Commentary for 5th Sunday Easter Year B

First Reading: Acts 9:26–31

Our first reading today has Saul (Paul) as the hero. The time is about A.D. 36-39. He has been struck down on the road to Damascus and blinded, led into Damascus and for three days was without sight, food and drink. Healed by Ananias and baptized (the only baptism of any apostle in Holy Scripture), then he preaches about Jesus in the synagogues in the area for many days (three years according to Galatians 1:17-18) until the Jews plotted to kill him causing him to flee to Jerusalem.

26 When he [Saul] had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him.

The Hellenists were fierce Mosaic loyalists who were quick to defend their traditions.

30 When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

For the second time St Paul has to flee for his life. Commenting on this episode, St John Chrysostom explains that, in addition to grace, human resourcefulness has a part to play in apostolic activity. “The disciples were afraid that the Jews would do to Saul what they had done to St Stephen. This may be why they sent him to preach the Gospel in his homeland, where he would be safer. In this action of the apostles you can see that God does not do everything directly, by means of his grace, and that he frequently lets his disciples act in line with the rule of prudence” (Hom. on Acts, 20).

31 Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

This note of justified optimism and trust in God confirms that God is with His Church and no human force can destroy it.

“The first reading, which tells of Paul’s implantation into the Church derives its meaning from the Gospel. The disciples in Jerusalem are fearful, unable to believe that the notorious persecutor could now suddenly become a true branch on the vine. It is Jesus Christ himself, not men, who selects men to be his branches. The future will demonstrate that Paul’s integration is a complete one permitting him to bear fruit as a branch of the vine (“I have toiled harder than all of them” [1 Cor 15:10]), even though the Church often remains mistrustful of converts, as Paul’s departure from Jerusalem and return to his homeland demonstrate. It will fall to the same man, Barnabas, who here introduces Paul to the Apostles, to fetch Paul back from Tarsus for their joint apostolate (Acts 11:25)” ~ Balthasar, LW, 192

Psalm: Psalm 22:26–28, 30–32

25From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him. 26The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever!

27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

29To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. 30Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, 31and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

Second Reading: 1 John 3:18–24

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

It is not enough to have good intentions. You must also put them into effect with genuine willingness and a happy heart” ~ St. John Chrysostom

Actions speak louder than words” ~ Hilary of Arles

Using an example very like that in the Letter of St James (cf. Jas 2:15–16), he shows that true love expresses itself in actions: anyone who “closes his heart” when he sees others in need does not truly love. The saints have constantly reminded us of St John’s teaching: “what the Lord desires is works. If you see a sick woman to whom you can give some help, never be affected by the fear that your devotion will suffer, but take pity on her: if she is in pain, you should feel pain too; if necessary, fast so that she may have your food, not so much for her sake as because you know it to be your Lord’s will. That is true union with his will. Again, if you hear someone being highly praised, be much more pleased than if they were praising you” ~ St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, 5, 3, 11

19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him

“When we do the works of godliness, it becomes apparent that we are of the truth which is God, because we are copying his perfect love to the best of our ability. When we love our neighbors in deed and in truth, we see clearly that we are reassuring our hearts in the light of the supreme truth” ~ Bede

20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God;

“Our conscience gives us a true answer, that we love and that genuine love is in us, not feigned but sincere, seeking our brother’s salvation and expecting nothing from him except his salvation” ~ St. Augustine

“Still, fickle men that we are, we keep asking ourselves, “Am I really a branch rooted in the vine?” Which dominates me: trust in God’s grace for me or my well-founded doubts whether I live up to that grace? The second reading answers both sides of the question. Confidence ought to predominate in us, “because we are keeping his commandments,” because we seek to keep them. If, as is possible, “our heart [conscience] accuses us,” it rightfully, indeed necessarily, has recourse to God’s mercy. He, who “is greater than our hearts,” knows everything. Together with Peter, who is crushed by his having denied Christ, we can say, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you” (John 21:17). Peter also shows us that this presupposes a genuine desire to repent, for otherwise we could not convince ourselves that we are speaking “in the Spirit” that “he gave us.” ~ Balthasar, LW, 192-3

St John’s teaching on divine mercy is very clear: if our conscience tells us we have done wrong, we can seek forgiveness and strengthen our hope in God; if our conscience does not accuse us, our confidence in God is ardent and bold, like that of a child who has loving experience of his Father’s tenderness.

