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Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Connection, not Production

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May 2nd, 2021: The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 9: 26-31
Psalm 22: 26-27, 28, 30, 31-32
1 John 3: 18-24
Luke 15: 1-8

Reflection from Ann Penick

One central theme runs through the readings today: followers of Jesus can bear fruit by staying rooted in the Divine Love and being connected to one another.

In the First Reading, Paul returns to Jerusalem for the first time in three years – and a lot has happened! Paul has gone from zealously persecuting the early Church to zealously proclaiming Messiah Jesus and getting into a lot of hot water with local religious authorities for it. No doubt Paul was looking to make a connection with the disciples, but he was shunned. No wonder! They doubted the genuineness of Paul’s conversion. They may have even considered Paul a spy sent by the local religious authorities.

But Barnabas steps forward in faith, bringing Paul to the disciples, explaining how Paul encountered Jesus on the way to Damascus and how he was now preaching there in Jesus’ name. Scholars suggest that, although the disciples accepted and collaborated with Paul, the hurt caused by such persecution might never have fully healed. Paul’s particularly zealous personality and dramatic statements may have made it difficult to connect—as it still does for many of us today! And yet Paul’s connection to the Divine Love through Jesus definitely produced good fruit by establishing many local communities of faith. Paul’s connection to Love was dependent neither on a connection to the established church authorities of the day nor on being perfect – and neither is ours!

The second reading is thought to be a homily written for a community defining itself over and against the world around it. This letter was written in part to clarify the meaning of John’s Gospel for a faith community who made that gospel its central guide to faith and action. This Gospel was pivotal in shaping the identity of a community who felt persecuted by the hostile world around them. They maintained a connection to the Divine Love despite opposition and rejection – and so can any of us, even if we feel that same rejection at times.

The two central themes in the Gospel of John are: Jesus is the Messiah and the revelation of God; and Jesus’ followers must love one another as Jesus loved them – a life-giving, self-outpouring love. The writer of this letter is concerned that this particular faith community is falling away from these truths around which they originally centered their church. In this lack of love, the branches of fruit are dying on the vine and the roots are starting to wither. I feel like this could be said of me on some days. I wonder if it could not be said of any of us at times.

In today’s gospel, Jesus teaches the disciples that some branches produce fruit. These are pruned, cared for, and nurtured. Some branches, though, are not producing fruit. They are removed, thrown away, and burned. I think we have to be careful how we understand this passage. After all, we are a productivity people! Our nation is a productivity nation! Productivity is the basis for our economic system. Productivity is, often, the measure we use to judge our lives and our success. Those who produce are rewarded and get more. Those who do not produce—too bad, so sad. They are thrown out. Careers and promotions are based on productivity. Productivity has been central to the debates about our national response to the coronavirus, not to mention justice issues that include poverty, healthcare, and marginalized groups in our society. People in these situations can be depicted as not producing “enough” for our society, and our care for them, unfortunately, can reflect that.

Have we become convinced that productivity is our goal, and to survive we have to be one of the fittest? If we are not careful, we can read that into our spiritual lives. Is our perception that productive, pruned branches are rewarded while nonproductive branches are punished? If this is true, then God demands that we produce fruit as some form of appeasement. But if we think about this, we can see that this reading is not about production, but about connection. Productivity does not usually create deep abiding presence and/or intimate relationships. Productivity creates business transactions. Jesus is not talking about a business transaction! Jesus invites us to, and offers us, connection, relationship, and intimacy.

Where is my spiritual life right now? Am I living a connected or a disconnected life? We produce good fruit when we stay connected: long-term friendships, solid marriages, kinships, community loyalty, and commitment to others in social justice, equality, and diversity. We may not be able to choose whether or not we produce fruit, but we can choose to stay connected—to our loved ones, our larger community, to Jesus as the source of our loving. It is our roots, our connection, and our growth that matter.

Am I keeping the roots I’ve established healthy? How much am I growing? What fruit comes from these life-giving connections? Are the results (the fruits) of my connections acceptable to me? In answering these questions, don’t answer about the quantity of your life, answer with the quality of your life. Because that is what Jesus is after and the deeper question Jesus asks each of us. It is the invitation to join the conversation, to participate, to become more authentically connected, which is to say, to be fully alive.

We can allow the life, love, goodness, and holiness of Christ to flow within us. We become rooted, then become a branch—an extension of (or participation in) Jesus – to bring a compassionate presence to our entire world. It is a relationship of union just as branch is united to vine is united to roots. Can we really tell where the roots end and the branch begins? In the end, they are one. We can live our lives as one with Jesus—the basis of our relationships with one another and with ourselves. We can then discover we are living this one life, and the fruit of this life is love: abundant, overflowing, God glorifying, connected – all of it rooted in Jesus Christ.

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Ann Penick
 is originally from the Chicago area. She and her husband, Jim, live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Ann was ordained a priest with Roman Catholic Womenpriests in 2011. Ann has been serving the faith communities of Dignity Washington and Northern Virginia Dignity as one of their presiders since 2017. She also serves as one of the board members of DignityUSA. In addition, she has been pastoring a faith community of young families in Washington, DC since 2013.

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