Conversion is in the air and not merely that of the sinner, but the community to which the sinner desires to return. Saul, AKA Paul, had a past with which he had to live, and live he did. The early Christian Community had its history as well; they had been persecuted as it tried to live and spread the Good News. Paul needs help to become one of the “boys”.
The past four Sunday’s we have been listening to the preachings of Peter. In today’s First Reading, we hear of his partner Paul. The verses which precede our reading relate the event of his conversion, his being knocked off his high horse. When he comes to and realizes that he has been met by Jesus, he changes from persecutor to proclaimer. His being knocked down and raised up allows him to have a future which does not negate his past, but allows him to live with it peacefully. Paul is a good example of just how to live gratefully with the present we do not resent or continue harkening to the past which brought us to this present.
What we hear today is his having been preaching in the area of Damascus and threatened himself for doing so. He moves to Jerusalem and asks for admittance into the circle of the Disciples. They, of course, had heard of Saul, but not that he had been renamed and reframed. With a little help from his friend, Barnabas, the circle is widened and eventually”grew in numbers” through his living and preaching.
In the first chapter of this “Discourse” Peter, who did not want his feet washed, was told that he would do nothing separated or apart from Jesus unless his feet be washed. This theme is picked up again as Jesus reminds them all to stay or remain in him by bearing fruit, or they will be cut off and burned up.
Jesus asks his disciples to “remain” which is different from “stay stuck”. Jesus is preparing them for their going out as he himself moves on. What does “remain” mean then for Jesus and his little cluster? What does “bearing fruit” mean and what does being separate mean?
In our American “culture” there is an increasing urgency to belong while remaining independent, which is quite a conflict. There is also a personal hunger to discover one’s depth, one’s singular personality. “Character” is a word which has come to mean more than a person in a play or movie. The term has something to do with strength, personal values and dedication. Accomplishments can reveal character, but there is also the danger of a “Pseudo-character” when one’s deeds become a cover-up for emptiness.
Being baptized into Jesus is not a single event, but a process of entering his “character”. He is asking his disciples to be so influenced by the relationship he offers that they will go out and do “something” which will reveal him by what they do and especially how they do it.
I have noticed over the years, a quality of “character” which is a blessing to me. I experience it most often with those persons who work or live among the marginal, injured and poor of this world. They “remain” well. Remain themselves; actually receive more of themselves by their being touched by those they touch. They seem to separate themselves from “accomplishing” themselves. They touch into the Jesus who remains deeply within them rather than finding their identity from polishing the fruit, they are producing.
These disciples separate themselves from “doing” and remain peaceful in their “being” or “remaining” in the Jesus who remains deeply inside them.
I am privileged to be close friends with three Religious women who work with the Aboriginal children who attend their schools and drop-in centre in Winnipeg, Canada. I am invited also to walk, in Spiritual Direction, with my Jesuit brothers as they “remain” with Jesus at the Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I live with men who work in the inner city of Omaha; one directs the Jesuit Middle School for African/American boys, one is the founder of Gesu Housing which is dedicated to building concrete houses for low income families in our neighborhood. Every morning they go off, but “remain” as they bear fruit. They “remain” faithful while all kinds of things happen that would make one wonder if Jesus had given up and left town.
These women and men “remain” in Jesus while the culturally conditioned illusions are pruned from their hearts and spirits. “Success”, "accomplishments”, “trophies”, and the various self-validating acquisitions drop slowly away. This “pruning” seems to deepen them in their “remaining” in Jesus and freeing Jesus to “remain” in them. So it seems that this “pruning” is part of the love which Jesus offers those I experience as having depth of soul, who grow in “character”. Naturally speaking, we do not like the thought or experience of being so pruned, but the church and the needy profit from their resulting fruitful lives.
This spiritual deepening which I refer to, as “character” is the growth Jesus offers those who are touched by the poor, the sick, and those Jesus called his Sisters and Brothers. God is not a bad “vine dresser” after all.
“I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.” Ps. 22
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