When he 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. 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. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
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.
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 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. 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.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."
Those who have roses will know that they need to be pruned if you are to get the best out of them. What is true of roses is true of most plants; pruning brings on new life. Jesus refers to that procedure of pruning in this morning's gospel. He suggests that in various ways God prunes our lives to make them even more fruitful than they presently are. There are some things we may need to shed if we are to become all that God is calling us to be. Some experiences of letting go, which can be very painful at the time, can help us to grow in our relationship with God and with others. Yet, during those painful experiences of pruning in our lives, the Lord is in communion with us. In the words of the gospel, he makes his home in us, he remains in us. We don't have to face into that experience of being pruned on our own, or in the strength of our own resources alone. The Lord who makes his home in us will sustain us in those times, and will lead us through the painful experience of pruning into a new and more fruitful life. However, for that to happen we need to remain in him as he remains in us; we need to keep in communion with him, as he is in communion with us.
People's fascination with the history of ancient Egypt and its Pharaohs is not only for the wonderful buildings and sculptures they left behind, but also from the social point of view. For here we had a whole people organised for one purpose, to secure the continuation of the Pharaoh in the next world. They surrounded their rulers' burial with such detailed customs, laws and rituals, the purpose of which was to create the impression that the Pharaoh was still alive. They even placed food in his tomb, together with his favourite furniture, chariots, games and weapons. But the striking thing about mummies, whether royal or not, is that they are very, dead indeed. Religion too can degenerate into code and cult, just a set of laws to be kept and rites to be fulfilled, but such a religion will in time become dry and musty, and like the mummies utterly devoid of life. A celebrity was asked on a T.V. religious programme about the place of religion on his life, and if he could easily do without it, and he answered, "Yes, maybe, but then it is always a guide to help one keep in line." For him religion was a code to help him regulate his conduct. People of that mindset often want religion to be mummified, like a static signpost in their lives. But, if it means anything, Christianity must be a living, a vibrant force in one's life. Not only does Christ live on in the community of believers, but through them, he carries on his mission of ministering to people in need of his mercy and love.
In those who spread the words of the gospel to others, whether in the mission fields, in the parish, in our schools, we have the fulfilment of Jesus' prayer at the Last Supper, "That they may know the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." In every instruction in the faith, given and received, we have a figure of Christ restoring his sight to the poor man, who at first beheld people dimly, as if they were trees, and then came to see clearly. In every sinner who comes to repentance we see, as it were, Lazarus raised once more from the dead, casting off the shroud of sin that enveloped him. In every coming together around the Table of the Eucharist, we, like the Apostles are witnesses before the whole world to the task, entrusted to us by Christ, of proclaiming his death and resurrection until he comes at the end of time. Christianity is not, and never should be, mere code or mere cult.
If you see Christianity as a code — "you must do this, you must avoid that, you must be present at this Mass" — is one often heard — then it is possible to begin to credit your account before God by claiming, "I attend Mass, I observe this law, I have progressed so much on the way you require of me." It is possible to reach the stage where you begin to see yourself as being perfect, with no further need of a saviour. But, alas, such an assessment of one's standing before God is precisely that of the Pharisees, of whom Christ said to his listeners, "I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5:20). True Christianity is the vision of ourselves as being encompassed by God's love, that despite our faults, God loves us to the point of foolishness, to the point of death on a cross. If we believe in Christ, God is ready to regard us as his children and friends. Friends do not ask for literal commands, but from their personal acquaintance with the one that loves them, they try and understand his half-words. From love of him they try and anticipate his wishes.
If we see our lives as a response to the immense love God has for us, then there will no longer be constraint. Rather will religion have a liberating effect in our lives. We will enjoy what scripture describes as "the liberty of the children of God." But then again, so great is the love of God for us that we will see our efforts at responding to that love as always falling short of what we desire. The trouble with those who see their lives as blameless is that they have limited vision.