Acts 9: 26-31; John 15: 1-8
If you know anything about Paul’s conversion story from Acts, of which we catch the tail end today, it’s that he was the number one threat to the followers of the Way, which was the name used before Christian. He was enemy number one and a threat to their way of life. Not only that, but just prior to his conversion he was responsible for the death of one of the most beloved of the Way, Stephen, who was stoned to death and then on Paul’s travels has this radical transformation.
It should be no surprise then when he shows up in Jerusalem today they’re very skeptical and fearful of him. He still looks like the Paul who was responsible for the death of many followers and early disciples and now wants to be one of the group after believed to have gone through this conversion experience. Just think if we were in that situation, knowing all that Paul was capable of, we too would be fearful and skeptical. He could have been trying to infiltrate the group in order to blow them up from within or to dismantle them at his own doing. It will be, though, only as they lock arms with one another, walking through the streets of Jerusalem, will there finally be a public affirmation for who Paul had become as fellow follower and disciple.
Ironically, for the man who had become blind through this experience of radical transformation, Paul’s blindness in turn reveals the blindness of the followers of the Way and their own fearfulness and judgment. This experience of Paul is not a one-time deal, but a call that the disciples will have to continually embrace, this call to conversion and radical transformation. In some sense, Paul stands as the change of tide for this community for he was not an original and did not have the first-hand account of Jesus as people like Peter did and so it often created conflict as to how they understood the faith. One thing, though, that linked them, despite their differences, was when there were difficulties, the community would pull them and draw them back into their source of life, to remain, abide, to stay with the Lord, as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel.
This is not to say that they all lived happily ever after. It is well known that Paul was somewhat of a hellion! Again, his lived experience was very different from the original disciples and so there were often misunderstandings within the community. It makes you wonder that when we hear at the end of the reading today that he’s shipped off to Tarsus as if it wasn’t intentional! Paul, though, understood, as we know from his writings, of that necessity of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John about where it is he receives life. He no longer has to look at the world through the eyes of fear, narrowness, violence, or even death, but through the eyes of his own lived experience of Christ crucified. He has to keep returning to the vine for the true life and he knows that no matter how difficult it may become or the many obstacles they will face as a community, they will be seen through when the keep returning and abiding and being nurtured by what and who gives them life.
I don’t know the exact account but that message of return, abide, and stay with is quite dominant in these chapters of John’s Gospel. It’s almost as if Jesus knew he’d have to say it in a thousand different ways and days in order for it to begin to sink into the minds and hearts of the disciples that despite the hostility of the world that they are going to experience first-hand, there is still a greater life that you pursue in becoming his disciples. Over and over again, like in Acts, they will be called to critique their own calling and what it is that is going to need to be surrendered and let go of, whether it’s fear creeping in or their judgments towards people like Paul or the world for that matter. It’s so easy to become part of the problem by our own unease of the unknown and to give into fear, choosing fear over faith and love. Over the course of their lives it will continue to be revealed to them what it means to be a disciple. What it means today will be very different for them when that community begins to form but no matter what, they will return in order to be fed, nurtured, and to be given life. They will become disciples and will be a presence of love to a hostile world.
Paul’s story as well as the disciples is very much our own story of becoming disciples. It’s always changing, evolving, and being called to radical transformation ourselves. However, at times we still cling to vines that no longer feed yet still disguise themselves as life. We cling to our own fears, judgments, and even violence, rather than allowing our own blindness, like Paul, to be revealed to and through us in order to move us to a deeper sense of discipleship. In a world that so often is torn by violence and division, driven by politics and individual agendas and ideologies, we must stand together with locked arms, like the followers of the Way, in order to bring about transformation to a hurting world. We may never change the institutional structures in which we live and operate, but we can be witnesses to a changed heart, a free heart, that models not violence and fear but rather faith and love. It is in that way that we continue to become his disciples.