Abiding in Christ as Fruitful Branches on the Vine, Fifth Wednesday of Easter, May 21, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Easter
Memorial of St. Christopher Magallanes, Martyr
May 21, 2014
Acts 15:1-6, Ps 122, Jn 15:1-8

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today in the Acts of the Apostles, we come to one of the most pivotal events not only in the history of the early Church but the history of the Church, period. It’s the Council of Jerusalem, the first such Council in the history of the Church. It came about because “there arose no little dissension and debate” after some Christians coming from Judea were telling the Gentile Christians in Antioch, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” The question was far broader than merely of circumcision, but about the ground of salvation, the role of the Mosaic law in the faith and the way Jewish and Gentile Christians were to behave with regard to each other. So Paul, Barnabas and others went up to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and priests about it.
  • St. Paul was once a Pharisee and believed that salvation happened through rigid observance of the Mosaic Law in all its details. But after he was converted on the road to Damascus, he began to see that one is saved by Christ and not by our own actions obeying all 613 commands and all the other precepts of the Mosaic law. He would spend most of his apostolic life proclaiming this truth. He wrote two letters (one to the Romans and another to the Galatians) explaining in detail how Christ, rather than the law, is our Savior, and he spent parts of two other letters (Colossians and Philippians) talking about how baptism rather than circumcision enters us into the life of faith and the Covenant with God. He brought all of these inspirations to the Council in Jerusalem and we’ll see tomorrow and Friday how the Holy Spirit led the early Church to the solution with regard to the Gentiles.
  • But what I want to focus on here are the three reasons why what they did was so important. First, we, too, need to learn that we’re saved by God’s action to which we freely respond, not principally by our action. Many times we can still think that salvation depends on us, on how many prayers we say, on how many good deeds we can do to overcome our bad deeds. Salvation comes from God and we need to receive it as a grace, as a gift, and respond with all we have. Second, we, too, need to grasp our relationship to the Mosaic Law. Many times Christians can be confused when it comes to Old Testament ceremonial and moral precepts and how the fit into our living of our faith. What about Jewish dietary restrictions? What about the law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? What about our reaction to the crimes to which God had attached capital punishment? Sometimes if we’re tempted simply to dismiss him, we’re dismissing God’s revelation. Others who are more fundamentalistic in their following of Sacred Scripture, are often left in a bind between Old Testament and New when they might seem to be in conflict. The key is for us to realize, as St. Paul would write to the Galatians, that the Law is a pedagogue, a tutor, bringing us to the Master who would fulfill the law by bringing it to its real meaning. Circumcision was crucial to establish Jewish identity, for example, but it wasn’t absolute, and it would be supplanted by a new means of belonging. The Mosaic Law was crucial to forming Jews in morality, but Christ would come and teach by words and example a surpassing form of love. The third thing we need to learn is how to relate to each other. One of the reasons why this dispute between Jews and Gentiles was such a big deal was not simply the question of whether Gentiles needed to be good Jews before they could be good Christians, but it was because stricter Jews, like the Pharisees, had no interaction with Gentiles. They avoided them as if they were lepers. They didn’t eat with them. They didn’t enter into their houses. That was the background as to why the Hellenist widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of the bread, because many of the Jewish Christians would just keep their cultural tradition of complete separation. That obviously couldn’t work in the communion of the Church. Still today there can be this separation in Church communities. In the history of the Church in the United States, ethnicity trumped Catholicity such that the Irish, the French Canadians, the Italians, the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Germans all had their own Churches, all in a sense competed against each other. Sometimes French pastors would prevent their parishioners from marrying Catholics of other backgrounds in a ceremony in the Church, but would banish them to the rectory chapel, because they thought such a mixed ethnic marriage between two Catholics was a scandal. The Council of Jerusalem was important so that Christians would live in communion with each other, which is what Jesus intended from the beginning, that we would be one as he and the Father is one.
  • And that brings us to the Gospel, where Jesus gives us the powerful and beautiful image of the Vine and the Branches, which is an image of the type of unity we’re all supposed to have in Jesus as well as of how are works are supposed to flow from our saving bond with him rather than be detached from him and his redeeming grace. Over the course of Jesus’ Holy Thursday instructions to the disciples, he’s already called us to a union of love, telling us to remain in his love by keeping his commandments and remaining in his word. But today Jesus points not just to a moral union but to a spiritually ontological union that precedes and is coupled to it. This union is the essence of the Christian life. We enter into an interpersonal communion with the Lord that flows out into deeds. How beautiful is this reality that Jesus wills!
  • I’d like to ponder various elements of what Jesus says about our relationship with him and with the Church that are indicated by this image of the Vine and the Branches.
  • First, Jesus says, “My Father is the Vine Grower.” He is the one who has called us to communion with him through Jesus. What a tremendous grace!
  • Second, the Father is a pruner. “He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” Grapevines take three years to produce mature fruit, but if they’re going to produce juicy, tasty grapes, the vinegrower needs to work very hard at pruning the branches that are not fruit-bearing ones so that they don’t suck the juice and energy necessary to produce fruit after three years. The Father is a patient pruner. But he wants our cooperation. Do we allow him to prune us so that we might produce more fruit? When he takes away something or someone from our life, for example, do we see that in this the Father might be pruning us so that we might bear more fruit in him? Do we cooperate to prune from our own life those aspects that don’t bear fruit, like the silly television programs with which we can waste so much time, or the old habits that take us away from doing something far more fruitful with the time and the talents God has given us?
