Fifth Sunday in Easter: Words and Deeds

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ACTS 9:26-31; PS 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-321 JN 3:18-24; JN 15:1-8

As we continue through Easter, we move deeper into the risen Christ’s presence in his Church.  This week’s reading have an interesting back-and-forth between words and deeds.

We are moving towards Ordinary Time, toward the time after the Ascension: the life of the Church once Christ has gone to heaven.  How does Christ continue to live in his Church?  We will find, as Easter launches us into Ordinary Time, that Christ dwells in his Church especially through his words.

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Our meditation begins with our reading from John’s First Letter.  It begins with an opposition between words and deeds: “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

I think we are sometimes tempted to read the same opposition into Jesus: we care about his deeds, not his words.  (It is surely clear by now that a central theme of this blog is the importance of Jesus’s words – all the words of Scripture – and not just our meditation on pictures.  A word of Scripture is worth a thousand pictures.)

In fact, the reading goes on to emphasize that though we must love more in action than in words, it is his words that cause us to love.  We “do what pleases God,” he says, when “we obey his commandments.”

“And his is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”

Now, I have taught and meditated on First John for years, and honestly, it’s not clear me what he means by Christ’s commandments.  I’m certain he thinks that the “new commandment” (that’s an idea John gives us in his Gospel) never contradicts the “old commandments,” the Ten Commandments.   Jesus’s command to love as he loved includes – among many other things – never breaking the Old Law.  But whether John wants us to think about the Old Law or only about the New, I don’t know.

In any case, we must obey the commandment to “love one another” and we must “believe in the name.”  It is his words, about himself and about our neighbor, that transform our deeds.  We must let his words be active in us.

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The reading from Acts is remarkable, for Paul/Saul’s most important deeds are his words.  In the reading, he is still notorious for persecuting the Church: “he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him.”

But Paul proves himself to them by words: Barnabas testifies (by words) that “in Damascus Saul had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.”  Then Paul did the same in Jerusalem: “He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him.”

For us, the point is that he has to prove his sincerity to them.  That requires more than words, it requires deeds.  But Paul’s most powerful deeds are his words: his willingness to speak out, to witness to Christ.  It’s “words not deeds,” in the sense that he doesn’ft just say, “trust me,” he shows them they can trust him.  But he shows them through the boldness with which he speaks of Jesus.

And his words, again, are rooted in the word he has heard: Barnabas “described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him.”

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Our Gospel is about the vine and the vinegrower: “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

But how does he prune us?  By his word: “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.”

This is important: the word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.  Consider the commandments: they are important because those words prune our actions, they point out what we don’t see.

This might be what John is talking about in our Epistle: “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything.”

How do we get past our impressions, our feelings, our fallen, misguided, unjust sense of justice, intemperate sense of temperance, imprudent sense of prudence?  God speaks to us, and his word penetrates our darkness.

His word prunes us, reminds us of the power of what is good, shows us the evil of what is bad.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,” he says in our Gospel, “ask for whatever you wish.”  If his words abide in us, they will show us what to wish for, show us the power of prayer.  But we need to cling to those words.  They are powerful, they are the source of good deeds.

Where is Scripture in your daily life? 

eric.m.johnston

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