Summary: God fills you with love, and as you mature in Christ, that drives out the fear of eternal damnation, the only real fear worth mentioning.
5th Sunday of Easter
We’ve grown so accustomed to seeing St. Paul as one of the good guys of history, especially of Catholic or Christian history that we might be shocked by today’s reading from the Acts. Paul comes to Jerusalem after a three-year retreat in the Arabian desert. He comes full of enthusiasm for Jesus, the fulfillment of the Old Testament, the Messiah awaited for two millennia, and “they were all scared and couldn’t believe he was a disciple.” Why? Because three years earlier he had been one of the rabbi engineers behind the execution of deacon Stephen, and then had proceeded with murderous intent to haul believers out of their homes and put them in jail. Of course the other disciples were fearful. After Barnabas introduced Paul to the apostles, the others got less afraid, but they still sent him home to Tarsus. He was considered too high-octane for Jerusalem.
In time, of course, Paul became the great evangelist of the Gentile world, and the first systematic theologian of the Church. Saint John, in his first epistle, tells us how to not be afraid. The verse we may all remember is a little later in the letter than what we heard today: “Perfect love drives out fear.” That is a great slogan we should memorize and use when daily trials or politicians scare us. It means that the highest kind of love, agape, when it comes to completion, when it has achieved its end, leaves no room for phobos, for fear. John knew this because he knew love up close and personally. He reclined on the heart of Jesus, who was so full of love that His Sacred Heart overflowed with that agape for humans.
In John’s words today, we hear that love has to show its reality in actions. Jesus is the model for that kind of love, because everything He did was done because He loved us. Jesus lived love; He cured out of love; He taught out of love; He suffered and died out of love; He rose from the grave, enlivened by the Holy Spirit who is love.
Let me suggest that we pay close attention to John when he shares one of the wonderful, almost unbelievable secrets of life in Christ. Sometimes our hearts condemn us for something we said or thought or did a long time ago, but that we have confessed and been forgiven for. That’s not God working in our hearts; that’s the spirit of fear, which comes from the evil one. He operates on our weakened human nature, even after we have been converted to Christ and sacramentally united to Christ. You see, before we sin, he whispers to us, “Oh, that is good. It’s fun; it’s pleasurable. How can it be wrong when it feels so right?” Then, after we sin, he says more loudly, “You screwed up, man/woman. That was awful.” Now if we confess the sin and ask for forgiveness, God forgives us. But evil continues to yell at us if we don’t, “That was so awful it’s unforgivable. Not even God can forgive that.” And we cycle down into despair, just where Satan wants us.
But no sin is too big for God to forgive, except spending the rest of our lives denying God’s power to forgive. So when we have been forgiven and remember the dumb thing we did, we must not doubt Christ’s ability to forgive us. Here’s the secret: when we are forgiven, God forgets what He forgave. The ONLY one in all the universe who remembers is yourself. God fills you with love, and as you mature in Christ, that drives out the fear of eternal damnation, the only real fear worth mentioning.
This takes us to the story St. John shares in today’s Gospel. Jesus is the true vine that our faith grafts us onto, by the grace of God. The Father is a loving vinedresser. Now I grow some grapes on our property. They aren’t good for much except feeding the birds, but I fertilize and prune so that gift continues to come, year after year. It’s quite a bit of work, particularly if it’s your business and you have dozens and dozens of vines. We had a bad freeze last winter. It froze my vines down to the ground. All the wood above was dead. So I got out my pruning equipment and threw a lot of wood away. And the vines came back from the roots. We’ve got peaches, too. The blossoms are really God’s works of art. But if too many are allowed to set fruit, you end up with peaches that are about an inch in diameter and no good for the table. You have to cull the little set fruit down to a handful.