SERMON – Easter V
May 6, 2012
+In the Name…
Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (St. John 15:5).
At this time of year, which is so incredibly beautiful in southeastern Pennsylvania, as we’ve seen and continue to see so many trees and plants blossom and bloom, we have before our dazzled eyes the beauty of creation. We are so blessed to behold such beauty.
A number of you, I’m led to believe, went to the Philadelphia Flower Show a few months ago, to behold a splendiferous exhibit of Hawaii’s exotic plants and flowers. Again, what a blessing to behold, and a reminder of God’s gift of beauty in creation.
In so many parts of the world where there is enough warmth, rain, and fertile soil, there are vines of many types weaving their way in different directions. It always amazes me how far a vine can travel from its source and stay connected to it for sustenance; and how some vines have a clinging “power” in them.
I remember a few years ago pulling yards and yards of ivy from off the south side of the Rectory in Rosemont. I noticed that the branches of ivy had every so often, what I can only describe as, miniature suction cups affixed to the aluminum siding. I had to pull hard at the ivy branches to release them from the hold they had taken on the side of the house.
Where Rita and I have been living in Haverford (due to the generous provision of George and Mary Sayen), the backyard extends to the railroad tracks where the SEPTA and Amtrak trains run east to west. Luke likes to go back there (and I make sure that I accompany him when he does) through a small area of trees and ground growth to stand on a bank above the tracks to watch the trains go by. Last week, after so much rain the week before and recently, we couldn’t get near to our normal spot of viewing because a jungle of vines had grown up so quickly blocking our normal path, hindering us from having our normal unobstructed view of the passing trains. The vine or the plant (whatever it is) reminded me of kudzu which grows so fast, thick, and heavily that you can almost see it’s movement of growth before your eyes.
In this morning’s passage from the Gospel of St. John, we have another of our Lord’s “I am” statements. He says: “I am the vine.”
You will remember that when Moses asked God His Name, God said to Moses, “I am who I am." Jesus, as the second Moses, and more critically God Incarnate, spoke of and identified Himself as “I am” several times during His earthly ministry: “I am the Good Shepherd;” “…the light of the world;” “…the bread of life;” “…the Resurrection and the life,” and more.
Today, we hear Him declare, “I am the Vine,” adding that “my Father is the vinedresser,” and “you are the branches.”
The Jewish nation was familiar with the image of the vine, as it was a metaphor for the people of Israel.
The Prophet Hosea said: “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit” (10:1). The Prophet Isaiah said:
“Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard; My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines” (5:1-2). The Prophet Ezekiel said: “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard…” (19:10).
The Prophets spoke in different ways of Israel as being both vineyard and vine from which God looks for good fruit. The Prophets tell how their disobedience in clinging to false gods had disastrous effects on the vineyard and vine of God’s planting.
Jesus reintroduces and redefines this image of the vineyard and vine, saying that He, as the Incarnate Son of God, has been planted in their midst by a merciful and graciously-providing and restoring God. They are to understand themselves as the branches that need to find themselves connected to God through Jesus the Messiah – the One who comes to lead them into holiness and righteousness before God. They are to be firmly connected with Him as the Vine, so that they bear good fruit. If they remain unconnected, they will not be able to bear the fruit they should, and may even find themselves cut off from the Vine and thrown away as useless.
It is more than interesting to me that in teachings like this, in which Jesus makes very profound statements about He who is, He offers both the promise of blessings and abundant life when people accept Him for who He is; but, at the same time, makes it clear that the consequences of not accepting His teaching and direction are severe, i.e. that the branch can either bear much fruit, or it can be thrown into the fire and burned!
What we are to hear in this Gospel passage is that the Catholic Church is the vineyard, the New Israel, and Jesus the Vine is its head through the Successor of Peter. Jesus prayed, as we do at every Mass, that we “all may be one." We long for that, and we pray that it will (in God’s time) be our corporate reality. The Holy Father gave us his Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, meaning “groups of Anglicans." As we hope, pray, and work for such unity, we are to be connected with Jesus the Vine for His Life to live within us – that, as we pray in the Prayer of Humble Access (referring His Presence in the Blessed Sacrament) “that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.”
The final words of that great Anglican prayer points to what Father Bartunek writes in his book The Better Part about this morning’s Gospel. He writes: “Where does the vine stop and its branches begin? Their union is too complete to tell. The same sap gives life to the vine and its branches. He is Lord from within, renewing our hearts from the inside, as only God can do” (p. 944).
That is so true. The renewing of our hearts and the deepening of our soul’s relationship with God is rooted in what God gives to us as we open ourselves up to His action upon and within us. We, of course, take the initiative, responding to His imitative of love (“We love, because He first loved us” (I John 4:19), by engaging ourselves in prayer and devotion; in reading God’s Word and solid spiritual writings; and receiving the food of the Vine, the precious Body and Blood of our Savior.
But coterminous with this type of feeding, in that our Lord the Vine feeds its dependent branches, is the whole process of pruning. I’m not a gardener, but as I understand it, pruning is for the benefit of a particular part of the plant for the greater health, well-being, and productivity of the plant.
Pruning involves the cutting away or the cutting back of what impedes or imperils proper or better growth. As Jesus said concerning the branches of the Vine: “…every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, so that it may bear more fruit."
The pruning that God the Father does to the branches is a recognition that fruit has been or is being borne, but He desires more and better fruit. For our spiritual growth and development to be whole and mature, this means that God the Father, who is the vinedresser, determines what is best for our growth. What the fruit borne from the branches of the Vine is fundamentally to be is fruit that has the look, feel, texture, and taste of the Vine from which it is borne. In other words, the fruit are to be lives in which their fruitfulness comes from Jesus. So, where do we begin?
We are to look into our hearts, and see what is there, or what isn’t there – remembering that we begin each Mass with the Collect of Purity, in which we acknowledge that Almighty God is the One “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid." And then we pray: “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit." In that prayer (to which we give our “Amen”), we are saying that we desire our hearts to be conformed to the heart of our Lord, whose only desire (as He stated so many times) was to do the will of His Father. Blessed John Henry Newman’s motto, that accompanied his Coat of Arms when made Cardinal, is cor ad cor loquitur – “heart speaks unto heart."
Jesus said: “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” – meaning that our hearts need to be right with the Lord. The Heart of Jesus is to rule our hearts, only if and when we allow Him to speak to our hearts; when His Heart beats within our hearts.
Blessed John Henry Newman puts it this way: “…in truth, we must do nothing except with Him in our eye. As He is, through whom alone we have the power to any good thing, so unless we do it for Him it is not good. From Him our obedience comes, towards Him it must look. He says, ‘Without Me ye can do nothing.’ No work is good without grace and without love” (Sermon – “Fasting: A Source of Trial”).
Think for a moment, if you will, upon that final sentence: “No work is good without grace and without love." I find that quite sobering and most necessary for reflection today and in and for the days ahead. As branches of Vine, our “work” for the Vine for the Vine’s purpose (in other words, for the work of Jesus) can only bear fruit if it His work and will that seek we do, and if we do it out of love for Him and for others. That needs to be our measuring stick – casting aside anything and being pruned of whatever is self-will and our determination of what we want to do and accomplish.
This does mean that we park any sense of reason and human experience from former times at the door, but we avail others in a more open and determined way to be grace-full (as full of God’s grace as we can) and to love as we are loved – which is a love that gives without any control to control the result of the love given. That’s a tough assignment, but it can be done and lived if we appropriate the spiritual truth of, maintain the desire for, pray that “we may evermore dwell in Him, and He is in us."
Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
+In the Name…