Becoming Fruitful Branches of Christ the Vine, Fifth Sunday of Easter (B), May 3, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Church of the Holy Family, New York, NY
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B
May 3, 2015
Acts 9:26-31, Ps 22, 1 John3:18-24, John 15:1-8

 

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

 

The following text guided the homily: 

 

The Branches Extending from the Sanctuary to the World

Yesterday the eyes of the Catholic world were on the North American College in Rome, my alma mater, the seminary training priests in the heart of the Church to serve in U.S. Dioceses, as Pope Francis went to celebrate Mass during a day of study on the life of Fr. Junipero Serra, the great 18th century Franciscan missionary of California whom Pope Francis will beatify in Washington, DC, this Fall. The seminary is bursting at the seams with quality men from all across the country who are a great source of hope for the future of the Church in the United States. It was very moving for me to see the Holy Father celebrating Mass at the same altar and preaching in the same pulpit where I would celebrate and preach my first year as a priest. It was also an opportunity for the Catholic world, through photos and videos, to see the beauty of the chapel that has nourished the vocations of so many thousands of American priests since it was built in 1953.

So rich in art and symbolism, the Chapel features behind the altar an enormous, exquisite mosaic of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, to whom the Chapel as well as the United States is dedicated. It has evocative Stations of the Cross made by the most famous Italian bronze sculptor of the twentieth century. It has beautiful murals of the Joyful mysteries as well as mysteries of Christ’s own priestly ministry. It has bas reliefs of the “eight” sacraments, with the eighth one being “preaching,” by which the words of Christ are made actual and efficacious in the lives of believers. It has an organ that once was the greatest in Rome. But while the eyes of most first-time visitors to the Chapel heads look up and around with wonder, the most important symbolic imagery of all remains at their feet. When I give tours of the chapel to visitors, I ask them to look on what they’re standing to see if they can figure out what message it is sending. They think, at first, it’s a trick question, because all they see is polished marble, some dark (reddish purple, I believe, although I’m color-blind and am going off the memory of what others have told me) and some lighter and brighter. They notice that it seems to fall into an interweaving pattern throughout the main body of the chapel where the pews are, and then they notice that the sanctuary, where the altar is located and all the priests concelebrate is totally in dark marble. After several guesses, they generally give up. That’s when I give them the hint, “Think about the Gospel of John, Chapter 15.” If there’s a Bible reader in the group of pilgrims, the person normally speaks up and says, “It’s supposed to be the Vine and the Branches.”

The floor of the North American College is meant to illustrate what the Church is and how the Church bears fruit. Everything starts from Christ in the sanctuary, from his gift of himself of his body and blood. But then it flows from Christ, the head of the Church, into his entire mystical body. And when we abide in him, then we are able to bear much fruit in the world together with him. That’s the source of the North American College’s vitality. That’s the source of any seminary’s vitality. That’s the sole source of the Church’s fruitfulness. That’s the secret to ensure that our life is not wasted but in fact makes a great difference for the coming of God’s kingdom.

God’s Vine

As Jesus tells us today in the Gospel, he and the Church exist together as Vine and Branches. This image of the fruitful union of God and his people was foretold throughout the Old Testament. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the prophets compared Israel to a vine. Psalm 80 said, “You brought a vine out of Egypt, driving away the nations and planting it. You cleared the ground; it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered by its shadow, the cedars of God by its branches. It sent out boughs as far as the sea, shoots as far as the river” (Ps 80: 9-12). Isaiah declared, “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel” (Is 5:7). Hosea added, “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit” (Hos 10:1). All of this was depicted visually in a stunning golden relief of a vine, with clusters of grapes as big as adults, running around the outside walls of the Temple of Jerusalem. The Church is the fulfillment of this image. The temple stands for God and when the people in faith attach themselves to God, they become a luxuriant vine stretching out its branches and bearing fruit even into the desert. Jesus was probably calling upon his apostles’ obvious knowledge of this golden sculpture as he was describing the image of the Vine and Branches on Holy Thursday evening, because they likely would have seen the gilded vine as they visited the temple earlier in the day.

