May 1, 2015

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

Apse mosaic, Basilica of San Clemente,
Rome, c 1200
(Click here for today’s readings)

A couple of weeks ago we used the image of witnesses and concluded that we need to become “expert,” i.e. experienced, witnesses whose credibility is based on a genuine relationship with the Risen Lord.

In today’s first reading we have Saul, recently returned to Jerusalem from his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, ready and eager to get out there and witness, to “speak out boldly.” And he does so, after finally gaining the trust of the other Jerusalem Christians. Then the former persecutor becomes the one persecuted, and the Christians spirit him away to his home town of Tarsus.

What is wrong with this picture? Isn’t the witness supposed to stay and die for the faith? Running away doesn’t seem to fit.

Actually it does. It’s called “witness protection.” Even before this, Saul had to escape from Damascus by being let down in a basket through a window in the city walls!

This shouldn’t have to be, of course. We see the ideal situation described at the very end of the same first reading: “The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.” But that lasted only for a while. When persecutions came, most Christians fled, bringing the Gospel with them and witnessing in other places.

In more recent times, this happened with many religious orders. In the late 1800’s, for example, both Prussia and France enacted laws making it impossible for religious to carry on their work. Many religious left their homeland in voluntary exile, and soon found their religious orders growing by leaps and bounds in other countries.

Ultimately what matters most is being united with the Lord, or as the Gospel of John puts it several times, “remaining” in him, being joined to him as intimately as branches are joined to the vine. A nice comforting image, offering the “reassurance” and “confidence” mentioned in the second reading. But then comes the pruning.

Because it involves cutting away, we naturally interpret pruning in terms of loss, a taking away of something, whether viewed as superficial or considered essential to our well-being. Hopes dashed. Dreams shattered. Health lost. Broken relationships. All this might make us think again of the challenges and dangers involved in witnessing to Christ. Thus Saul’s being sent to Tarsus could be a kind of pruning away of whatever early ambition he might have had, allowing him time to mature in his faith and produce the abundant fruit we find in his many Letters.

A branch on an actual grapevine says nothing when it is pruned. But when we, as branches on the vine of Christ, are pruned, we say, “Ouch!” We might disagree with the vine grower, questioning his expertise. In the long run, however, is in the branch’s best interest to bear all the fruit it can.

In the Basilica of St. Clement in Rome there is a fascinating mosaic of a vine growing from the base of the Cross of the crucified Christ. There are fifty branches, each bearing fruit; the fruit is not the same in every case, but is richly varied. This reminds us that each of us is called to produce fruit in a unique manner, according to our own skills and interests. But remember that, as in Saul’s case, and in the case of all the faithful witnesses over the ages, the fruit isn’t meant for us alone; it is for the Church, the community of believers, and might even spill over to the rest of the world.

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