The True Vine

Homily for April 29, 2018 (5th Sunday of Easter)
Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8

Last weekend, a friend from Detroit sent me an urgent text message.  A seven year-old girl, the granddaughter of a friend, was very sick and in a hospital here in Chicago.  Her condition was critical.  His grandmother had asked if there was a Capuchin in the city who would go to the hospital to give her granddaughter the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. It was only a few hours before our Confirmation Mass here, but how could I say no?

When I arrived at the intensive care unit at the hospital, several nurses were standing around the girl's bed.  She was on life support.  As I anointed this child, and we commended her to God’s mercy, I couldn’t help but notice that her frail body was covered with tubes linked to different machines. I recalled my own experience of being on a heart-lung machine a couple of years ago when I had open heart surgery.  I remembered feeling comforted and strengthened but also vulnerable.  I had to put my trust in that machine to keep me alive.

We might have similar feelings of comfort, strength and vulnerability when we consider the image of the vine and the branches in today's gospel reading.   Speaking to his disciples during the Last Supper, Jesus told them that he, the true vine, was their spiritual life support.  “Without me,” he admonished them, “you can do nothing.”

Chicago isn’t exactly “wine country.”  It may be hard for us to relate to the images of vineyards, vines and branches.  But Jesus’ disciples understood them very well.  There were vineyards all around Jerusalem and the other places in ancient Israel and Palestine where they lived, worked and traveled.  They could also recall the images of God in their own Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) and how the people of Israel were described as God’s special vineyard.  God himself planted, nurtured and protected it.  But too often it had yielded a bad harvest (c.f. Isaiah 5:1-7). 

As God’s own Son, planted on earth and cultivated with the mystery of divine love, Jesus offered himself as a new vine.  Today his mystical body, the Church, has grown into a vineyard and each of us, the spiritual descendants of his disciples, are the branches.  We stay attached to the vine through prayer, the word of God and the sacraments.  We are pruned by our spiritual disciplines, confession, and what we hopefully learn from the mistakes we are bound to make as human beings. 

That pruning can be painful.  But it has a purpose:  to make us more fruitful.  In our first reading, St. John recalls three heavenly graces that come to fruition when we allow ourselves to be pruned by God and by life:  faith, hope and love.   These are not abstractions!  We are called to love “not in word or speech but in deed and truth.”

When we love in that way, it is evident in our relationships and our community.  It was evident when Barnabas risked his own reputation and credibility to bring Saul among the disciples so shortly after his encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus.  It was witnessed in a church that was at peace, being built up, walking in fear of the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit, and growing in numbers.  That can be our church and community, too, if we draw our strength from the true vine, Jesus Christ. +