The problem, we know from our knowledge of Sacred Scripture, is that Israel as a whole didn’t stay attached to God in this way. Even though, as Isaiah said, God had “spaded [the vineyard of Israel], cleared it of stones and planted the choicest vines,” even though he had “within it built a watchtower and hewed out a wine press,… he looked for the crop of grapes, but all it yielded was wild grapes.” God asked, “What more was there to do my for my vineyard that I had not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes.” He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded only wild ones (Is 5:2). It didn’t bear good fruit, because it had detached itself from God through sin. Jesus pointed this out in one of his strongest parables, in which, after using the very images Isaiah described, he said that he sent servants to the tenants to whom he had leased this rich vineyard to bring to him a portion of the crop, but they took and beat servants sending them back empty handed, then they wounded and treated another shamefully, and killed others. Finally he sent his Son to them, but they murdered him too in order to try to steal the inheritance (Mk 12:1-11). This was referring to salvation history and to the way Israel treated the prophets God sent to them and treated even Jesus himself. God looked to Israel to bear good fruit — which are deeds of love in union with God — but the only harvest that was yielded was the wild fruit of a wild life, rejecting God’s prophets, God’s word, God’s love, God’s son.

God’s Incredible Trust in Us

Jesus says at the beginning of the Gospel today, “I am the true vine.” By doing so, he contrasted himself with the unfaithfulness of those who had failed to produce the harvest of love God wants in the world. He had come to replant the vine, to become the new temple, to make possible our bearing good fruit. And in the great mystery of today’s Gospel and salvation history, God makes the fruit he bears dependent on our being fruitful branches. A vine can’t bear fruit without branches. The stem bears only branches, but it’s the branches that bear fruit. For God to bear his fruit in the world, in other words, he depends on us, to remain attached to him and to bear good fruit. Otherwise the great gift of his salvation, his love, won’t be seen in the world, people won’t be saved, the sap of his love will be wasted. Jesus wants to bear fruit in you and me. He wants his love to flow through you and me and through the Church. He wants us to bear not wild grapes that are good for nothing, but fruit that will last to eternal life. The Church exists as branches on Christ the Vine precisely to bear this abundant harvest of the fruit of love.

The Secret to Bearing Fruit

For that to occur, Jesus says, we must abide in him. Whether we bear good fruit or not totally depends on whether we remain in him or not, whether we live in loving union with him. Jesus had said elsewhere, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Mt 7:17-19). The key for us is not to worry so much about the fruit as to worry about remaining attached to Jesus the Good Tree. In today’s Gospel points to how we will bear fruit through remaining attached to him. “Abide in me, as I abide in you.  Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in me.”  When we do, he promises us, then we will bear not just a little fruit, but “much fruit.” Just think about the saints who bore great fruit not because of human talents but because they gave God permission. Look at the early Church, as we do every Easter season, how much fruit a bunch of fisherman, tax collectors and relative nobodies bore because they were united to God and he worked through them. As the Acts of the Apostles tells us today in the first reading, the Church continued to grow throughout Judea, Galilee, Samaria, even Antioch, because the Holy Spirit was uniting them to God and they were yielding a great harvest. At the end of the Gospel today, Jesus says that we become his disciples only when we bear much fruit to the Father’s glory. We become disciples not by merely being baptized, not merely by coming to Mass, not just by not committing serious sins, but by bearing fruit — more specifically “much” fruit. He has given us this vocation to bear fruit, saying to us later on in this same chapter of the Gospel, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last.”

To bear fruit, Jesus tells us, we must abide in him. To abide in him is far more than a wish to be in communion with him. It has many practical consequences that we see elsewhere in the Gospel. We can focus briefly on five things we need to do truly to abide in Jesus.

Abiding in Him through Keeping His Commandments

First, to abide in him, we must keep His Commandments.

He tells us in the continuation of today’s Gospel passage, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (Jn 15:10). St. John’s in today’s epistle said, “All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them” (1 John 3:24). He also cautions us against thinking we are abiding in Jesus when we really aren’t. “Whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.”

