FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (2021)
Readings:Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31Psalms 22:26-28, 30-32First Letter of John 3:18-24John 15:1-8
Some of my most favorite memories are of trips taken to the wine country of California. In the counties of Sonoma and Napa, I have hosted brunches in the middle of rolling hills covered with vines, I have stayed with friends in their Bed & Breakfast with vineyards right outside the bedroom window, I have roamed parishioners’ “favorite” wineries, who proudly displayed their plaque-adorned ‘personal’ vine, and most importantly I have tasted the wonderful product that vineyards have been offering to people for centuries. In my years as Headmaster in California, I numbered a few vintners as friends, and one thing is for certain – wine making, for broad distribution, is a difficult and arduous task, fraught with challenges both from man and from the hand of God.
If last Sunday was ‘Good Shepherd Sunday,’ today could be called ‘Vine Sunday,’ if it had a more favorable ring to it. In today’s gospel from John, we have the culmination of all seven “I am” sayings in John’s gospel, when Jesus speaks of Himself as the “true vine.” The image is more than all of the other images – living bread, light of the world, sheep-gate, good shepherd, resurrection and life, the way, the truth and the life – combined, for it speaks of the vitally important relationship that everyone who calls themself a “disciple” is meant to have with the Lord. It’s the kind of relationship that the great apostle Paul had with the Lord, but one might never be able to tell that from today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
If we don’t know our Scriptures, we might believe that after the ‘Damascus event’ the Apostle Paul had an easy time of blending in with the other apostles. After all, we consider Peter and Paul to be the two foundational pillars of the Catholic Church. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us just a glimpse of the difficulties Paul had fitting in when it tells us: “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.”
The disciples were rightly skeptical of Paul. You remember Paul’s (originally called Saul) first appearance in the Acts of the Apostles, when the men about to stone the deacon Stephen “lay their cloaks at the feet of a man named Saul.” Paul confesses in his writings to his original occupation of hunting down Christians, and one senses his embarrassment of once carrying out such an odious task. Yes, “the disciples were all [rightly] afraid of him,” but one can also imagine that they harbored some resentment for this johnny-come-lately. The disciples would come to see, through the intervention of a friend, Barnabas, (who is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Paul throughout Acts), that Paul had a life-changing experience, a metanoia, which now caused him to see himself as grafted onto the vine that is Christ. All that Paul would now do from Damascus on would be because he had the very life and love of Christ flowing in his veins.
The image John gives us of Jesus as the Vine, while familiar, is not ordinary. Indeed, it is a profound image which conveys the organic and vital connection that each of us is meant to have with the person we call Lord and Savior. It is our connectedness to Jesus the Vine which enables us to “bear fruit,” to do the deeds of a loving God. Without that connection we “can do nothing,” and the awareness of that connection gives us the humility to keep from claiming any credit for the good that we do. Our relationship with Jesus is more fundamental than our relationship with the Church, with our spouses, with our friends. Which is not to say they are unimportant. Rather, our relationship with Christ, our connection to the Vine that is Christ, enlivens and invigorates all of the relationships that we are blessed to have. We are meant to take Jesus’ words to heart: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him [her] will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”
If we do not do the good works of Him who we call our Savior, we can consider ourselves “pruned” from the vine, cut off from the very source of what enables us to do any good at all. Let us nourish our relationship with Jesus, let us take time to feel the life of Christ our Savior flowing within us, and may that energy keep us from ever tiring of doing the good works of a loving God.