Saturday, May 05, 2012

The True Vine: The Readings for the 5th Sunday of Easter

When I was in elementary school it was still possible to watch "The Lone Ranger" re-runs on our black-and-white TV in the afternoons.  This "masked man" struck unexpectedly, riding into towns in the Wild West on his trusty steed Silver, righting wrongs and correcting injustices, and disappearing as quickly as he came.  "Who was that masked man?"  Of course, the Lone Ranger is an icon of American culture, but it occurs to me that probably none of my seven children have any idea who he is.  I'll have to see if they have reruns on Netflix.

The "Lone Ranger" represents the high value American culture places on personal independence.  We admire the rugged individualist who doesn't need anyone else, who appears self-sufficient.  [But the Lone Ranger had Tonto, so how "lone" was he really?  Is that an internal plot contradiction?]

The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, however, do not encourage a maverick independence on the part of Christians.  We are not called to operate by ourselves, but in close connection with Christ "the vine," never being parted from him.  Because Christ identifies himself with his Church (Acts 9:4), the teaching about the vine also has implications for our relationship with Christ's body.

There is only a loose integration of the readings with one another during the Easter Season, since the first, second, and Gospel readings are each "doing their own thing": the first reading is giving us highlights from Acts; the second, highlights from 1 John; and the Gospel (usually) discourses from the Gospel of John.  Nonetheless, when read together, the readings cast light on each other and certain themes emerge.

1.  Our first reading describes the aftermath of Paul's conversion and his effort to join the Church:

Reading 1 Acts 9:26-31

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.
Then Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles,
and he reported to them how he had seen the Lord,
and that he had spoken to him,
and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.
He moved about freely with them in Jerusalem,
and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord.
He also spoke and debated with the Hellenists,
but they tried to kill him.
And when the brothers learned of this,
they took him down to Caesarea
and sent him on his way to Tarsus.

The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace.

It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord,
and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.
We see here that Paul, after his conversion, does not simply gather around himself some other converts and establish himself as the pastor of an independent congregation.  He travels to Jerusalem and "tries to join the disciples," i.e. the Church.  The disciples are already an identifiable body with a fundamental authority structure under the apostles.  So Barnabas takes Paul before the apostles in order to receive their confirmation and establish unity, or "ecclesial communion."  This made it clear that Paul was not operating as a "loose cannon," but his ministry had the blessing of the Church, and represented the mission of the Church. He moves freely "with them"--that is, the apostles and other disciples.  The unity of the Church leads to peace and growth--the Church in the Holy Land enjoys a "honeymoon" period for a short while.

This passage reminds us to pray for peace and unity among Christians for the sake of our common mission.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is taken from the second half of that great prophecy of the Passion and Resurrection, Psalm 22:

Ps 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32

R. (26a) I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.
R. Alleluia.
I will fulfill my vows before those who fear the LORD.
The lowly shall eat their fill;
they who seek the LORD shall praise him:
"May your hearts live forever!"
R. I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.
R. Alleluia.
All the ends of the earth
shall remember and turn to the LORD;
all the families of the nations
shall bow down before him.
R. I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.
R. Alleluia.
To him alone shall bow down
all who sleep in the earth;
before him shall bend
all who go down into the dust.
R. I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.
R. Alleluia.
And to him my soul shall live;
my descendants shall serve him.
Let the coming generation be told of the LORD
that they may proclaim to a people yet to be born
the justice he has shown.
R. I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.
R. Alleluia.
Psalm 22 is powerful, beautiful, mysterious.  Although attributed to David, the mortal crisis it describes does not match any of David's known sufferings, and the ancient editors made no suggestions for where it fit in his life, as they sometimes did for other psalms (cf. Pss 3, 7, 18, etc.).  Reading through Psalm 22, one can see that it breaks into two parts, the dividing point being either vs. 22 or 23.  The first half of the psalm is the "Good Friday" portion, that reads like a description of the Passion.  The second half (vv. 22-31) are the "Easter" portion, that describes all the good and blessing that comes on the heels of the suffering described earlier.  Here we see foreshadowings of the Eucharist ("the lowly shall eat their fill," v. 26), the evangelistic mission to the Gentiles ("All the ends of the earth shall ... turn to the LORD," v. 27), and life in the age to come  ("To him alone shall bow down all who sleep in the earth," v. 29).

3.  Our second reading continues the fundamental catechesis of the Apostle John:

1 Jn 3:18-24

Children, let us love not in word or speech
but in deed and truth.

Now this is how we shall know that we belong to the truth

and reassure our hearts before him
in whatever our hearts condemn,
for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us,
we have confidence in God
and receive from him whatever we ask,
because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
And his commandment is this:
we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and love one another just as he commanded us.
Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them,
and the way we know that he remains in us
is from the Spirit he gave us.
I used to use parts of 1 John in evangelism, because I was trained in "Evangelism Explosion," a method of presenting the Gospel associated with the Presbyterian church leader D. James Kennedy.  There were good things about this method, but it was based on a certain stream of the Calvinist tradition that insisted one could have absolute certainty about one's salvation (the "assurance of salvation").  So, in the course of evangelizing, I used to emphasize 1 John 5:13: "I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life."  And I would say to converts: "See, this says you don't just believe your saved, but you can know that your saved."

Indeed, John does write this epistle so that believers can be confident about their salvation, but the assurance of salvation offered in 1 John is a moral certainty, not an absolute certainty.  In other words, we may have a healthy confidence in our salvation, which the Church describes as the virtue of hope, but our salvation never becomes something we can take for granted.  (This is actually the position the great Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards also reached, in his classic, The Religious Affections.)

