Wednesday, May 5, 2010

If You Remain In Me, And My Words In You, Ask For Whatever You Want, And It Will Be Done For You.

Wednesday of Fifth Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 15:1-6
Some who had come down from Judea
were instructing the brothers,
“Unless you are circumcised
according to the Mosaic practice,
you cannot be saved.”
Because there arose
no little dissension and debate
by Paul and Barnabas with them,
it was decided that Paul, Barnabas,
and some of the others
should go up to Jerusalem
to the Apostles and presbyters
about this question.
They were sent on their journey by the Church,
and passed through Phoenicia and Samaria
telling of the conversion of the Gentiles,
and brought great joy to all the brethren.
When they arrived in Jerusalem,
they were welcomed by the Church,
as well as by the Apostles and the presbyters,
and they reported what God had done with them.
But some from the party of the Pharisees
who had become believers stood up and said,
“It is necessary to circumcise them
and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.”
The Apostles and the presbyters met together
to see about this matter.
We begin today an account of the very first Church council.

Scripture scholars find many conflicting difficulties in the structure of the narrative in chapter 15. All these difficulties may be explained by supposing that Luke has combined two distinct controversies in one text with their varying solutions. Paul distinguishes them more clearly in Galatians, Chapter 2. For our purposes here, we need not go into these problems.

As often is the case, the matter did not concern a central doctrine of faith but a tradition. Two issues are going to come up:
1. Should Gentile converts be obliged to observe the Jewish Law?
2. What should be done to assuage the mutual cultural sensitivities between Gentile aand Jewish members of the Christian communities?

Then, as now, the community could be said to be divided between conservatives who saw the need for continuity with the past and those who saw the need for change with changing circumstances. The issue at stake was circumcision. 

Many of the early Christians, especially those in Jerusalem, were converts from Judaism. And among these were Pharisees. They believed that Christianity was simply a development of their Jewish faith and not a renunciation of it and that they should continue observing their Jewish traditions.

Circumcision, like many of the other practices of the Jews, was, at least for men, a crucial identifying mark of God’s people, even though the original reason for the practice may well have been hygienic and preventive. (Nor was it by any circumstances a custom confined only to the Jews of ancient times.)

With the acceptance of Gentiles into the Christian community, the issue of circumcision became a delicate one. Should the new non-Jewish converts be forced to undergo such a painful (and perhaps in their view a disfiguring) operation? Was it really central to the Christian identity?

It seems that the Christians in Antioch were not enforcing it on their new Gentile converts and this was causing some concern among Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. They sent delegates to Antioch with the strong message: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Although they were given a hearing, they may not have represented all the apostles and elders in Jerusalem but a more legalistic group within the church there.

It is clear from Luke’s account that there was a deep conflict between the Jerusalem delegates (who may have been predominantly Pharisees) and Paul and Barnabas who had seen how genuinely many Gentiles had accepted the Christian faith. They did not see that compulsory circumcision should be part of the package. It was, of course, a telling point that Paul himself, a Pharisee, was against compulsory circumcision for Gentiles.

As a result, a group from Antioch, including Paul and Barnabas and “some of the others”, went down to Jerusalem. Among those “others” could have been Titus, who was of mixed parentage, part Jewish, part Gentile. Paul mentions his presence in Galatians 2:1-3.

On the way they passed through the territories of Phoenicia and Samaria telling the Christians they met about their successes in evangelising the Gentiles in Asia Minor. This, in a way, was a clever public relations act because they picked up a great deal of support from those they met on their way. They therefore brought with them to Jerusalem a fairly considerable constituency of support.

When they reached Jerusalem they gave the same message about their great success in bringing Gentiles into the Christian communities. And it is clear that they were cordially received by the Jerusalem church.

But they were challenged by the conservatives of the day, converted Pharisees who again, as in Antioch, insisted on the absolute necessity of circumcision for all converts. Perhaps they had Titus in mind. Although his mother was a Jew and his father a Gentile, he had not been circumcised nor had Paul insisted on it.

The whole group then proceeded to discuss the matter in depth. Tomorrow we will see the outcome.

There is much for us to learn from this experience of the early Church. There is certainly a need for continuity if the Church is to retain its identity and its links with its origins. That is why the Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, is the foundation on which our faith is built and why we need to come back to it all the time.

