It is difficult for us to understand just how hard it was for the disciples to accept Paul of Tarsus into the Christian community. We first meet St Paul during the martyrdom of St Stephen. Paul wants to do everything he can to eradicate the Church and the followers of Jesus. He is a zealous opponent of everything the Church stands for. Paul wants to persecute the Church, but thanks to a dramatic encounter with Jesus, he undergoes a conversion. Her greatest enemy becomes her most zealous advocate. Paul goes from one extreme to another: from hating the Church to loving her. Thus is it perfectly understandable that when Paul comes to Jerusalem and tries to see the disciples, they react in a negative way.
This is the situation in our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples are afraid, and think, understandably, that it is an elaborate hoax, a trap designed to end in their arrest and subsequent death. They are wary of Paul, and doubt that his conversion is genuine. But their natural reluctance is overcome thanks to the faith and generosity of St Barnabas. Barnabas, whose name in Hebrew means ‘son of consolation’ (Acts 4:36), literally embodies the Holy Spirit. Everything that Barnabas says or does in the Acts of the Apostles can be understood in terms of how God acts in the world through the Holy Spirit. Here he vouches for Paul, and encourages the brethren that Paul’s conversion is genuine. He bears witness to the truth, and builds up the Church.
St Paul starts to preach in Jerusalem, and engages in debate with the Hellenists, Greek-speaking Jews from around the Mediterranean, people that he and Barnabas would know well. These people are not happy that one of their own has converted, so they plot to kill Paul. They feel betrayed, and want to take their anger out on the traitor. So the disciples take Paul to Caesarea, from where he could set sail for his native Tarsus, in Asia Minor, and be safe. Peace returns to the Holy Land, and the Church thrives. The comfort of the Holy Spirit in Acts 9:31 describes perfectly how a loving and generous Christian, such as Barnabas, acts.
Our second reading reinforces this message by reminding us that for Christians love is not a word, but an action. Love is something you do. In other words, our faith is something which we live out in our lives. We are called to believe in Jesus and to love one another. As St Thomas Aquinas explained, to love is to will the good of another. To love, then, is not simply an act of passion or emotion: something which we feel, but rather something we choose to do. To choose someone else’s good reminds us that we do not exist for our own sake, and that our lives are lived in community and relationship with others. We are called to be loving and generous, just as God has been loving and generous towards us in Christ. We are to love each other as Jesus has loved us. We are to lay down our lives, as Christ has for us. In this love and service we can truly love each other. This makes who and what we are manifest to the world around us. It makes Christianity something attractive because people can see the difference it makes. We are people of love and a community of love, cooperating with God in promoting human flourishing. Such love is a radical and world-changing idea, underpinned by selfless love, of Christ, to help transform the world so that all humanity may experience life in all its fullness.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is speaking to His Disciples after the Last Supper. He uses the image of Himself as the Vine, and the disciples are the branches. It is a powerful vision of what the Church is, people who are grafted onto and into Christ, connected to Him, and in a relationship with Him. We entered into that relationship in our baptism, and it is a relationship which will continue throughout and after our life on earth.
When we were baptised we were clothed with Christ, we were grafted into the vine, which is Christ. It is Christ’s will that we, as Christians, bear much fruit. This means that we live out our faith in our lives, so that it affects who and what we are, and all that we say and do. We do this because it is what Christ expects of us, but also because, as we read in the First Letter of John,
‘The love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1Jn 4:9).
Because we are grafted into Christ we are in communion with Him. Christ gives Himself to us in the Eucharist, His Body and Blood, so that we can have life in Him. He gives Himself to us out of love, so that we might have life in Him, and have it forever. It is a pledge of eternal life with Him, united in this world and the next, given to us to strengthen us on the journey of faith. Partaking in the Eucharist, physically or spiritually, helps us live out our faith in our lives: fed by and with Christ, to live in Him and for Him.
Christ gives Himself for us, and desires that we are united with Him so that we may be strengthened to live out our faith in our lives, and to continue to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom by word and deed. Christ desires that we stay close to Him, and be united with Him, so that we can live lives of love. As Christians we are called to be Christ’s disciples, living in Him, living for Him, proclaiming Him, and bearing much fruit. We do this so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen