Fifth Sunday of Easter
A Homily - B Cycle - 2002-2003
by Rev. Jerome A. Magat
First Reading - Acts 9:26-31
Psalm - 22:26-27, 28, 30,31-32
Second Reading - 1 John 18-24
Gospel - John 15:1-8
John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
Jesus said to his disciples: "As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love.
Jesus said to his disciples: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."
Some years ago, the performance sport drink, Gatorade, ran a very successful advertising campaign featuring basketball superstar Michael Jordan. The ad-campaign was called, "Be Like Mike." The idea was that if you drank Gatorade, you were one step closer to imitating Jordan's basketball prowess. Gatorade sales took off, with millions of young people gulping down the sport drink because hey - if it was good enough for Michael Jordan, it was good enough for me.
In a similar way, in the Christian life, young people are often encouraged to be Christ-like - meaning, to imitate our Lord's very life. It's a rather good message and one that has strong devotional value. However, as Catholics, we are called to do far more than merely imitate Christ - we must live in constant union with Him, sharing His very life. Our Lord desires that we remain united to him just like a vine is united to the branches., We must do more than merely imitate our Lord - we must participate in His very life. This morning, we are presented with one of the most beautiful and rich images of what it means to be a true disciple - to truly enjoy a life in Christ and hence access into the inner life of the Most Blessed Trinity.
When our Lord uses the symbolism of the vine and the branches, his audience would have known that this was an allusion to the prophet Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard. In this Song of the Vineyard, the prophet states that God complains that despite the care and love that He has lavished on the vineyard of Israel, the Chosen People, it has only yielded wild grapes.
In our gospel today, Jesus shifts the paradigm. No longer are his hearers to understand themselves as being the vineyard or the vine. From now on, Jesus explains that He Himself is established as the true vine because the old vine, the original Chosen People, the Jews, have been succeeded by the new vine, the Church. Thus, in order to be truly fruitful, one must have a life in Christ, not just merely membership in the community. A life in Christ means living a life of grace, the life-source which is the nourishment that allows one to bear fruit unto eternal life, heaven if you will.
Our Lord describes two kinds of branches on the vine - some that bear no fruit and some that do bear fruit but require pruning. Those branches that bear no fruit may have some external, superficial connection to the main vine. These do not last.
branches that require pruning are those who have faith but lack works.
Authentic faith always leads to external works. It is not sufficient to
say that my faith is merely a private affair, between God and me.
Authentic faith always tends outwards, trying to reach out towards others and
draw them into a deeper union with Christ. External apostolate is always
animated by the overflow of the interior life. Not all external apostolate is done in words, either. So, even for the person who cannot engage in the active apostolate, the apostolate of prayer for others is a sign of authentic faith reaching out towards others.
The pruning also gives indication that God is not content with a merely half-hearted commitment towards Him on our part. Sometimes, God allows us to experience suffering in order to draw us closer to Him. Yes, pruning hurts at first, but note that pruned branches always produce more fruit and come back as stronger, thicker branches full of life and vibrancy. Is this not the case of those who suffer? When they are pruned by the pain of sickness or mental anguish, their perseverance and patience and graciousness teach us that the human person, by God's grace, is capable of great detachment and profound serenity in the face of so much adversity.
God's word itself prunes us by instructing us; by correcting us; by inspiring us to heights beyond our wildest imaginings. It is clear that when our Lord says that without Him, we can do nothing, He is asserting that union with Him must precede our imitation of Jesus and we cannot do this alone, but only by His grace. It is only by the grace of God that any of us can live up to the very high standards of the Christian life - to love our enemies; to forgive those who persecute us; to lay down our lives for others.
So, it is clear that Christ's grace and life within us always precedes any attempt of ours to imitate Him. That is why the Church's catechisms always arrange the teachings on the Sacrament before the Ten Commandments and morality. Without the life of grace within us, the moral life becomes an impossible wall to scale.
We are always confronted with a choice to either remain in Christ in virtue or to be separated from Him in sin. The branch or the individual who persists in sin cannot bear fruit - apart from Him, that person can do nothing. Our Lord uses severe language here - he clearly states that the withered branch is cut off and thrown into the fire where it will burn. So there are really two choices for us: to either be fruitful and live in Christ or to be dead weight on the vine and be pruned away. There is no third way for any of us. It is often said that you will know a tree by its fruit. Each of us is called to bear fruit in our lives but this can only be done if we remain connected to the Church.
The vine and the branches imagery teaches us that Christ is our head and we constitute the members of his mystical body, the Church. The Church is not some abstract organism - the Church is made up of those who are saved - the Church triumphant in heaven; the Church suffering - those in purgatory; and all of us - the Church militant, who are still struggling to find our way home to heaven. I am often amazed and saddened when even Catholics refer to "the church" as if they were not a member of it, as if it was the bishops and the Pope who constitute the church and not the rest of our community of faith. Yes, the Holy Father, the bishops and the priests who collaborate with them constitute the head, but the People of God - all of you - constitute the rest of the body. It is insufficient to say "the Church" without accounting for the body, the laity. If we are to truly identify with Christ and his bride, the church, then each of us must be willing to take responsibility for our membership in this great organic reality: both head and body.
As we approach Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, let us commit ourselves to a deeper love and understanding of what it means to be a branch attached to the vine, the Lord. May the Blessed Virgin Mary, who constitutes the roots of this great plant keep us grounded in the reality that without Her Son, we can do nothing, but with Him and His life of grace, we are capable of all good things.