Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers.
When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, "It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses." So the apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter.
Jesus said to his disciples; "I am the true vine, and my Father is 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. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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 and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."
Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (Luke 2). So were Peter, Andrew, James, John and Paul and indeed all boys from Jewish religious families, as a sign of submission to the Mosaic law. Then Paul came forward with a new idea about the practice of circumcision. True, spiritual circumcision, he maintained, is of the heart, where bonds of love and loyalty bind the people to their God. And Jesus belongs at the heart of this relationship. So to be baptised into Jesus is to be spiritually circumcised, bound in covenant to God.
He tells us, "I am the vine, you are the branches." But the question about circumcision was a very divisive one, early in the church's history. They hotly debated whether it should be required of all male converts to faith in Christ? And if female, were they required to undergo the ceremonial bath and to follow the strict dietary laws? Paul's theology triumphed, that Jesus had brought the Old Law to its final fulfilment, and because of his birth, death and resurrection, it was no longer necessary to first become a Jew in order to become a Christian. The impact of this question upon early Christianity and its relation with Judaism has a continuing resonance for our church and its decisions today. Things long held immutable can and sometimes must change.
We and our leaders are challenged by the Spirit of Jesus to have the courage for necessary changes, to open the Gospel to today's world. Just as the early church could reach beyond the actual practice of Jesus and no longer demand circumcision, our church may be asked today to leave behind some ideas that now separate us from many thoughtful, ethically-aware people of today and to make brave decisions for social justice and for the future of our planet? Surely this was the vision of Vatican II, for the pilgrim people of God. If our leaders openly discuss such matters with the active and concerned laity, the resultant decisions can be trusted as divinely guided just as was the decision to abandon circumcision. If we live deeply in God, there will be divine direction in our life.
Those who have roses will know that they need to be pruned if you are to get the best out of them. What is true of roses is true of most plants; pruning brings on new life. Jesus refers to that procedure of pruning in this morning's gospel. He suggests that in various ways God prunes our lives to make them even more fruitful than they presently are. There are some things we may need to shed if we are to become all that God is calling us to be. Some experiences of letting go, which can be very painful at the time, can help us to grow in our relationship with God and with others. Yet, during those painful experiences of pruning in our lives, the Lord is in communion with us. In the words of the gospel, he makes his home in us, he remains in us. We don't have to face into that experience of being pruned on our own, or in the strength of our own resources alone. The Lord who makes his home in us will sustain us in those times, and will lead us through the painful experience of pruning into a new and more fruitful life. However, for that to happen we need to remain in him as he remains in us; we need to keep in communion with him, as he is in communion with us.