  • Third, Jesus says that the Father prunes us “because of the word that I spoke to you.” Jesus’ word helps us to see what needs to be cut from our life so that we may be fruitful. We can’t remain in him unless we remain in that word.
  • Fourth, Jesus calls us to abide in him as he abides in us. This is an active work. Do we seek to abide in him in prayer? In work? In Mass? In our friendships? In our whole day? The essence of the Christian life is this mutual abiding.
  • Jesus stresses that unless we’re abiding in him like branches on a vine, we won’t bear fruit because apart from him we can do nothing. That’s actually a shocking sentence, because we think we and others can do a lot without Jesus, that we’re really mostly self-sufficient, physically and spiritually. There are multiple levels in which we’re called to abide in Jesus, and he wants us to abide in him in all of them, but from our physical level to heavenly glory, we can do nothing unless we’re in relationship with him.
  • Sixth, if we’re not bearing any fruit because we have pruned ourselves off of the vine, because we’re not abiding in Jesus but remaining outside of communion with him, he tells us that we’ll be thrown out like a branch, wither and be gathered and thrown into the fire. This is not just an eschatological image about hell, but is also an image of what happens when one becomes spiritually lifeless. The whole message of Lent was to help us to recognize through prayer, fasting and self-giving how to live together with the risen Jesus as branches on the vine, with his prayer, self-discipline and sacrificial love.
  • Seventh, if we remain in him and his words resonate within us, then our prayer will totally change, because we will praying united with Jesus in his holy word. He makes an incredible promise, a guarantee beyond any infomercial, that whatever we ask will be given us. He tells us this because he wants us to pray in union with him. 
  • Lastly, and perhaps most shockingly, Jesus says that by our remaining as branches on the Vine in all of these ways, the Father will be glorified and we will “become” Jesus’ disciplesWe’re not disciples if we merely know what he’s taught or simply following him on the outside. We become disciples when we unite ourselves to him on the inside. If we become disciples in this way, united with Jesus and with other branches on the Vine, that is what will glorify the Father. All of us who together with Jesus love the Father must therefore want this type of mutual inter-abiding.
  • These are truths that were lived by the Mexican martyrs, St. Christopher Magallanes and companions, who were murdered by the Communists during the Cristeros Revolution in Mexico. St. Christopher was a priest (played by Peter O’Toole in the movie For Greater Glory) who was arrested and shot basically for not renouncing the priesthood. He was one who, like all the martyrs, died proclaiming “Viva, Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King). He was united to Christ like branches on the vine and no firing squad could sever that union. Even when the Mexican government was trying to ravage the vine and the branches, so many of the martyrs we celebrate today remained strong, because they abided in Christ and kept their communion with each other and the whole Church. Today we ask their intercession that we might live that reality with the same courage they evinced.
  • Jesus said all of these words about the Vine and the Branches on Holy Thursday and there’s a reason for that, because it’s on Holy Thursday as Jesus gave us his Body and Blood for the first time so that we could enter into the Holy Communion with him to which the image of the vine and branches points. When I was a seminarian at the North American College in Rome, the chapel had an interesting marble pattern on the floor. At first it seemed a little strange, but when you began to notice the intercalated dark and lighter marble, the pattern began to make sense. It was supposed to put into marble Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. The marble in the sanctuary, all around the altar, was dark grape colored (I’m color blind so I won’t make a mistake by guessing what color it was!) and that dark grape color, after coming down the stairs, was interspersed with white marble, to show how all of us in the pews become branches on the Vine through the Mass. This is the source of our unity, for which the early Church worked so hard. This is the source of our salvation. This is the summit of the law, as we fulfill Jesus’ words to do this in his memory. And our praying this united with Jesus and truly united through, with, and in him to each other is the Father’s supreme glory! Let us pray that we may abide in Christ so much that we might bear fruit always for the Father’s glory and come at last, with the Mexican martyrs, to abide in God forever.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
ACTS 15:1-6

Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers,
“Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice,
you cannot be saved.”
Because there arose no little dissension and debate
by Paul and Barnabas with them,
it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others
should go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and presbyters
about this question.
They were sent on their journey by the Church,
and passed through Phoenicia and Samaria
telling of the conversion of the Gentiles,
and brought great joy to all the brethren.
When they arrived in Jerusalem,
they were welcomed by the Church,
as well as by the Apostles and the presbyters,
and they reported what God had done with them.
But some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers
stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them
and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.”The Apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 122:1-2, 3-4AB, 4CD-5

R. (see 1)  Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.
I rejoiced because they said to me,
“We will go up to the house of the LORD.”
And now we have set foot
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.
Jerusalem, built as a city
with compact unity.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.
According to the decree for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
In it are set up judgment seats,
seats for the house of David.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.

Gospel
JN 15:1-8

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 everyone 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 in 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.”