At the same time, if the Church is to present its message in a way that is meaningful it must also be ready to make the necessary adjustments in areas which, though they may have a long tradition, are not central and have outlived their meaningfulness.

We see this happening both in situations where the Church is trying to make itself at home in cultures which are far removed from that of Europe and, even in Western areas where deep cultural changes are taking place. We see this happening especially today in the area of sexual morality and sexuality generally – artificial contraception, treatment of AIDS/HIV, married priests, women priests, homosexual priests, same-gender unions… Churches are being torn apart by these issues.

There will always be a measure of tension between these two movements, the conservative and the progressive. And both are necessary and a sign of a living church, as long as it is a matter of diversity and not division. 

What is vital is that people on each side be open to frank and sincere dialogue. In spite of serious differences, we see that dialogue taking place in today’s reading.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 122
Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
I rejoiced because they said to me,
“We will go up to the house of the LORD.”
And now we have set foot
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
Jerusalem, built as a city
with compact unity.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD.
Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
According to the decree for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
In it are set up judgment seats,
seats for the house of David.
Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
+++    +++    +++    +++
John 15:1-8
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine,
and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me
that does not bear fruit,
and everyone that does
he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned
because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me
and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me
will be thrown out like a branch and wither;
people will gather them
and throw them into a fire
and they will be burned.
If you remain in me
and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want
and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified,
that you bear much fruit
and become my disciples.”
Perhaps there are some of us who have never seen a vine (although we may be well versed in our wines!). But what Jesus says about the vine – a plant very common in Palestine – can be said about any fruit-bearing tree that we are familiar with and the message is clear.

The vine is an image we find elsewhere in the Old Testament. Jesus uses it as a symbol of the Kingdom of God; all who belong to the Kingdom are part of the vine. The fruit of the vine can also be understood of the Eucharistic celebration. It also represents a life lived according to the vision of Jesus, a life filled with unconditional love.

Jesus is explaining to us what our relationship with him can be like and indeed should be like. He compares himself to a tree, basically to the trunk of the tree. The cultivator of the tree, the one who gives it life, is the Father God. Jesus’ disciples are the branches.

It is the branches which bear the fruit. If a branch does not bear fruit, it is simply cut off. It is no good; it is just draining life from the trunk without giving anything in return. It is very easy for us to be that kind of Christian. We come to church in search of “handouts” but give very little back to the community.

But, even the branches which do bear fruit, are pruned, have parts cut off, so that they will bear even more. Those who cultivate fruit trees or roses are familiar with this process and know how important it is.

What does this pruning consist of? Jesus explains: ."You are already pruned becaues of the word that I spoke to you.” We are pruned, then, by our total identification with everything that Jesus stands for and by constantly cutting out of our lives everything that is contrary to the spirit of Jesus.

This involves a certain kind of asceticism, a denying of some of our natural appetites. This becomes easy as we are more and more overtaken by the vision of life that Jesus offers to us. We give up those non-Christlike things gladly and willingly. It becomes our deepest happiness and even pleasure to be always in Christ.

It is clear from what Jesus says that only those branches which are connected to the trunk can bear fruit. “Without me you can do nothing.” Without fruit we are dead branches but, on the other hand, the fruit is not just of our own making. It is the sign that Christ is working in us and through us.

The most outstanding fruit of all is, of course, the love we reveal in our relationships with God and with people. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, that you have love one for another.”

Separated from Christ – always the result of our own choice – we are like a branch that has fallen from the tree. We wither. Such “branches are collected and thrown on the fire, and they are burnt”. Such separation is not physical. It is a separation of identity. It comes from rejecting or refusing to accept the Way of Jesus as our way of life. It is a rejection of life and the choice of alternatives which can only lead to decay and death.

Finally, there is the great promise. "If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you."

This is not to be interpreted as some kind of blank check, such as asking to win the first prize in a lottery or to have one’s enemy wiped out or to be cured of a terminal sickness.

The promise is prefaced by an important and essential condition: we need to be IN Christ and to have our lives totally guided by his “words”, that is, his teaching, his vision of life. And, if we are with him, our prayer inevitably will be to be more deeply rooted in him. Because he is the Source of all life and all Meaning in life.

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