Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue to journey through the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s account of the earliest days of Jesus’ disciples forming the community that we recognize as the Christian Church. Today we see Saul of Tarsus who arrived in Jerusalem hoping to join the disciples. But the disciples were afraid of him and they accepted him only after Barnabas testified on his behalf, telling them how he preached in Damascus in the name of Jesus. Saul then preached fearlessly. He spoke to the Hellenists who wanted to kill him. The disciples rescued him, sending him first to Caesarea, then to Tarsus. Churches in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria were left in peace and grew in size. John’s Gospel embodies a speech from Jesus where he tells his disciples that “I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser.” The vinedresser cuts away branches that don’t bear fruit. Jesus then describes himself as the vine and his disciples are the branches.
Once again our first reading needs added context. Many of us recognize that Saul is, in reality, St. Paul that we all recognize. While I don’t preach on the second reading, much of those readings come from Paul’s letters. Paul’s writings inform much of what we know of the church after the Acts of the Apostles, and for the purpose of this homily I’ll call him Paul.
The phrase “I am the vine and you are the branches” should be familiar to most of us. We can easily gloss over this image, but I suggest that we don’t. Today’s Gospel begins with the phrase “I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that bears no fruit he cuts away.”
Gardeners everywhere recognize that they need to cut off branches and twigs that aren’t producing. Novice rose gardeners often find themselves horrified when they learn how much of their plant they must prune in the winter to produce beautiful roses in the summer. Vines and branches that steal nutrients without producing roses, simply put, must be cut. When we think of branches that are cut and discarded, I think sometimes we think of these branches as bad people. That sets up a duality between “good people” and “bad people” and when Jesus says: “You are pruned already” it can lead us into a type of smugness. I think we need to see these cut branches as a waste of energy, a path that will not lead to good fruit. When the bad branches are cut, it allows the nutrients to take the correct path for the best fruit.
So what does that have to do with our readings? Well, a few things. Jesus spoke these words before his death and resurrection and part of me thinks his disciples simply ignored his words because they didn’t understand what he was telling them.
But by the first reading, the Gospel took on a much more important understanding. I spoke earlier about Saul/Paul. Volumes have been written about Paul of Tarsus and here’s what we believe about him: He was probably about the same age as Jesus. In his writings he described himself as a Pharisee which meant that he was a learned man. We know that he originally opposed Jesus and persecuted his followers (even to the point of approving of the stoning of Stephan) but that didn’t last. On the road from Jerusalem to Damascus he encountered Jesus in a way that convinced him to follow Jesus. Paul saw Jesus as the Messiah and himself as an Apostle (one who saw the resurrected Jesus). Paul then went from being one of the worst enemies of Jesus’ followers to one of Jesus’ strongest evangelists.
If we use the image of pruning branches as getting rid of waste, we need to see Paul as even worse than that. He wasn’t simply drawing nutrition from the early church, he was pruning good branches in his hostility toward Jesus’ followers. In his work as a sworn enemy of Jesus’ followers he was leading the nutrients to exactly the wrong place.
When Jesus’ disciples first heard about Paul’s conversion they were skeptical and for good reason. They may have heard about Paul’s conversion, but their experience was far different.
Recall what I said about God being the vinedresser. It means that not only does God decide which branches to cut, God also commands us to accept those branches, no matter what. Our history teems with stories of conversion, of those who recognize the error of their ways and our call to accept them. If you haven’t seen the movie Schindler’s List I recommend it. It tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German during the Nazi era and owned a factory. He hired Jewish prisoners because they were cheap. Over the course of the movie he comes to understand their persecution and need for liberation. By the end of the war he saved over 1000 lives. This next example may stir a little controversy, but what’s wrong with a little controversy among friends? A movie now on Netflix called Come Sunday tells the story of an up and coming preacher named Carlton Pearson (who is also a real person). He was a disciple of Oral Roberts and preached that only Christians could be saved and anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus would be condemned to Hell for all eternity. One day, he claimed, he heard the voice of God telling him that Jesus’ death and resurrection grants eternal life in Heaven to everyone and that Hell doesn’t exist. When he began preaching that at his church he met with instant and massive resistance. His church essentially fell apart, he had to leave his denomination (Church of God in Christ) and join another (Unitarian). I don’t want to go down the path of whether Hell exists, but I see Rev. Pearson’s story much like Paul’s. He recognized that he was traveling down the wrong branches, and at great personal cost, changed his direction.
We are who we are as Christians because of Paul’s conversion and the disciples’ decision to accept him. Paul received their trust slowly over time but he stuck with it. We aren’t always called to travel down branches we understand, but we are blessed by those who travel down the branches God calls us to.