May 2, 2021

Brief synopsis of the readings: As we continue through the Acts of the Apostles we see Saul (Paul) shortly after his conversion to following Jesus. He attempted to join Jesus’ disciples but they were afraid of him because of his previous persecution of them. But Barnabas spoke up for Saul and talked about Saul’s preaching in Jesus’ name. Saul then spoke to the Hellenists (Greeks) who grew angry and decided to kill him. The rest of the disciples then took him to Caesarea and Tarsus. The Churches continued to grow. John’s Gospel records a speech Jesus gave to his disciples. He describes himself as the true vine and “my Father is the vinedresser.” He also tells them that since he is the vine, his disciples are the branches. Only those branches who remain with Jesus will bear fruit. Those branches that do not bear fruit will be collected and destroyed.

After Jesus, argueably Paul (or Saul as he is known here) is the most important person in the New Testament. His letters populate about a quarter of the New Testament (Paul almost certainly didn’t write all the letters ascribed to him but that’s a sermon for another day).

That said, we know relatively little about him, but today’s reading gives us perhaps the most important aspect of his life. We know that he was a Pharisee and about the same age as Jesus. We also know that he persecuted Jesus’ followers; we know that he attended and approved of the stoning of St. Stephan. But shortly after that he encountered Jesus in a way that caused him to repent of his persecution and follow Jesus.

But as we see in our first reading, it took some effort for him to be accepted by the rest of the disciples and their trust of him grew slowly. And it began quite a career as he traveled much of the Eastern Mediterranean, founding communities, and writing letters to support them.

But interestingly enough, in this reading he did something unexpected. This strict and well educated Jew went outside his community and reached out to Hellenists, non Jews. It didn’t go well here but he became the loudest and most successful advocate for those outside of Judaism who wished to follow Jesus. Clearly this was a branch that grew off the vine in a direction nobody expected.

Which brings us to our Gospel. Last week Jesus was the Good Shepherd and today he is a vine. Not being a vinedresser myself I confess I had to read up on vines. I learned that, left alone, they tend to grow along the ground. They can attach to trees, walls, and artificial structures like trellises. Regardless they tend to grow at a fast pace and in all directions. Those who live in the American South are well acquainted with kudzu, a vine from Asia that was introduced to the South in the 1930s to check soil erosion. It grew so fast and pervasively that it is sometimes called “the vine that ate the South.”

It may sound a little strange to see kudzu as a metaphor for the early church, but I think there’s something there. Even the first few decades after Jesus, when their survival was in doubt, his followers began to spread out literally in all directions. It’s also interesting to see that vines and their branches depend on each other and neither can survive alone. The vines bring nutrients from the soil and without those nutrients the branches would die. But the vines are also dependent on the branches (and leaves) that capture energy from the sun through photosynthesis. Without this the vines couldn’t grow.

And we’ve seen this ever since. The growth of vines and branches spread out from Jerusalem almost immediately and because of Saul’s evangelization we know about cities of Thessalonica, Corinth, Phillipia, and several others. Within three hundred years the influence of Christianity reached the point where it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. By the year 1000 Christianity had reached all of Europe, Northern Africa, and parts of the Near East. Today we are worldwide with over 2 billion members.

But that’s true only because each generation from Saul to today has taken seriously the call to be branches to Jesus’ vine. As I’ve said before, the first generation that decides not to teach the faith will be the last generation to know Jesus.

Each week I take my father in law to his church. It’s not always my cup of tea but he’s worshipped there for 63 years and was ordained a deacon in 1983. This past weekend, however, was a delight. In Catholic Churches spring is the annual celebration of First Communion and it’s normally celebrated when the children are 7 or 8. The church was abuzz with excitement as they received Communion for the first time, and hopefully they will receive for the rest of their lives.

I was struck not only by the enthusiasm of the children but also their parents and teachers. Children that age are enthusiastic sponges but teaching them is still work; they are easily distracted and often grow tired at inopportune times. And yet their parents and teachers didn’t even try to mask their joy.

They took their place in line with Saul, Saul’s disciples, and so on. And those parents and teachers likely thought about who taught them about Jesus and Communion and said a prayer of thanksgiving for those who taught them.

Looking at the children I can’t tell how much Communion will matter to them over the course of their lives. No doubt not all of them will still consider themselves Catholic as adults. But some will and they will grow from their vines in ways that they cannot yet imagine. Like Saul, it won’t always be easy, but it will be rewarding.

Finally, the journey is not yet complete. We sat behind a family with twin girls who celebrated their First Communion. During mass their father was also holding their younger sister who looked to be about four years old. In three years she will know the thrill that her sisters experienced.

That will be a good day.