I am the vine, you are the branches. (Gospel).
A couple of weeks ago, I drove into our driveway to find that a branch had fallen from an Oak Tree that shades the property when in season. I looked at the branch that was very much alive with flowery sprouts that were shortly to transform into leaves. It had fallen in the way and tugging it off the drive took a little effort. This morning I saw the branch still lying there and noted that there was no sign of life on its extensions. Separated from the tree, it could no longer bring forth leaves to help shadow the area.
The oak and the grapevine are familiar plants for us in this part of the country. They help us understand the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches”. Last week Jesus told us that he was the Good Shepherd who never leaves his flock untended and leads us to green pastures. Today he explains that not only does he lead us, he becomes our life source. If we remain attached to him, then life flows through us just as the branch draws life from the vine. Just as the branch can become separated from the vine, so also can we become separated from Jesus, our life.
First, let us inquire: how do people become separated from Christ? Usually it is gradual as we begin to give way to small things. We begin adjusting sacred codes to satisfy our choices in life. We allow the importance of faith to dwindle in our moral options. We allow ourselves to secularize and minimize the sacredness of divine things and religious ideals. Sacraments become simple empty signs and symbols rather than life giving needs in our religious practice. We drift from the eternal to the temporal longings. Soon we come to church and find that the songs, the worship, the liturgy, all begin to lose meaning and purpose. Eventually simple priorities allow us to drift away. Then we skip a Sunday or two, overlook a sacred teaching here and deny a spiritual law there until faith becomes only a small part of our lives if any part at all.
We begin to lose life’s meaning because we detach ourselves from the living Lord, piece by piece phasing ourselves out from the life Jesus has won for us by his Death and Resurrection. We need to remain in contact with the living Christ. This is so much easier to do when we disallow faith and religion to become occasional choices rather than a life’s commitment. Jesus warns us: “you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
Secondly, if we are to remain attached to the Vine, then we need to belong to the Church. Paul could not boast simply in a momentary encounter with Christ as a sign of his full conversion. He had to prove his connectedness by sealing a relationship with the living Church, by giving signs of his desire to live by and with the teachings of the Apostles and principles of true Christian life.
The same is true of us. How can we know that our spiritual experiences are truly inspirations from God? One test is whether they draw us closer to the Church, to the community of faith rather than isolating us, setting us apart in spiritual individualism. Taking part in the life of the Church verifies our personal spirituality and keeps us balanced. Becoming an active member of the Church is the first way a follower of Christ reveals the authenticity of the faith one professes.
A third way that we stay in contact with the living God is through the expression of our faith in works of charity toward others. Coming back to the fallen branch in our driveway, I was thinking that if branches could think and speak, what would that fallen branch have said to the other branches in the tree: “you’re branching out into different ways;” “you do not bend the same way I do;” “you are heading in another direction”. You see, it is not the way the branch is bent, but the way it is connected to its life source and spreading that life through its service to the rest of the community for the good of the environment and the unity of the whole body.
John teaches us this need when he advises us in the reading of his first letter today: “love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep his commandment(s) remain in him, and he in them.”
So today, we seek to manifest our true faith, our full connectedness to the vine, which is Jesus, by the way we remain united with each other and together serve the needs of all. Our message this Sunday is a very encouraging one which offers us the hope that when we remain together in faith and in service life can begin to bud and the fruit of our labors will bring refreshment and sustenance, hope and fulfillment to all who come to us in need.
To get things right in the Church of yesterday, today and tomorrow, let us see where there is still life in us and hold to what keeps us united to that source. “Remain in me as I remain in you, says the Lord. Whoever remains in me will bear much fruit.” This is the test: can we show such authentic faith?