Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching, "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.
I rejoiced when I heard them say:
'Let us go to God's house.'
And now our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem. (R./)
Jerusalem is built as a city
It is there that the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord. (R./)
For Israel's law it is,
there to praise the Lord's name.
There were set the thrones of judgement
of the house of David. (R./)
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 eight days after his birth (Luke 2). So indeed were boys in all Jewish families, as a sign of submission to God’s law. Then Paul proposed his new idea that circumcision was no longer needed. Inner, spiritual circumcision, he maintained, is a matter of the heart, when love and loyalty bind people to God. Jesus is at the heart of this relationship. He is the vine, we are the branches, so to be joined to Jesus is a spiritual circumcision uniting us with God.
Paul’s view won out, on the basis that Jesus had brought the Old Law to completion by his death and resurrection. So people no longer needed circumcision in order to be saved. The impact of this on early Christianity has continued resonance for our church today. Things long held to be immutable can and must change.
We and our leaders really need to make some necessary changes, to open up the Gospel to today’s world. Just as the early church decided to set aside circumcision, so our church needs to leave behind some ideas that now separate us from modern insights, and make brave decisions for social justice and for the future of our planet.
Surely this is the right way forward for the pilgrim people of God. If our leaders openly discuss such matters with the faithful laity, the resultant decisions can be as fruitful as the abandoning of circumcision. If we hold deeply to Jesus, we will have the guidance that we need.
Those who grow roses know how they need to be pruned in order to blossom at their best. What is true of roses is true of most plants; pruning brings on new life. In today’s gospel Jesus mentions pruning. 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.
Experiences of letting go, though painful at the time, can help us to grow, spiritually. They lead us to a new relationship with God and with others. As Jesus says, as branches of his vine he remains in us, and we with him. We don’t have to face 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.