Surprising as it may be to you, the Church has never been free of controversy! Our First Lesson today from the Acts of the Apostles (15:1-6) sets up the first big hurdle the early Church had to overcome. It was, of course, the question of admitting Gentiles into the Christian fellowship without their having to become Jews first!
Peter was a bit slow in coming to that conviction. It took a vision from heaven to get his attention on the matter. St. Paul, on the other hand, had always believed (or rather, since his own conversion had believed) that Gentiles had been made fellow heirs with the Jews in relation to God. In fact, he “adapts” the branch and vine image that Jesus uses in today’s Gospel (John 15) to make his position clear to the Church in Rome:
“Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” he writes in his Letter to the Romans, “Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead…if the root is holy then the branches also are holy.”
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root than supports you.” (Romans 11)
When I was in the Holy Land in March with the Presiding Bishop, we prayed – with representatives of the diocese – on the Mount of Olives on Maundy Thursday evening. The tradition is that the roots of some of the olive trees there go back to the time of Jesus. Certainly, they are very ancient. And some of them look almost misshapen because the trunk and roots are so large and the upper branches are quite small because some of them have been grafted on to replace old branches perhaps damaged by cold weather over the years.
…Remember, Paul says to the boastful Roman Gentiles, it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you! You see, by the time Paul wrote to the Romans, Gentiles had come full circle. After being marginalized in the first decade of the Church’s life and then accepted, now they were on the verge of marginalizing their Jewish forebears. But Paul won’t let them get away with that!
It’s a sad part of human nature that too often the oppressed become the oppressor. Some of us think that’s part of what’s going on in the Holy Land right now! When the world turns and those on the bottom find themselves on top, it takes a Christ-like attitude to avoid retaliation and vengeance. Let us pray that such persons may always be guided by Jesus’ words in our Gospel today:
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…My Father in glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples,” (John 15:4-5,8).
May we always bear such Christ-like fruit in our lives – and be neither the oppressed nor the oppressor!