Tuesday, April 24, 2018

We are all branches of the same tree

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B

The Irish poet W. B. Yeats said, “If what I say resonates with you, it is because we are both branches on the same tree.” Hopefully something said today resonates with you reminding you that we are a branch on the same tree, the tree of our Lord Jesus Christ. And more importantly, hopefully something that Christ has said resonates with you on this day and on many others, reminding you that you are a branch of His tree. In today’s gospel, our Lord employs a readily accessible image in Israel during His time. In the final of the 7 “I am” sayings of Christ we have perhaps the most visual and poetic – “I am the Vine.”

The metaphor is not entirely new. As we can see in the Old Testament, Israel was often depicted as a vineyard (cf., Isa. 5; Jer. 5:10; 12:10-11), sometimes fruitful, sometimes not. Our Lord also used this imagery in parables to describe the Kingdom of God (Matt 20:1-16; Lk 13:6-9). But His use of it in John 15 is unique and notable for its intimacy: “I am the true vine,” Our Lord provides the key to that relationship as He exhorts the disciples on the eve of His Passion, “remain in me as I remain in you.” It is not just sufficient to know Christ or to encounter Him in an intimate way. The secret to that relationship is to “remain”, to “abide.”

One of the apostles, of course, did not remain in Christ; the danger of cutting oneself off from the vine and eternal life is real. It can happen; tragically, it does happen. It is why we have recourse to Confession, which restores us to full communion with Christ and the Church. Remaining in Christ includes remaining in the Church. So anyone claiming that he is committed to Christ but have wishes to distance himself from the people of God do not know what they are talking about. To say that one only needs the former and can dispense with the latter is an outright lie. Commitment to Christ entails commitment to His Body, the Church. We need both the church and Christ. They’re mutually inclusive - you can’t have one without the other. Our faith is not just personal or individual, as many modern Christians would claim today, but rather fundamentally and essentially communal and ecclesial. Being part of Christ means being attached to the Church, the Body of Christ. When we grow in intimacy with Christ, we must necessarily grow in intimacy with others. So, when people stay away from the community of the Church, from the BEC, from any fellowship with other Catholics, and yet protest that they are disciples of Christ, are living a contradiction.

There is another point apart from intimacy, that is put forward by the image of the vine and its branches – it is anonymity. In an age that idolises individual self-expression, in a culture where everyone hopes to have their five minutes of fame whether on a talentime show or on social media, where everyone seems to be fighting for the right to be different and unique, the parable provides a stern critique. In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another, it  is  impossible  to  determine  where  one  branch  stops and where another  branch  starts.  They all run together as they grow out of the central vine. What the vine image suggests about community is that, there are no free standing individuals in the community.  This metaphor of the vine and the branches is stark in its anonymity, that is, the visual image of the branches lacks any and all distinctions in appearance or character of gifts. What is essential is not isolated individuality but rather anonymous connexion with the Vine – apart from it we have no identity, we cannot have life!

So when we are genuinely and humbly connected to Christ so too are we intertwined with others in Christ, such that, by our very nature we bond into a community that seems inseparable, organic, woven together in love. So much so that who has what gifts and abilities is secondary - what matters is not who has or who does what, what matters is what we do as part of the whole and what we are together. Because when a branch is cut off, of course, it ceases to be fruit-bearing. When we break away and go our own way, we ultimately cease to be fruit- bearing.

But no one can ever claim community life is easy. Just ask the religious and priests who live in communities. We will be the first to tell you how hard it is to live as a community, and how humbling it is to be in a community. One may shine outside the community, but the community is the true litmus test of discipleship. Thus, the parable speaks of the need of pruning. Our Lord speaks of His Father, the vinedresser, doing two things that require a knife. Every branch that doesn't bear fruit, the Father removes, cuts away; and every branch that does bear fruit the Father prunes, so that it may bear more fruit. Likewise, we have to be pruned, bits and pieces, certain practices, vices, or habits or ways of being or ways of speaking need to be trimmed  up and off, in order for us to be able to grow in Christ. And more often than not this can be painful, the clipping and cutting, the fraternal correcting, the forgiving and reconciling, the changing of behaviours and attitudes. Pruning is always a painful process. It is a form of loss or death. But, paradoxically, the vinedresser is never more intimately involved than when wielding the pruning-knife! As any good gardening enthusiast will tell you, “Getting roses to bloom means cutting back the canes.” Growing pains. Pruning pains. Changing pains.

There is another theme that emerges from this metaphor - being overly presumptuous about our salvation. Such presumption is a sin against hope. It is basically saying that once a person has been baptised, his entrance into heaven upon death is guaranteed. It is what some Evangelical groups would term as the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. But the truth is that we may lose the sanctifying grace we have received through the Sacrament of Baptism by committing a mortal sin. The story of Holy Week leaves us with an important reminder that we should not ignore. One of the apostles, did not remain in Christ; he shared in the first Eucharistic meal but his heart had already been set to betray Christ. Thus, being committed to Christ means continuously being committed to the life of holiness, of personal sanctification, throughout our entire lives and not just be contented with a single moment of grace or conversion. It means remaining in the Church. It is not just enough to receive grace. We are called to remain in the state of grace and if this is not so, we should immediately make use of the sacrament of penance to be reconciled to God and His Church.

The call to abide in the vine should never be taken lightly or superficially. It calls for something quite radical and life changing. It is a call to a personal and intimate knowledge of Jesus himself, not an idea, but a living person. It calls for us to be “plugged” into Jesus, grafted onto His life, allowing His very presence to pulsate through our minds and hearts. It calls for us to be immersed in the life of the community and the Church, no matter how painful and challenging this may be. It is a call to be intertwined with others to the point that the whole becomes greater than the parts. To abide in the vine means always being committed to grow in the life of prayer and sanctification and never feeling complacent with the bare minimum or whatever is mediocre. Abiding in Christ, as St Cyril of Alexandria wrote, requires the wholehearted and transforming “confession of piety.” Finally, as the second reading emphasises, mere words are not enough when it comes to demonstrating a right relationship with God. Talking means nothing if, as the old saying goes, we don’t walk the talk. Rather, we must examine our hearts and “keep his commandments and do what pleases him.”

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