To walk as Jesus walked, to put the faith into action as he did, means to follow him on the path of self-sacrificial love. That’s why, later on in this Chapter of the Vine and the Branches, Jesus says to us, “Love one another as I have loved you.” We’re not remaining in the Vine unless we’re loving, and loving means not just having nice sympathetic feelings for others, but sacrificing ourselves for others. St. John tells us today, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:17). He tells us “by this we know love,” that just as “Jesus laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (1 John 3:15). He tells us later in his first letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,” and hates his brother he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). We can’t love God unless we love others. We’re not abiding in his love unless we’re loving others, sacrificing for others, forgiving others.. As Dorothy Day, a fruitful branch of Christ’s vine here in New York once said, “We love the Lord to the extent that we love the person we like the least.”

If we’re abiding in the Lord, we will be as generous in sacrificing what we have for those who have much less. If we’re stingy following Jesus’ command to love others as he has loved us, if we try to ignore those in need or just give the minimum so that we can keep a certain human respect, it could very well be a sign of how little we are abiding in the Lord and in his love, and why we might be bearing little fruit, no fruit, or bad fruit.

Abiding in Him through Hearing and Doing Jesus’ Word

Second, to abide in Jesus, we must listen to his word.

“Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you,” St. John tells us. “If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24).

We must be men and women, boys and girls, who abide in the Word of God, who let what God has said echo within us. We must act on what Jesus said to the devil, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). We must live by the principle St. Peter and the apostles lived by: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). If we don’t know the word of God, if our Bibles just take up space on our bookshelves, if we don’t seek to become living commentaries on what God has taught us, then we will bear little fruit.

We’ve begun the month of May dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in the context of bearing fruit based on the Word of God, I can’t forget the saying of the great fourth century St. Ambrose that Pope Benedict cited in his exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church back in 2010: “As we contemplate in the Mother of God a life totally shaped by the word, we realize that we too are called to enter into the mystery of faith, whereby Christ comes to dwell in our lives. Every Christian believer, Saint Ambrose reminds us, in some way interiorly conceives and gives birth to the word of God: even though there is only one Mother of Christ in the flesh, in the faith Christ is the progeny of us all. Thus, what took place for Mary can daily take place in each of us, in the hearing of the word and in the celebration of the sacraments.” Just like Mary, we’re called to conceive the Word of God within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The word is supposed to grow. We’re supposed to be pregnant with the Word of God.” And then, finally, it has grown so much that we have to give it to the light. To abide in the Lord, we must abide in the Word. It must be able to be said of us what was said of Mary, that the Lord is with us, that we are blessed because we believed that what the Lord said to us would be fulfilled.

Abiding in Him Through Cooperating with the Father’s Pruning Us

Third, to abide in Jesus, we must be pruned by God the Father through the Word of God

Jesus says that the Father “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.” The Word of God helps us to cut off from our lives whatever won’t bear fruit in God. It helps us to set our priorities straight. It helps us, for example, to cut out all the time we waste watching television or in other distractions, so that we use our gift of time, not for selfish pursuits, not for worthless diversions, but for God and in love of others. Many times we can do the pruning ourselves, so that our energies can go exclusively into bearing fruit. But sometimes, when we don’t do so, God the Father may out of love prune us himself, taking away certain things that we might desire so that we may begin to grow in the way God really wants us to grow. To abide in Jesus means to give God permission to do this pruning and to pray about how he wants us to be pruned, every day, beginning now.

Abiding in Him through Helping Others to Come to Abide in Him

Fourth, to abide in him, we must spread the faith

St. John writes, “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.” (1John 4:15).

If God really abides in us and we in him, then we can’t help but spread love of him, as naturally as a good apple tree bears good apples. We can’t keep to ourselves the joy of living the faith, the happiness that comes from having Christ live within.

Abiding in Him through a Truly Eucharistic Life

Lastly, to abide in him, we must live a truly Eucharistic life. Jesus told us in his famous Bread of Life discourse in St. John’s Gospel, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (Jn 6:56). That begins with hungering for Jesus in Holy Communion and receiving him worthily. It involves wanting a loving communion with others. And it flourishes in wanting to bear fruit and “do this in memory of him,” to give our body and blood out of love for him and others.”

