May 6, 2012

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Awhile back I did some studies of the daily readings used on a couple of specific days in the Catholic Church.

There is no particular reason that these were chosen other than that they were Sundays following a Bible Study I was attending and we had decided to study the readings for the coming Sundays as a way to prepare for a full understanding of the liturgy.

The common theme of interest for us all is the fact that the widely diverse readings from various parts of the bible have been chosen for each day with prayerful intent and all relate to each other in various ways.

Please enjoy!

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

First Reading, Acts 9:26-31

This is the conclusion to one of the most amazing stories of conversion to Christianity that has ever occurred. The first thing we need to remember about Saul was that not only did he not believe in Christ as the Messiah, he so hated the followers of Christ that he obtained letters from the high priest authorizing him to capture, retain and return to Jerusalem anyone he found following Christ and hand them over to the Authorities. It was his belief that all Christians should be punished at least by imprisonment and at best, executed. Saul was trained as a Pharisee and was known as an enemy of Christianity.

So after his conversion, when he approached the Apostles to join them in Jerusalem, they were rightly afraid of him.

This is quite evident in the preceding passages verses 10-19 are all about the Lord trying to convince one of Chris’s followers to go meet with Saul. Ananias argued with the Lord saying that he had heard about Saul and was clearly afraid to go find him. God had to argue back that everything would be just fine.

This conversion has always been justly considered as a strong proof of the Christian religion. It could not have occurred by any event of fair prospects of honor. Saul was distinguished already as a Jew. He had had the best opportunities for education that the nation afforded. He had every prospect of rising to distinction and office.

It could not have been produced by any prospect of wealth or fame; by becoming a Christian. Christians were poor; and to be a Christian then was to be exposed to contempt, persecution, and death. Saul had no reason to suppose that he would escape the common lot of Christians.

He was as firmly opposed to Christianity before his conversion as possible. He had already distinguished himself for his hostility. Infidels often say that Christians are prejudiced in favor of their religion. But here was a man, at first, a bitter infidel and foe to Christianity. All the prejudices of his education, and his prospects, all his former views and feelings, were opposed to the gospel of Christ. He became, however, one of its most firm advocates and friends; and it is for infidels to account for this change. There must have been some cause, some motive for it; and is there anything more rational than the supposition, that Saul was convinced in a most striking and wonderful manner of the truth of Christianity?

His subsequent life showed that his change was sincere and real. He encountered danger and persecution to evince his attachment to Christ; he went from land to land, and exposed himself to every danger, and every mode of obloquy and scorn, always rejoicing that he was a Christian, and was permitted to suffer as a Christian; and has thus given the highest proofs of his sincerity. If these sufferings, and if the life of Paul were not evidences of sincerity, then it would be impossible to fix on any circumstances of a man's life that would furnish proof that he was not a deceiver.

If Paul was sincere--if this conversion was genuine--the Christian religion is true. Nothing else but a religion from heaven could produce this change. There is here, therefore, the independent testimony of a man who was once a persecutor; converted, not by the preaching of the apostles; changed in a wonderful manner; his whole life, views, and feelings revolutionized, and all his subsequent days evincing the sincerity of his feelings, and the reality of the change. He is just such a witness as infidels ought to be satisfied with; whose testimony cannot be impeached; who had no interested motives, and who was willing to stand forth anywhere, and avow his change of feeling and purpose. We adduce him as such a witness; and infidels are bound to dispose of his testimony, or to embrace the religion which he embraced.

Once Saul started preaching and working with the Christians they saw that he was sincere and became his protectors when his former allies turned against him.

Responsorial Psalm, Ps 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32

The beginning of this Psalm is the part we read on Palm Sunday “My God, My God, Why have you abandoned me?” These are the words Jesus recites on the cross in his despair. The Psalm further lays out the prophesy of Christ’s death “All who see me mock me, they shake their heads… ‘He relied on the Lord, let the Lord be his refuge.” Then “They have pierced my hands and feet.” And “They divide my garments among them, for my clothing casting lots.” A very graphic and accurate prediction of the crucifixion.