“When we realize that God’s love for us does not cease in the face of our sin or recoil before our offences, but becomes even more attentive and generous; when we realize that this love went so far as to cause the Passion and Death of the Word made flesh who consented to redeem us at the price of his own blood, then we exclaim in gratitude: ‘Yes, the Lord is rich in mercy’, and even: ‘The Lord is mercy’ ” ~ St. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 22

22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

“It must be understood that if we are to get what we ask for from God we have to obey his commands. The two things go indissolubly together” ~ St Gregory the Great

23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

The commandments of God are summed up here in terms of love for Jesus and love for the brethren. “We cannot rightly love one another unless we believe in Christ; nor can we truly believe in the name of Jesus Christ without brotherly love” (St Bede, In I Epist. S. Ioannis, ad loc.). Faith and love cannot be separated (cf. Gal 5:6); our Lord himself told us what would mark his disciples out—their love for one another (Jn 13:34–35).

“Let God become a home to you, and he will dwell in you. Remain in him, and he will remain in you. God remains in you in order to hold you up. You remain in God in order not to fall. Keep the commandments, have charity” ~ Bede

Gospel: John 15:1–8

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.

The vine was a key symbol of the nation of Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7, Jeremiah 2:21, Ezekiel 15:1-8, Hosea 10:1, Psalm 80:8). It was the emblem on the coins of the Maccabees. One of the glories of the Temple was the great golden vine upon the front of the Holy Place.

This is the only corporate “I am” saying of Jesus. The point of that word alethinos (Greek #228), true, real, genuine, is this. It is a curious fact that the symbol of the vine is never used in the Old Testament apart from the idea of degeneration. The point of Isaiah’s picture is that the vineyard has run wild. Jeremiah complains that the nation has turned into “degenerate and become a wild vine.” It is as if Jesus said: “You think that because you belong to the nation of Israel you are a branch of the true vine of God. But the nation it is; a degenerate vine, as all your prophets saw. It is I who am the true vine. The fact that you are a Jew will not save you. The only thing that can save you is to have an intimate living fellowship with me, for I am the vine of God and you must be branches joined to me.” Jesus was laying it down that not Jewish blood but faith in him was the way to God’s salvation. No external qualification can set a man right with God; only the friendship of Jesus Christ can do that. Background for “vine”: The vine was grown all over Palestine as it still is.  It is a plant which needs a great deal of attention if the best fruit is to be got out of it. The ground has to be perfectly clean… It grows luxuriantly and drastic pruning is necessary. A young vine is not allowed to fruit for the first three years and each year is cut drastically back to develop and conserve its life and energy. When mature, it is pruned in December and January. It bears two kinds of branches, one that bears fruit and one that does not; and the branches that do not bear fruit are drastically pruned back, so that they will drain away none of the plant’s strength. The vine can not produce the crop of which it is capable without drastic pruning–and Jesus knew that.

2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

“The parable of the vine conveys a marvellous sense of assurance: that we are somehow rooted, firmly and enduringly; that our birth does not leave us orphaned, isolated, dependent solely on our fragile selves; that we are not merely creatures of an inscrutable Creator who may indeed give us existence and sustain us — for as long as it pleases him; that we do stem from an empowering and fructifying origin out of which we can lead a useful and meaningful existence. Yet the assertion that pervades the entire Gospel is more than this assurance. It is the requirement, based on the assurance, that we persist in our origin: “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” The requirement is so urgent that a threat lies behind it: whoever does not remain will wither away and be pruned off and burned. This takes place in a natural sense, as the parable of the vine and branches shows, but it also takes place in a personal sense, since God the Father himself is concerned for the union between his Son and his branches and members. This union is the central event of the world and its history, and it is such an intimate union that it tolerates no compromise: the branches are either attached to the vine’s trunk or they are separated. We have to take this to heart: “Without me you can do nothing” — no matter how much you think you can accomplish by yourselves” ~ Balthasar, LW, 191-2

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