Homily: 5th Sunday of Easter – Cycle B
History's greatest leaders (that is, those whom have had a positive influence on the world) have a way to influence people from the outside in. With their speech, their ideas, their example, and even their presence these leaders move and motivate those around them: drawing others into their good work and stirring them to action. Jesus Christ—the world’s greatest leader, amen?—goes much deeper, influencing us from the outside in, yes, but also from the inside out.
Jesus calls us not only from the outside—through the Scriptures, the Church, the actions of his providential care, and the example of his faithful disciples—but he also unites himself to us so intimately that his very life flows through our veins. In other words, he’s “inside” us, too. "I am the vine, you are the branches," we hear him say in today's Gospel. If we think about this image, we can ask ourselves: “Where does a vine stop and its branches begin?” And the answer is difficult to come by (unless, perhaps, you are a biologist). The union between vine and branch is often too integrated to tell. The sap that gives life to the plant runs seamlessly through the vine and into the branches. This is not unlike how grace—the sap which is God’s divine life—flows through Christ and into us. And so we see how, in using this image, Christ is identifying how he stands alone among every other great leader in history: not only does he beat them at their own game, so to speak—influencing others from the outside better than anyone else—but he plays at a level that is so far beyond those other leaders, literally empowering those who follow him with strength they did not have on their own; and in this demonstrating that he is more than just a leader, but that he is truly Lord of all things. How grateful, therefore, we should be that he has seen fit to make us branches of his vine!
And yet, as human beings we are a unique kind of branch. A branch on a natural vine has no choice about whether or not it will stay attached to the vine. We, however, are responsible for keeping ourselves united to the vine and can choose to separate ourselves from the vine. And this is a problem: because, as branches, we are tasked to bear fruit from the vine for the world; and if we separate ourselves from the vine, Jesus tells us that we will not bear fruit; and not only that, but that we will then wither, die, and be burned. So the question arises, how do we stay united to the vine, so that we can bear fruit and, therefore, share in eternal life? I see four fundamental ways to do just that.
First, staying united to the vine means constantly growing in our life of prayer. Prayer is how we expose our souls to the divine sunlight. Just as plants need exposure to sunlight for energy, so we need to expose ourselves to God's truth and love through reading and reflecting on the sacred scriptures and through conversing with God in the quiet of our hearts. This must be a daily habit and must grow and adapt over the years in order for us to continue to grow and produce fruit.
Second, staying united to the vine means making good use of the sacraments, most especially the sacraments of the Eucharist and confession. If a branch gets damaged in a wind storm, a good gardener knows how to tie it up properly so that it will once again attach itself firmly to the trunk: he binds it or grafts it back on to the vine. This is what happens through confession: Jesus heals the connection to him that had been damaged or broken because of our sin. And in the Eucharist, our union with Christ is strengthened more powerfully than at any other time. Through it we receive an influx of grace like no other. In the Eucharist, the sap from the vine comes directly into us to nourish us and give us strength. Every Holy Communion, therefore, is like a spiritual springtime in which a new outpouring of divine life surges into our hearts and minds.
Third, staying united to the vine requires loving obedience to God's will. This is that to which Saint John refers in today's Second Reading when he writes: "Children, let us not love one another in word or in speech, but in deed and truth." It's easy to say pretty words: that is, to talk the talk of being a good Catholic. But that talk has to translate into actions. Otherwise, we are no better than actors on a stage, making a show out of looking like Christ's followers, but not really following Christ. Eastern Orthodox Saint Diadochus of Photike put it this way: “All of us who are human beings are in the image of God. But to be in his likeness belongs only to those who by great love have attached their freedom to God.” To stay attached to the vine, we must attach our freedom to God through our acts of loving obedience to his will.
Fourth, staying united to the vine means allowing God to prune us. Jesus says that each healthy branch of the vine must be pruned "so that it bears more fruit." This pruning takes the form of suffering, which may come in the form of painful, physical sufferings, like sickness, disease, financial insecurity, or old-age, or it may come in the form of hidden, interior sufferings, like losing a loved one or watching a dear relative abandon their Catholic faith. Whenever God permits these kinds of sufferings—that is, the ones over which we don't seem to have any control—we have to let our faith remind us that they are under his control. He is the vine-dresser. He knows how much pruning we can handle and he knows how to use that suffering to unite us more deeply with Christ, who suffered on the cross to redeem the world. In times of pain and hardship, therefore, we must recognize that God is begging us to trust in him more and more, to pray in the depths of our hearts that beautiful prayer that he himself taught us through his revelations to Saint Faustina of the Divine Mercy: "Jesus, I trust in you." Accepting the Cross, not rebelling when God tries to prune us, is the secret of how all the saints remained united to Christ.
Prayer, the sacraments, loving obedience, and suffering in union with Christ are what keep the grace which is God’s divine life flowing in our lives. These yield the fruit for which we most yearn: a life that resounds with meaning and energy, a life that positively impacts others and exudes joy and enthusiasm, a life that changes this world for the better in as profound a way as Christ's own life did, and a life whose meaning and impact overflow into eternity. This is what God wants for us; this is why Jesus came to earth: “By this is my Father glorified,” he said,
“that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” Bearing such fruit makes life worth living; because without it we are dry, dead branches good for nothing except the fire.
As we continue with this Mass, let's thank God from the depths of our hearts for uniting us to the vine of Christ. And when we receive our Lord in Holy Communion, let's promise him that this week we will make a decent effort to do our part to protect and strengthen that union.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – April 28th & 29th, 2018