The portion of the same Psalm included in the readings this week however, tend to prophesy the resurrection:

I will fulfill my vows before those who fear the LORD. The lowly shall eat their fill; they who seek the LORD shall praise him: "May your hearts live forever!" (The promise of the messiah)

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; all the families of the nations shall bow down before him. (The founding of the Church)

To him alone shall bow down all who sleep in the earth; before him shall bend all who go down into the dust. (Waiting for the kingdom of Heaven)

And to him my soul shall live; my descendants shall serve him. Let the coming generation be told of the LORD that they may proclaim to a people yet to be born the justice he has shown. (The proclamation of the Messiah, and life eternal.)

So we split this psalm into two readings; one for Holy week and one for the Easter season.

This portion of the Psalm also talks of evangelizing the name of the Lord and is a nice tie in to the first reading; “He moved about freely with them in Jerusalem, and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord.”

Second Reading, First John 3:18-24

In a moment of inspiration some time ago, I wrote in my prayer journal:

“If you preach the Word, but do not live your faith, people will see your heart and will not believe. But if you live your faith in everything you do and say, people will see your heart and they will believe.”

I’m not sure exactly where that came from, but Sunday’s second reading seems to confirm that I was on the right track. “let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.”

In our own hearts do we know the truth of our beliefs and no one other than God can judge the truth of our hearts, but those around us will judge our actions and if they are pure, we will be judged to be in truth.

John is telling us here to be true in our actions and faithful to God while we live our lives as living witnesses to His Word.

St. Francis may or may not have said “Preach the gospels at all times, and when necessary, use words.” But the sentiment is reflected in this reading that we should remain true and preach the Gospel from our certain hearts in the Glory of God.

Gospel, John 15:1-8

This is one of the most powerful descriptions of the eternal life to which John is bearing witness. Jesus has spoken of the cleansing of the disciples, the coming intimacy with him and his Father, the coming of the Paraclete, and the love command. Jesus declares He Is the True Vine and His Disciples are the Branches. Jesus begins with the Gospel's final "I am" saying. The earlier sayings had focused on Jesus as the life-giver and had included an invitation to come to him and to believe in him. Now, however, Jesus is speaking to those who have already come to him, and so his charge is that they remain in him. The earlier theme of life is now developed in terms of intimate union with Jesus, a sharing in his own life.

This reading closes out the theme of all of the readings for Sunday, that we should remain in him, stay steadfast with our faith and continue out into the world spreading His Word.

The image of the vine, and the closely associated term vineyard, were commonly used throughout the Mediterranean world. There is frequent use in the Old Testament and in Judaism to symbolize Israel. Isaiah 5:1-7 has an extended use of this image in his "Song of the Vineyard". There are constant uses of the image of the vine. On the temple there was a "golden vine with grape clusters hanging from it, a marvel of size and artistry" and the vine was used to represent Jerusalem on coins made during the first Jewish revolt, so the vine was clearly a symbol of Israel. Furthermore, even the notion of a true vine shows up in the Old Testament: "I planted you as a fruitful vine, entirely true. How have you become a wild vine, turned to bitterness" (Jer 2:21 LXX). Here, as also in Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard, God, the gardener, cared for his vineyard but got sour grapes. Consequently he will destroy the vineyard. This theme of judgment accompanies virtually every use of this imagery in the Old Testament.

Therefore, when Jesus refers to himself as the true vine he is once again taking an image for Israel and applying it to himself. Jesus himself is true Israel. This claim corresponds to his break with the temple and his forming a renewed people. Israel's place as the people of God is now taken by Jesus and his disciples, the vine and its branches. This is not a rejection of Judaism, but its fulfillment in its Messiah. The identification of the people of God with a particular nation is now replaced with a particular man who incorporates in himself the new people of God composed of Jews and non-Jews. Israel as the vine of God planted in the Promised Land is now replaced by Jesus, the true vine, and thus the people of God are no longer associated with a territory. Jesus' corporate significance has been included throughout the Gospel in his use of the term Son of Man, so it is perhaps significant that the image of the vine and that of the Son of Man are identified together in Psalm 80:14b-16: "Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself."

Given this strong association of the vine with Israel, when Jesus refers to himself as the vine that is true he signals a contrast between himself and the official Judaism as represented in the Jewish leaders who have rejected him and thus cut themselves off from him and his Father. The role of the Father as the gardener continues the theme of Jesus' dependence on and subordination to the Father and also emphasizes again the contrast between Jesus' relationship with God and that of his opponents. The specific focus, however, is on the branches, who are in intimate contact with Jesus.

And us.