In the first reading, we read of the radical conversion of St Paul from being a persecutor of the Church to proclaimer of the gospel. Immediately after his conversion, he continued to preach at Damascus until his life was at risk because the Jews threatened to kill him. Hence, his followers sought to save him by sending him to Jerusalem for safety. But one cannot keep someone who has encountered Christ so radically from speaking about his conversion experience. So St Paul, being the passionate person that he was, “started to go round with them in Jerusalem, preaching fearlessly in the name of the Lord.” Again, after his debate with the Hellenists, “they became determined to kill him.”
The most visible sign that we have a real conversion experience is when there is a radical change of life, from one without faith or lacking in faith to one of deep faith; from one of lukewarm faith to one of zealous faith. Indeed, evangelical zeal is the sign of one having encountered the Lord because when we have encountered the Good News in person, we cannot keep it to ourselves. The joy and newfound life in us will naturally flow out of us to others. When we are liberated and joyful and full of love, we want to reach out to others. The lack of evangelical witness simply means that our faith in Christ is at most an intellectual faith, but we have no real relationship with the Lord.
How, then, do we witness to the Lord? Firstly, we must have an utter conviction of Jesus as Lord. St John wrote, “His 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.” To believe in the name of His Son means that we know who Jesus is, that He is the Son of the Father, truly God and truly man. It is to accept all that Jesus has taught us, and to declare Him to be the Lord. As St Peter declared, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” We are called to proclaim the name of Jesus as our Lord and savior.
Secondly, we are called to love one another. Christian love for the Lord must be concretely manifested in our love for our fellowmen. To recognize that Jesus is Lord is to share in His passion for the salvation of our fellowmen. Like Him too, we must recognize everyone as our brothers and sisters. The letter to the Hebrews says, “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” (Heb 2:11) That is why St John reminds us, “My children, our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active; only by this can we be certain that we are the children of the truth.” With the love that He has given to us, we are called to share that love with others.
Thirdly, to be His witness means that we are called to bear the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus said, “It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit, and then you will be my disciples.” These fruits are not just the fruits of evangelization and charity, but it is the way we live out our lives in the way we conduct ourselves in our relationship with God and our fellowmen. It is a call to live the life of the Spirit of Jesus in our very being. St Paul speaks of these fruits in his letter to the Galatians. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:22 cf 2 Pt 1:5-8)
So how can we bear fruits in our Christian life and discipleship? Firstly, the gospel makes it clear that we must be one with the vine. “As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.” Christians, to be fruitful, must be in communion with the Lord who is the vine as we are His branches. When the branches are connected with the vine, we will share in His Spirit and through and in Christ, He will bear fruits in us.
To be in communion with the Lord means that we make ourselves the dwelling place of God. Jesus said, “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.” This is possible only when we are reading and praying the scriptures. Jesus said earlier on, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn 14:23) Being in contact with the Word of God is where we are guided to walk in the Spirit. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16f)
In a special way, to be in communion with the Lord we must celebrate the Eucharist and receive Him in Holy Communion. Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (Jn 6:56f) Being in communion with the Lord through the Eucharist enables us to live in Him and Him in us.
However, the Eucharist also speaks of our communion with the Body of Christ. Jesus is not just the vine but the branches as well. We form the body of Christ with Jesus as our head. By celebrating the Eucharist together, we affirm our oneness with Christ and with each other. It is important therefore that we gather as God’s family round the table of the Word and the bread of life so that we can strengthen our bond with the Lord and with each other. The Eucharist is the antidote to individualism and isolation.
This communion with each other is expressed in fraternal support and love for each other. Alone, the journey of faith is very difficult but we are not called to be alone. We are called to be in the body of Christ so that we can be supported by the Christian community. That was how the early Christians supported St Paul when he was converted. Without their support and encouragement, St Paul would never have made it on his own. Even if he tried, he would have been killed by his enemies. But there were good Christians like Barnabas who connected him with the community and introduced him to the rest so that they could give him the support. When “they were all afraid of him: they could not believe he was really a disciple. Barnabas, however, took charge of him, introduced him to the apostles.”
We too must give support to each other in our faith. Like Barnabas, the best way to introduce someone to Jesus is to introduce him or her to someone who has a deep faith in the Lord expressed in his or her life of charity and goodness. The reason why many of us do not have a deep faith in Christ and remain nominal Catholics is because we are alienated, without any spiritual and fraternal support. We must help each other to immerse in Christian fellowship so that we can be edified and supported by the faith of others.
Finally, to bear fruits, we must continually be pruned by the Lord. Jesus said to His disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that bears no fruit he cuts away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to make it bear even more. You are pruned already, by means of the word that I have spoken to you.” Faith is an ongoing journey, just as in human relationship. It takes years to be purified in love and understanding. So too in our relationship with God. Through the Word of God, through the Christian community, through service and the trials of the apostolate, we will be more and more purified in loving God and our fellowmen more sincerely, unconditionally and freely. If we do that, then we will be more and more fruitful each day, for this is the promise of the Lord, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask what you will and you shall get it.”
That is why, if we have walked this way of the Spirit, we should be at peace with ourselves. “Only by this can we be certain that we are the children of the truth and be able to quieten our conscience in his presence, whatever accusations it may raise against us, because God is greater than our conscience and he knows everything.” Having done all we could, we must surrender everything to the Lord. It is God who is our judge in the end. And we know that God will judge us mercifully because He understands how much we struggle to be faithful to Him in spite of our inadequacies and human frailties. When we are true to ourselves as much as we can, and true to God, then St John assures us, “if we cannot be condemned by our own conscience, we need not be afraid in God’s presence,” So let us commend all our efforts of evangelization and service to God and not be too scrupulous and condemn ourselves for not doing more. ”
Nevertheless, there is a warning for those who are complacent in their faith. Jesus said, “Anyone who does not remain in me is like a branch that has been thrown away – he withers; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire, and they are burnt.” When we do not live the life of the Spirit, when we do not connect ourselves with the Lord, we will wither and dry up in our faith as in any relationship that is not nurtured and kept alive. Left to ourselves, we become ignorant and anxious. We will destroy our peace and happiness. But when we give Jesus to others, by sharing our faith and our life, we too will grow in union with Jesus and with others. So let us follow the early Christians by building ourselves up, “living in the fear of the Lord, and filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.”