Home » Gospel Encouragement – Sunday 2nd May 2021 – 5th Sunday of Easter

Gospel Encouragement – Sunday 2nd May 2021 – 5th Sunday of Easter

Dear sisters and brothers,

As I read today’s readings two images struck me, one more obvious than the other.  Both are linked by our second reading:  Jesus’ command to love.

The first image was of St Stephen handing on his ministry to St Paul, or Saul as he is still known in today’s first reading: his name change hasn’t happened as yet.  This handing on isn’t in the Scriptures directly, but somehow the thought of it captured my imagination.  You probably remember that Stephen was the first Christian martyr.  He and six others had been appointed by the apostles to minister to the Greek speaking Jews who had become Christian – these were Jews who had moved back to Jerusalem from all over the Roman empire, possibly after being away for generations, some of whom had now become Christian.  As part of his work with them, Stephen had inevitably got drawn into dialogue with those Greek speaking Jews who hadn’t converted.  These had eventually called for his condemnation.  At his trial he famously proclaimed the Gospel message fearlessly, and this in turn led to him being stoned to death for his faith.  As he was stoned, those stoning him laid their cloaks at the feet of Saul.  In English phraseology we talk about passing on the mantle to the person who will succeed us, as Elijah did to Elisha in the Old Testament, and this laying of the cloaks at Saul’s feet made me think that maybe that’s what was happening here.  St Stephen – the great witness, preacher and first martyr – was passing on his mantle to Saul, who did not know as yet that this was what was happening.

However, very soon he would.  As Stephen had, at his trial had, “gazed into heaven” and seen “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand” (Acts 7: 55) so very soon Saul will have a very similar vision on the road to Damascus that leads to his conversion to Christ.  And when he returns to Jerusalem what does he do.  As we hear in today’s first reading, he dialogues with the Greek speaking Jews and they, once again, seek their opponent’s condemnation.  The church seems to have learnt from Stephen’s experience, and rather than allowing Saul to be tried, they remove him from the city.  Where Stephen had been silenced, Saul’s voice, as Paul, will resonate across the known world and down through the ages to us today, carrying that same message that Stephen had proclaimed so clearly, but for too short a time.  Knowingly or unknowingly, Saul took up Stephen’s mantle.

The second image that jumps out at us more obviously today is that of the vine.  God, in the writings of the Old Testament, had referred to Israel as a vine for centuries.  They were like this single plant, rooted in God, planted and tended to by him, in order to spread out and bear great quantities of delicious fruit.   However, to bear such fruit pruning is essential and Israel had, by not listening to God’s commands, failed to allow him to prune her, so that now her fruit has become acidic.  Jesus has come, as God made man, the vinedresser physically present in the world, to enable that pruning to happen by providing very clear teaching in word and in witness, in his teaching to love and forgive and by modelling it on the Cross.  And he states that to follow him is to choose to be pruned, to choose to bear delicious fruit again.

St Paul realises this in his conversion.  He turns from being acidic, from persecuting those who are choosing to make Jesus’ message of love the priority of their lives, to being as Stephen had been before him, a great witness, preacher and martyr for the love of God and the reality of his kingdom of love in the here and now.  He owns the truth that St John shares in today’s second reading: God’s “commandments are these: that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and that we love one another as he told us to”, acknowledging that “our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active.”

We are part of the vine pruned by Jesus.  As part of that vine, we are commanded to believe in Jesus and to really and actively love one another. And our fruitfulness is made evident as we take up the mantle of St Stephen, the mantle of St Paul, and ultimately the mantle of Jesus, to be great witnesses, preachers and martyrs for the love of God and the proclamation of his kingdom of love.

Let’s pray that we don’t just hear these words, but that we choose to actively model our lives on these great witnesses.  As St John encourages us, may we “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” with ever greater conviction and may we “love one another as he told us to”, growing in forgiveness, understanding of others and generosity of spirit, and may our “love not be just words or mere talk, but something real and active”.

St Stephen: Pray for us

St Paul: Pray for us

With every blessing,

Simon