Fifth Sunday of Easter
What’s the definition of divine? It’s what da grapes grow on!
Yes, our gospel for today urges us to see Christ, the Divine Son of God, as our vine, and to see ourselves as his branches. It urges us to see, like Saul did in our first reading, the Lord present in our midst and to allow that closeness to give us the grace to bear the fruit of the Kingdom!
In the last of the I AM statements in the Gospel of John, Jesus likens God the Father to the gardener, the one who tills the soil of the vine and nourishes its’ growth. By so doing, Jesus, the vine, is able to provide unceasing nourishment and life to us, his branches. And as any who have ever seen grape vines grow, you know they’re quite prolific! And they grow in any and all directions possible, so as to increase their ability to produce the intended fruit, the grapes!
I remember my grandmother’s neighbor had a huge grapevine which covered the trellis in front of their garage. That’s where the ladies of the neighborhood would gather in their rocking chairs during the evening hours to recount the events of the past day. And every so often, that neighbor would ask me and my brother if we’d go around and cut off some of the dead branches and prune some of the other ones, so that they’d grow in a better direction and so that their tendrils would find something to grab onto for greater support of the growing branch in the process.
This cutting process then had two different purposes, both of which Jesus also recounts in today’s gospel parable. The first cutting was to remove the dead branches, which might have been infected by insects or disease and now pose the danger of infecting the living branches. Jesus likens the dead branches on his vine, to those who, perhaps, have only superficially committed to Christ.
—those who perhaps, aren’t really serious about living as a part of a community of believers, or those who think they don’t need an active, living, and close relationship to God to be Jesus’ disciple. We’d call them posers today. They just haven’t internalized the saving message of the Gospel and yet, still claim to be Christians when it suits them. Sadly, we all know far too many Christians who fit this category. The other cutting to which Jesus refers is a pruning intended for living branches. Jesus sees such pruning as beneficial — as necessary to bear more fruit! And though such pruning may be painful for the branch at the time, Jesus sees it as akin to the sacrifices or sufferings God sometimes asks us to undergo, in order that our character and faith might be strengthened and our fruit might be more bountiful.
Our own branches may also have been pruned, especially during this pandemic. We may have been hurt by our new way of meeting, or by the continued closure of our church buildings, or by the new ways of greeting one another, but hopefully, we’ve rebounded from that pruning and have become stronger, more faithful, more loving Christians because of it! Hopefully, such pruning will prove to bring even more people to Christ whom we may never have reached before! Hopefully, such pruning will have made our faith stronger and our confidence in God’s providence more assured.
We see a beautiful example of pruning in today’s first reading where Saul arrives in Jerusalem to meet the disciples after he had been blinded by a revelation of the Lord on his way to Damascus and was healed of his blindness to the Messianic identity of Jesus by Ananias, to whom the Lord had sent him. This pruning, this change of direction for Saul’s life, would prove to be a pivotal point in the way Christianity would grow and develop in the centuries ahead! But they didn’t know that at the time!
We hear in today’s reading that the disciples needed a little convincing. They didn’t care about Saul’s claim of conversion. They wanted to see it in action! They wanted to see evidence that Paul was indeed, now a Christian to the core! So how did Saul convince the disciples that he had indeed seen the Lord and had converted his life to Christ? — by speaking boldly in the name of the Lord and by taking on the Hellenists who were trying to kill him. Yes, by Saul risking his own life for the sake of the Gospel, the disciples welcomed him as one of their own, as a living branch on the vine!
It was love of the Lord that impelled Saul, now known as Paul, to risk his life for the sake of the gospel! Indeed, love of God and neighbor is the true sign that we’ve converted our hearts to Christ. We heard in our second reading today from the first letter of John, “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:18) Yes, real love is more than just a word. For the Christian it’s evidenced by the actions of an individual and also the corporate actions and stances of a community of believers— what we call Church today!
When we fight against climate change and all that harms our planet as a church, we’re witnessing to love! When we fight for a just living wage as a church, we’re witnessing to love! When we stand up for refugees as a church, we;re witnessing to love! When we call for an end to wars in the Mid-east and Africa, we’re witnessing to love! When we challenge racism and prejudice against minorities as a church, we’re witnessing to love! In these and many other ways, our common bond as branches on the one vine, demonstrates our commitment to the values and priorities for which Jesus died and which make up his vision of the Kingdom of God! In these and all acts of love, both as individuals and as a church, we bear fruit for all the world to see!
To bear fruit then, means to do all that we can to evidence our love for God and one another! To bear fruit means that we demonstrate Christ living in us to those who have not yet been convinced of God’s immense love for them!
To bear fruit means to be led by the Spirit to bring about the values of the kingdom, no matter how long it may take or what sacrifices we need to make along the way! To bear fruit means to be shaped by the love which God has for us and the love we receive from others and to celebrate the intertwining of our lives with the other branches on the vine. You know, at every Eucharist, as the gifts are presented, we acknowledge the fruit we’ve produced by offering up the fruit of the vine! That wine lifted to the Lord becomes a symbol then, of all of our works of love, as the People of God to bring glory of God as branches of the One, True Vine!
Have you ever wondered why grapes aren’t ever lonely? Because they come in bunches! (LOL) Like grapes, we can’t be Christians on our own! We need Jesus and each other for strength and support, and to bear fruit abundantly! That’s what abiding means! It means being present to God in prayer and to one another by whatever means possible so that we can continue to support one another in our common call to discipleship.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t have to be afraid of new ways to pray as a community of believers and that we can be present to one another, even with social distancing protocols in place. What we’ve learned from this experience is that not even a pandemic can keep branches from supporting one another and from finding continued nourishment from the vine! What this pandemic has taught us is that the Holy Spirit continues to show us new ways to spread the gospel and to give us new, creative means of connecting with people! What this pandemic has taught us, is that we can draw closer to Jesus, not just in this church building, but beyond it, in new, exciting, bold, and surprising ways!
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