So, in 1 John, the Apostle gives us signs that we can look for in our lives that give us confidence that we are children of God.  For example: "By this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments."  Yes indeed.  But who of us keeps his commandments perfectly?  So salvation is never something "in the bag" that we can take as a given--this is what the Church calls "presumption."  At the same time, we can and do observe signs of progress in our lives in keeping the commandments of Jesus, and this provides consolation that in fact the Spirit is effectively working in us.

The last verse of this reading from 1 John ties it with the Gospel reading for today: "Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them."  This helps give definition to what it means to "remain in Jesus," a strong theme in the Gospel reading.  "Remaining in Jesus" does not just mean extended periods of ecstatic prayer, as good as that may be, but it involves active obedience to the the commandments of Jesus, including "to love not in word or speech, but in deed and truth", "to believe in his Name," and to "love one another."  That's a tall order, to truly live out that "love for one another."  One aspect of that love is to strive to maintain unity within the Church, a theme from the first reading.  We need to work together, not apart from one another, under the authority of the apostles and their successors.

It is when we love "not in word ... but in deed" that we can "reassure our hearts before him," that is, be confident that we have truly become children of God.  Who of us has arrived?  We can only make progress with the help of the "Spirit he gave us."

4.  The Gospel is Our Lord's famous "True Vine" discourse:

Gospel Jn 15:1-8

Jesus said to his disciples:
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me
will be thrown out like a branch and wither;
people will gather them and throw them into a fire
and they will be burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."
There is so much to observe here, but we must be content with only a few points.

This discourse is a counterpart of the Bread of Life discourse in John 6.  Both are, in part, Eucharistic discourses, but meditations on the two different species, the Body/Bread and Wine/Blood.  Wine is the fruit of the vine; when we receive in communion, we are imbibing the "sap" of the True Vine, which represents and actualizes our union with Christ.  One of the implications and applications of Our Lord's command to remain in him, the Vine, is to remain in close sacramental communion with him.

We can find much comfort in this passage about remaining in Jesus.  Yet we need to pay attention to the challenging aspect of Our Lord's words as well: The Father "takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit."  That is frightening!  Those branches "will be thrown out  ... and wither ... they will be burned." 

So we need to make an examination of conscience.  Am I bearing fruit?  In the New Testament, "fruit" can refer to virtues (Gal 5:22; Heb 12:11), good works (Col 1:10), and evangelistic effectiveness (John 4:36).  Do we see these fruit in our lives?

Furthermore, those who do bear fruit, the Father will "prune."  No doubt the cutting away of twigs from a branch is "painful" for the plant, but it leads to more fruit.  This refers to providential testing and trials sent by God to strengthen our faith.  But do we regard the contradictions and sufferings in our personal lives as the pruning of a loving Father?  To often we don't.

The key to "bearing much fruit" is to "remain in me" because "without me you can do nothing."  But what does it mean to "remain in Jesus"?  We can identify several practical points:

(1) "Remaining in Jesus" means remaining in the Church, his body (Eph 1:22-23), and striving to maintain communion with the other disciples and the apostles, that is, with the members and leaders of the Church, as Paul did in the first reading.

(2) "Remaining in Jesus" no doubt describes a lifestyle of prayer, of "asking in his Name."

(3) "Remaining in Jesus" has a sacramental dimension, frequently imbibing of the "sap of the Vine" in communion, and frequent confession so that we may commune worthily.

(4) "Remaining in Jesus" means a life of active obedience, "keeping his commandments and doing what pleases him."

(5) "Remaining in Jesus" has a charitable dimension, loving in "deed and truth" and not simply in "word or speech," which certainly has an application for our relationship to our brothers and sisters in Christ who lack material means: "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17).

The Lone Ranger may ride off into the sunset, but Christians are called to remain: remain in Christ, remain in the Church, remain in love with each other.


Michael Barber said...

Great job, John! Thanks for this! Love those four reflections on remaining in Jesus.

By the way, your kids will soon know a lot about the Lone Ranger. Johnny Depp is staring as Tonto in the remake, due out next year:

Since I loved the LR as a kid too, I can't wait--even if it looks a little weird.

De Maria said...

I asked a question about the connection between,

a. keeping the Commandments
b. eating the Flesh and Blood of our Lord
c. and abiding in Him

in the comments to your podcast, because I wanted to make this point.

In order to receive Communion, one must "examine oneself" (1 Corinthians 11:28). We are taught that this examination, at least before Confession, entails a review of whether or not we have kept the Commandments. If we are in a state of grace, i.e. if we have not violated the Commandments, we may receive the Body and Blood of our Lord and thereby abide in Him.

It might sound a bit simplistic, but I believe every time we present ourselves before the Altar to receive a Sacrament, we experience a sort of "pre" Judgment. Whether we know it or not. Christ said: "believe and be baptized and you will be saved, believe not and you will be condemned" (Mark 16;16). It seems to me, this admonition concerns every Sacrament. That is why many sleep (1 Cor 11:30-31).

We might be able to fool other people. In many cases, we may even fool ourselves. But no one fools God. If we present ourselves unworthily, we will be judged.


De Maria

De Maria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Barber said...

De Maria:

Thanks for your comments. I think we have a very similar view! Peace!

John Bergsma said...

Thanks, Michael and De Maria, for your comments. I agree with the view of communion as a preliminary judgement. That's in the tradition.