Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 9:26-31; Psalm 21(22):26-28, 30-32; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8
2 May 2021
The lessons in today’s scripture readings are clear, and all the clearer when divisions in the church community are bubbling up. Despite our differences, we are diverse branches on the one vine, able to bear an abundant array of fruit if only we stay on the vine and keep producing fruit. We all need to be pruned. We all need to tolerate difference and to encourage each other across divisions.
In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear Luke’s version both of Saul’s relationship with the apostles in Jerusalem and the nature of Saul’s mission proclaiming the Gospel. Luke leaves us with the impression that Saul went to Jerusalem not too long after his conversion experience in Damascus. Having been converted, Saul preached with great ardour and enthusiasm to the Jews of the Diaspora with the result that the Jews decided to kill him. Saul had to be lowered down the town walls in a basket under cover of night, then making his way to Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem, Barnabas vouched for Saul, introducing him to the apostles. Once again, Saul starts preaching with such ardour and enthusiasm that the Diaspora Jews living in Jerusalem also decide to kill him. So the brothers had Saul shipped off to Tarsus where he was able to set about his distinctive mission with a style very different from that of the apostles in Jerusalem. Luke rounds out this account with the observation, “The churches throughout Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were now left in peace, building themselves up”. At the very least, you would have to say this is a very simplistic romantic recollection of Luke.
For his part, Paul claimed that he went off to Arabia straight after his conversion in Damascus, most probably for at least three years, and that when he came to Jerusalem, he did not seek out the apostles and the local church community. As a first time convert, he stayed only 15 days, meeting only with Cephas and setting eyes on only one other apostle James. Paul was adamant that he owed nothing or little to the Jerusalem church and its leaders. His main contact with them came much later in his mission when he came bearing gifts for the poor Church in Jerusalem. Paul saw himself as the one who helped the Jerusalem church rather than vice versa.
Whose account is right? Is Luke’s account in Acts right or wrong? Is Paul’s account in his letter to the Galatians more accurate or less? It doesn’t much matter. There are always differences in the life of the Church, and there are always differences of recollection in any community. What’s important is that the diverse branches bearing abundant fruit be part of the one vine. And every branch needs to be pruned.
During the week, our own rehabilitated and rejuvenated Australian Cardinal George Pell has been taking on the German hierarchy who are overseeing what Pell sees as an ominous situation in the German Church. Cardinal Pell told a TV audience, “I think that there is a percentage of the German Church that seems to be resolutely heading in the wrong direction. By that, I mean it is quite clear that a liberalised Christianity, whether it is a liberalised Catholicism or Protestantism, in a generation or so merges into agnosticism. … If you adopt the policies of the world and just go along so that they approve, nobody is going to be interested in that.” This is more a sociological view than a theological view. Cardinal Pell may be right. He may be quite wrong. The German bishops may be displaying pastoral good sense which can be appreciated best by those who are German and those living in the German Church. What’s important is that the German bishops maintain their connection to the vine, and that Cardinal Pell do the same, though they be different branches, producing diverse fruits. It’s also important that they each be pruned constantly by the Father who is the vinedresser.
Closer to home, there’s been a big barney developing this past week over diverse Church responses to the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 introduced into the New South Wales Parliament by Mark Latham, the NSW State Leader of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. The Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher OP and many state-wide Catholic educators have been strong supporters of this private member’s bill which would prohibit the promotion of gender fluidity in schools, including the classroom and teachers’ professional development courses. Mark Latham says this is about “re-establishing the primacy of parents in shaping their children’s development and sense of identity”. Vincent Long OFM Conv, the Bishop of Parramatta, and his educational advisers have come out opposing the Latham Bill. Bishop Long has told the people of his diocese:
“As a Catholic community, we believe that all students – including those who identify as gender diverse – should have the opportunity to reach their potential, to learn with their peers and feel a sense of belonging in their school. The Bill prohibits the schools from affirming and supporting these children who are already at risk of marginalisation. We have to remember that at times the teachers are the only people these children might trust in helping them in these sensitive matters. By banning their discussion, the school community is unable to address unhealthy and discriminatory attitudes that may exist in their learning environment. I emphatically reject the notion of gender ideology. What I advocate for is a compassionate, respectful, inclusive, Gospel-centred learning environment and a deep commitment to the wellbeing of all students, particularly those at risk.”
When coming to new social questions through the eyes of scripture and our Catholic tradition, we should not be surprised, upset or disturbed by a variety of viewpoints, even amongst bishops. Think only of Paul and Cephas. Paul’s approach to evangelisation was counter-productive in Damascus and in Jerusalem. He had to flee for his life. He headed for Tarsus and all points more remote, where he evangelised diverse peoples bearing great fruit, establishing many local churches. Presumably, Archbishop Fisher is supporting the Latham Bill in good faith, having taken advice from competent educators and child psychologists; and presumably Bishop Long is opposing it in good faith, having also taken all relevant competent advice.
In a democracy, there is always room for a genuine difference of opinion. That’s why governments from time to time allow members of parliament to introduce private members’ bills. Most legislation, you would appreciate, is introduced by the government of the day. Parliamentary processes are then in place for debating bills and legislating in the midst of differences. In our Church, we have synodal and hierarchical provision for discerning our responses to novel social and human problems in the light of our faith tradition. Let’s not be too troubled by a diversity of viewpoints in our hierarchy. If our bishops agreed on everything, including the desirable approach to a truly novel social issue, then you would be worried. Whichever way you look at this issue of appropriate educational responses to gender fluidity (on which I profess no expertise whatever), the answer is not so crystal clear that any government of the day is wanting to legislate it on their own initiative. We should not expect an immediate unanimous episcopal viewpoint, even if we are able to predict fairly accurately where particular bishops are likely to land.
Let’s be consoled in the midst of all these contemporary controversies that everyone of us including Cardinal Pell, the German Bishops, Archbishop Fisher and Bishop Long are reminded this Sunday that “our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active” and that “if we cannot be condemned by our conscience, we need not be afraid in God’s presence, and whatever we ask of him, we shall receive, because we keep his commandments and live the kind of life he wants.” (1 John 3:18, 21-22). Like any branch, like any vine, we will be judged by our fruits. As ever, the one who does the real value-added work is our Father, the vinedresser, who delights in diversity, able to produce the finest range of wines.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the P M Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).
 Cardinal George Pell, ‘The duty of the German bishops is to uphold the teachings of Scripture’, Catholic News Agency, 28 April 2021, available at https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/247430/cardinal-pell-the-duty-of-the-german-bishops-is-to-uphold-the-teachings-of-scripture
 Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Pastoral Letter, 27 April 2021 available at https://catholicoutlook.org/bishop-vincents-pastoral-letter-on-the-proposed-parental-rights-bill/