One of the most powerful influences on society and on an individual is our past. The power of the past is felt by all of us. The positive and negative experiences from our past influence our lives even at this very moment; they make us who we are today.
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles today presents an example of the influence that the past has over us. Saul was a zealous Pharisaic Jew who persecuted the followers of Jesus Christ. He was present when Stephen was stoned to death and became the first martyr for the Faith.
At the time of his conversion to Christianity in 39 A.D., Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, but he never arrived at his destination. Instead, on the road, he had an encounter with the Risen Lord and became aware of the power and the presence of Jesus.
Saul made his way to Jerusalem and wanted desperately to become a follower of Jesus. The reaction of the Christian Community was predictable. They were afraid of him, and believe that he had become a disciple. The power of his past prevailed, “Once an enemy, always an enemy.” There had to be some kind of a trick. Saul was probably trying to infiltrate the young community so that he could destroy it. So the people in the Christian community would not accept him.
He left that Community and went back to Tarsus. What a waste of time and talent. Paul could have been a tremendous apostle to the Gentiles all those years, but it was a case of “Don’t call us – we’ll call you – if you’re lucky! The greatest missionary that the Church has ever known was kept hidden for years!
Eventually, around the year 45, Barnabus went to Tarsus and brought Paul back to Antioch where he was accepted by the community. Our conversions are obviously not as dramatic as Saul’s was, but they are no less real. We want to change – to be a better person – and love Jesus more: but there are those voices of doubt and skepticism which deny us. Some people remember an event from our past and will absolutely not allow us to move- on with our lives. They must constantly remind us of our past failures and sins. The result is that we begin to doubt ourselves. We lose our confidence and self-esteem, we lack the strength to continue the battle, and we fall back into the old patterns and values. We, like Paul, are forced to live with rejection.
A similar reaction is experienced by a new convert to the Faith: He or she wants to share their enthusiasm and joy of newfound Faith, but people give the impression that they could care less. A similar experience is faced by zealous people who work hard for the needs of the parish. They give their time and talent – yet they are criticized by others, and their motives are questioned.
In our Second Reading, Saint John appeals to Christians of every time and every age, and warns us that we must not merely talk about loving one another – as so many do – we must truly begin to do it! In the Gospel today, we are presented with the beautiful description of how our relationship with Jesus Christ must be. Four times in the Gospel today, the Lord tells us, “Live on in My love.”
Jesus describes that relationship in terms of a vine and branches. “I am the vine – you are the branches.” We are called to be so closely united to Jesus that apart from Him we have no life – no purpose – no reason to live. Just as branches are united to a vine enabling the branches to have a source of life, we must be united to Jesus Christ, and to His Church. Apart from Jesus – apart from His Church – we have no life – only darkness and death.
In the Gospel today, Jesus makes it perfectly clear that the purpose of our lives is to grow and prosper through, with, and in Jesus Christ. He makes it clear that the true source of everything we do is union with God! As the branches of the life-giving Vine, we submit ourselves to the expert care of the Pruner – God the Father – who seeks our continued life and growth through the nourishment of the Eucharist!
Only if we allow God to prune away from our lives everything that distracts us from union with Jesus do we become open to receiving the fullness of life that Jesus wants to give us. Then we will truly “Live in His love!”