Pope Francis this morning in his Regina Caeli meditation in St. Peter’s Square summarized the Gospel by saying, “Jesus is the vine, and through Him – like the sap in the tree – the very love of God, the Holy Spirit passes to the branches. Look: we are the branches, and through this parable, Jesus wants us to make us understand the importance of remaining united to him. The branches are not self-sufficient, but depend totally on the vine, in which is found the source of their life. So it is with us Christians. Grafted by Baptism in Christ, we have freely received from Him the gift of new life; and thanks to the Church we are able to remain in vital communion with Christ. We must remain faithful to [our] Baptism, and grow in intimacy with the Lord through prayer, listening and docility to His Word, participation in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation. If one is intimately united to Jesus, he enjoys the gifts of the Holy Spirit … and consequently does so much good for the neighbor and the society, like a true Christian. In fact, one is recognized as a true Christian by this attitude, as a tree is recognized by its fruit. The fruits of this profound union with Christ are wonderful: our whole person is transformed by the grace of the Spirit: [our] soul, understanding, will, affections, and even [our] body, because we are united body and soul. We receive a new way of being, the life of Christ becomes our own: we are able to think like Him, to act like Him, to see the world and the things in it with the eyes of Jesus. And so we are able to love our brothers, beginning with the poorest and those who suffer the most, with His heart, and so bear fruits of goodness, of charity, and of peace in the world.”

The Mass is the living summary of this Gospel of the vine and the branches. The whole world is a continuation of the Chapel of the North American College, beginning with Christ in the sanctuary and stretching out into the pews, and from the pews, in the living branches that stretch forth its boughs to the rivers, seas, mountains, street corners, homes, schools, ball fields, workplaces. We consecrate here the “fruit of the vine,” the true vine squeezed out during the Passion of the Lord on the Cross, but we also consecrate the “work of human hands,” who are the branches. God the Father returns this to us as our “spiritual drink” that we offer to him under the appearance of wine. In the Eucharist, the fruit that we give with Christ, the fruit of the vine and the branches, reaches its climax. If we live this Eucharist, if we keep this communion with the Lord, if we live this loving union, that we will bear fruit that will last until eternal life. That’s the reason why God created us and we’re still alive. May we receive all the help he will give us today so that we may bear good fruit and others, in seeing those good deeds, may glorify our Father in heaven here on earth and come with us, we pray, to glorify him forever.

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 ACTS 9:26-31

When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples,
but they were all afraid of him,
not believing that he was a disciple.
Then Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles,
and he reported to them how he had seen the Lord,
and that he had spoken to him,
and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.
He moved about freely with them in Jerusalem,
and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord.
He also spoke and debated with the Hellenists,
but they tried to kill him.
And when the brothers learned of this,
they took him down to Caesarea
and sent him on his way to Tarsus.The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace.
It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord,
and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.

Responsorial Psalm PS 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32

R. (26a) I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.
or:
R. Alleluia.
I will fulfill my vows before those who fear the LORD.
The lowly shall eat their fill;
they who seek the LORD shall praise him:
“May your hearts live forever!”
R. I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.
or:
R. Alleluia.
All the ends of the earth
shall remember and turn to the LORD;
all the families of the nations
shall bow down before him.
R. I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.
or:
R. Alleluia.
To him alone shall bow down
all who sleep in the earth;
before him shall bend
all who go down into the dust.
R. I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.
or:
R. Alleluia.
And to him my soul shall live;
my descendants shall serve him.
Let the coming generation be told of the LORD
that they may proclaim to a people yet to be born
the justice he has shown.
R. I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.
or:
R. Alleluia.

Reading 2 1 JN 3:18-24

Children, let us love not in word or speech
but in deed and truth.
Now this is how we shall know that we belong to the truth
and reassure our hearts before him
in whatever our hearts condemn,
for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us,
we have confidence in God
and receive from him whatever we ask,
because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
And his commandment is this:
we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and love one another just as he commanded us.
Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them,
and the way we know that he remains in us
is from the Spirit he gave us.

Alleluia JN 15:4A, 5B

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Remain in me as I remain in you, says the Lord.
Whoever remains in me will bear much fruit.
R. Alleluia, 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 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 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.”

A photo from Pope Francis’ Mass at the North American College on May 2, 2015, featuring the intercalating colors of marble meant to symbolize the parable of the Vine and Branches. 

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