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Fifth Sunday of Easter (B)

Acts 9:26-31; 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8

May 6, 2012

Today's Gospel invites us to the fullness of life, intimately connected to Jesus Christ the True Vine. To fail to remain closely connected to Jesus the Vine is to wither and die. Jesus tells us that a life lived close to him also becomes the source for a vibrant Gospel witness to the world. However, life "on the vine" is not always so simple. The varieties and kinds of branches, as well as the complexities of issues that Christian communities face, often become occasions for distancing ourselves from the Vine. But, I believe today's readings hold wisdom that can help us to remain connected.

As Christians face various political, economic, social, or ecclesial issues, we may be tempted to become fearful of losing what - from our particular perspective - is valuable and precious. Often we label fellow Christians - creating "outcasts" and "others." Thus, our communities become fragmented. Once we have labeled a sister or brother as an "other," it is difficult to take back our words and admit that person back into our circle of relationships. An extreme case of this is noted in today's first reading.

Granted, Saul (Paul) had in fact persecuted Christians - so fear was arguably an appropriate initial response. But then, fear is frequently an impediment to moral discernment; indeed this seems to be the case for the Christians of Jerusalem. But then there is Barnabas - in spite of the apprehension of the community, he welcomed the very one who had hunted his fellow Christians! What was it about this disciple that allowed him to see in Saul (Paul) what others (apparently) did not see? What enabled him to hear Paul's story of conversion and believe the Gospel witness of that apostle's experience? I dare say that Barnabas was able to recognize the genuine change in Saul (now Paul) because he was firmly attached to Jesus, the True Vine. Indeed, plausibly, Barnabas was able to recognize the budding of another branch that emerged from another place on the vine, because he knew the great love that was first given in relationship with Jesus the True Vine. Though that branch brought a different experience from a unique perspective, a distinct style and a bold spirit, it was clear enough to Barnabas that Paul was now one with him and other Christians in Christ the True Vine.

Christians by their very name claim connection to Jesus Christ the True Vine. In our world there are many branches linked to the vine. Indeed in any healthy plant there are no two branches that are identical. In fact, it is often the vast diversity among the branches that allows the plant to stay alive and remain healthy. The variously shaped leaves, the sizes of the branches, the angle at which they are exposed to the sun and other elements allow the plant to survive even under oppressive conditions. But if any branch becomes separated from the vine, it dies and needs to be pruned for the health of the plant.

Barnabas exemplifies yet another mandate that we hear in today's second reading. Here we are called to love, not only in words, but also in our deeds. Barnabas seemed to be able to do the deeds of love quite well. But what stops us from doing loving deeds? Who are the persons, situations, or experiences that we carry ill feelings about?  What painful memories, biases or prejudices do we continue to carry that hold us back, keeping us from loving actions? What do we need to assist us to be healed and able to move on with life as proactive lovers intimately linked to Jesus the True Vine? Sometimes we need to just take the courageous step to decide to listen to the condemnation of our own hearts; the discomfort and pain, and just let go and open ourselves to God who is "greater than our own hearts" and ask for the assistance we need to become more faithful witnesses to the Gospel.

In this Easter season, as we continue to celebrate Christ's victory over sin and death, let us recommit ourselves to fulfill the commandment that: "[W]e should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us" (I Jn 3:23-24). Let us renew our hope in the promises of Christ: "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" (Jn 15: 7-8).

By Dawn M. Nothwehr, O.S.F., Professor of Catholic Theological Ethics  

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