Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

Sunday Scripture

First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31; Response: Psalm 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32; Second Reading: 1 John 3:18-24; Gospel: John 15:1-8

Saul – also known as Paul – arrives in Jerusalem. He “tried to join the disciples,

but they were all afraid of him.” Their fear is quite understandable. The previous section of the Acts of the Apostles describes Saul’s persecution of the first Christians. Saul was present when Stephen was martyred – and Saul consented to this violence (Acts 7:58 – 8:1). Saul was devout in his Jewish faith. He was deeply offended that some of his fellow Jews were accepting Jesus as the Messiah. So Saul imprisoned many of them. He was traveling to Damascus for this purpose when he was confronted by Jesus in a vision that converted Saul – mind and heart.

In today’s reading, Barnabas reassures the Christians in Jerusalem that Saul’s conversion is authentic. Barnabas tells them of Saul’s encounter with the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus, and how afterward Saul “had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus” in Damascus. After the Jerusalem Christian community accepts him, Saul continues to speak out boldly for Christ. When Saul’s life is threatened because of his boldness in public debate, his fellow Christians send him to Caesarea Maritima – an important port city northwest of Jerusalem. Saul continues from there to Tarsus – likely by sea.

Many years later – after Saul’s missionary travels – he is arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 21). After this, Saul is again taken to Caesarea (Acts 23) – but this time in Roman imprisonment. Caesarea had a vibrant Christian community for centuries. The great historian Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea is well-known. The theologian Origen also spent many years in Caesarea – where he founded an important Christian school and library.

The final verse of today’s reading gives distinct phrases to describe the early Christian church – “at peace,” “being built up,” “walked in the fear of the Lord” and “with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.” These describe a growing community possessing a strong faith to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

Next, from the first letter of John, is a powerful exhortation to live the gospel of Christ by loving “in deed and truth.” This theme is developed a few verses later: “And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.” This first Letter of John frequently emphasizes Christ’s commandment of love. The Gospel of John similarly says: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:10-12). Such thematic similarities are one reason that the Letters of John and the Gospel of John are closely associated with each other.

The middle verses of this reading (1 John 3) concern “how we shall know that we belong to the truth” (3:19). The way we know this is that we love “in deed and truth” (3:18). The letter writer gives us the test of discerning “what our hearts condemn,” and “if our hearts do not condemn us.” That is, Christians need to have well-formed consciences to rightly discern what “love” means – in practical action – for those seeking to live Christ’s Gospel. If we do, we can say with John, “We have confidence in God.” So also we may have confidence that we will “receive from him [God] whatever we ask.” A well-formed conscience also helps ensure that we are approaching God rightly in prayer – asking for good and just things from our heavenly Father. If we love justly, then we will also desire just things. 

We Christians are called to form a loving community in which we model the love of Christ in our daily lives. This is a sure sign of the presence of Christ Jesus – and of the Holy Spirit which “he gave us” (3:24).

In today’s Gospel (John 15), Jesus says of himself “I am the true vine.” Further, he says: “and my Father is the vine grower.” The action of the Father is described first: he “takes away” branches that don’t bear fruit, and the Father “prunes” fruitful branches so that they might bear “more fruit.” The separated branches are dead without the life that comes from Christ the vine. Jesus describes his disciples as “pruned branches” – who have been pruned “because of the word that I spoke to you.”

This teaching of Jesus occurs within “the Last Discourse” which is a long teaching section – John 13 to John 17 – in which Jesus prepares them for his departure in his crucifixion. But first, Jesus washes their feet and shares a “Last Supper” with them (John 13).

With this context, Christ’s “word that I spoke to you” (John 15:3) includes his command: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (13:34; cf. 15:12). With Jesus’ eyes on his approaching crucifixion, he is calling his disciples to love with the same self-sacrificial love that he demonstrates on the cross. This makes sense of Jesus’ words to the disciples, “You are already pruned.” Why are they already pruned? “Because of the word that I spoke to you.” That is: Christ’s word that they should love one another as he loves them in his crucifixion.

After describing the “pruning” action of the Father, Jesus says “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” To remain in Jesus is to bear fruit. Since Jesus is the “true vine,” he is the source of life for all who are his disciples – those who receive new life from his death and resurrection. We are the branches, and he is the vine from which we receive life. This imagery explains what it means to “remain” in Jesus. If we belong to Jesus in this way, our prayers will be granted by God – “ask ... and it will be done for you” (15:7). Jesus emphasizes that his disciples give glory to God the Father when they “bear much fruit” because of their belonging to him.