s resurrection. They were all afraid of Saul, not believing that he was a disciple. I recall the harassment they endured from the authorities, their shock at the stoning of Stephen, and their memory of the firebrand that was the old Saul. Those were the disciples who took him down and sent him on his way.
- At the same time, they listened when Barnabas brought him to the apostles. They gave the feared Saul the benefit of the doubt. He moved about freely with them. Even when he seemed to jeopardize the accommodations that they had worked out with the establishment, they did not expel him forever. He would return to them years later as a more tempered disciple. How welcoming are we to those who seek our favor?
- Two threads run through the passage. Some, especially Saul, are speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord and stirring up resistance. That bold speech confirmed the presence of the Spirit. But others, the overwhelming majority, named by Luke the church throughout all Galilee, Judea and Samaria, experienced peace, the fear of the Lord, and the consolation of the Holy Spirit. It was a gentler way and it seemed to be working. So the Spirit was there as well!
- Central theme: Saul had seen the Lord and had spoken to him, but he had still to learn the ways of the community. The Lord was in the sight of others, too, and Paul’s letters show us how he came to acknowledge their authority as well.
- Message for our assembly: We need to find ways in our own time to work out the differences among us without becoming defensive and wrapping ourselves in appeals to truth.
- I will challenge myself: To call attention to the unresolved issue – peace or boldness – as I read the apparently seamless text from Luke.
2. I John 3, 18-24
- The apostle does not beat around the bush. Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth. I must be ready to speak his first words in a convincing and persuasive way. We might say that actions speak truer than words.
- Whenever I read from John’s letter, I hear such a coherent, self-evident flow of words and phrases that I cannot challenge them. Then, when I finish the passage, I often wonder just what it was that I heard. Let me not lose my way here.
- It is God who makes all this possible. God is greater than our hearts and knows everything. And such generosity: We receive from him whatever we ask. Finally, God abides: he remains in us.
- Our own actions, our right actions, dominate this reading. We love, we belong to the truth, we reassure our hearts, we have confidence, we keep his commandments and do what pleases him, we believe in the name of Jesus and love one another, we remain in him. Let me keep the connection clear, among these actions, of a church bound to God and continually aware of God.
- Keeping his commandments can be understood in the same sense as when I rely on written codes to judge myself and others. This has its place, though we must not reduce everything to an external code. The prophet told the people that God would write the commandments on their hearts. And the apostle mentions hearts four times in this passage, because these two commandments of belief in the name of his Son and love for one another are grounded in the heart.
- The message for our assembly: Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them. This sounds so similar to the better known saying that comes later in this letter: that those who abide in love abide in God and God in them. I can capture this similarity if I say it more solemnly.
- The Climax comes in the first sentence.
- I will challenge myself: To grasp the unity that underlies the passage, with its emphasis on acts of love, and convey that unity to my listeners.
Gospel. John 15, 1-8
- I am the vine, you are the branches. After the Good Shepherd, this is the second endearing image of Christ and the church that we have passed on through the generations.
- What a perfect example of our life together and our slow coming to realization of what we must do to nourish that life! Let me bring alive the work of the vine grower, pruning the branches or throwing them away. Let me admire the results of the work, that we bear much fruit.
- Over and over the evangelist has Jesus insisting that the disciples remain in him. The phrasing is inspired by the plant’s own circulatory system, in which vine and branches are one organic whole and nourishment flows freely from point to point. It means here that we are united mystically to him and genuinely to each other.
- Yes, it is true, the phrases flow along freely. Except for the non-inclusive language that arises so frequently in the Johannine books, the literal translation of passages like this will do just fine. I am deciding to make a brief pause between each sentence to allow the assembly to reflect on what they have just heard. Then at the halfway point when I am the vine is repeated, I will mark a longer halftime break. All of this calmly, with no sharp threats of hellfire when people gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.
- Climax: The negative way of saying it. Without me you can do nothing.
- Message for our assembly: If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. Do they believe this?
- I will challenge myself: To make them convinced of this, to help them believe it. Let me go back and recover the traditional meaning of ‘whatever,’ something like the repetition of ‘anything … yes, anything.’
Word to Eucharist: Imagine our communion procession as a gigantic vine spreading all through the sanctuary. What is my place? How healthy is my link? See how we are connected to Christ and each other.