Reflections on the Readings
Fifth Sunday of Easter - May 6, 2012 - Year B
By Dennis S. Hankins
Saul of Tarsus - A True Branch in the Vine
And when he had come to Jerusalem he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. - Acts 9:26
It's been my privilege to lead a mini-retreat of catechumens and candidates on Holy Saturday the last two years. Catechumens are those who need baptism and religious instruction while candidates are already validly baptized but also need additional faith formation. Candidates come from another Christian faith tradition and desire to unite with the Church in a fuller way, however, both groups testify to being led providentially to this moment in their lives. Most revealing to me as I've led these Holy Saturday retreats is the truth that grace is a gift. And I have seen that gift become the personal possession of several Catholic converts these past two years.
The candidates uniting with the Catholic Church are very much like the branches Jesus describes as bearing fruit but are in need of pruning so they may bear more fruit. A deeper teaching of the faith is the word that prunes. The catechumens are new branches in the Church who will bear much fruit as they remain united to Christ and his Church. That image of our relationship with Christ in his Church reminds us what Christian life and fruitfulness is: Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. The Father calls all of us to grow in grace and love and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Saul of Tarsus is a notable convert to the Church. Are all conversions as dramatic as his? Of course not. But all converts to the faith have rich stories to tell. They are stories that especially should be told to family and friends. I recommend that such testimonies be written out and shared with the kids and grand kids and others as the opportunity arises. Saul's story is initially told in Acts chapter 9. And he retold it time and again as he labored to make Christ known.
Evangelism happens when we live for Christ and in his love; this is the compelling need of our time as it was in Paul's. Like Paul, we must live our faith and tell our story. It just might mean someone makes it to heaven because of you and the love of Christ you share with him or her.
Before his conversion, Saul persecuted the Church in a virulent way. Acts 9 describes him 'breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.' Saul's resume reads like a who's who: Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, and as to zeal a persecutor of the Church. (see Phil. 3:4-11) He began his career as a persecutor on the day Stephen the Deacon is martyred. Saul watches this scene with approval as the witnesses lay down their garments at his feet. As the stones fly through the air to their appointed target, Saul watches with self congratulatory righteousness.
Terror continued against the Church in Jerusalem. And it was led principally by Saul. Ravaging the Church, Saul goes from house to house and drags off men and women and throws them into prison. (Acts 8:3) And on his way to Damascus with authority to arrest any followers of Christ, he meets Jesus. A light from heaven penetrates the darkness in him. His evil intentions are revealed as a voice says to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And he said, "Who are you Lord?" And the Lord said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." (Acts 9:1-5)
That's a conversation Saul never forgot. Through the intervention of Ananias, Saul regains his sight and is baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit. He remains several days in Damascus with the disciples affirming that Jesus is the Son of God. And many are amazed asking, "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called on this name?" (Acts 9:19-22)
It's about three years before he attempts to present himself to the brethren in Jerusalem. Saul embraces a contemplative life as the Spirit continues to mold him into a new man. During this time he does not confer with flesh and blood, but relies on the Spirit of truth to lead him into the mystery of Christ and his Church. (Galatians 1:13-24)
The memory he created and the wounds he inflicted are still fresh and vivid in the Jerusalem Church. They quite frankly are afraid of him and don't believe that he is a disciple. Barnabas, the Son of encouragement, intervenes and personally recommends Saul to the Jerusalem Church.
Looking back we know Paul as a fervent and tireless missionary of the Church. He is the author of thirteen books of the New Testament. It is the apostle Paul who eloquently tells us that if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is passed away; behold, all things are new.( 2 Cor. 5:17) No one knows this better than Paul. "I have been crucified with Christ," Paul says. He continues, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20)
So deeply did Paul commune with Christ that he speaks of bearing in his body the marks of Jesus. (Galatians 6:17) He also freely speaks of beatings and the hardships he endures for the cause of Christ and his Church. Dangers from his own people, from Gentiles, and from false brethren become badges of his apostleship. Hunger, cold, thirst, and many nights without sleep are all ways Paul suffered for Christ and for his Church.
Obliquely Paul refers to himself when he speaks of knowing a man in Christ caught up into Paradise. Whether he was in the body or out, he does not know. Hearing words too sacred to repeat he says, "And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me. Three times I sought the Lord about this and asked that it would leave me." But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." It was the same voice he heard on the road to Damascus many years ago. (2 Cor. 12:1-10)
Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, proved himself a true and fruitful branch in the Vine. May it be so of every one who names the name of Christ. Amen.
Dennis Hankins is a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, of the Diocese of Knoxville, TN. Prior to his uniting with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 2006, Dennis served as a priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org His website is: www.dennishankins.com