May 4, 2012

5th Easter: Life in Christ, Community and Sacrament

"I am the vine and you are the branches . . ."

Acts 9: 26 - 31
1 Jn 3: 18-24
Jn 15: 1-8
Have you ever wondered about your family tree?  Your ancestry or geneology? Exploring past generations of grandparents, great-grandparents, and generations as far back as possible of folks we’ve never met to whom we are related makes for fascinating study. We hope the good genes of the past were passed on to us and we somehow reflect the virtues or fame of our ancestors.   
Wouldn’t we want to be descended from famous royalty rather than infamous bad guys?  We would love to brag a bit about my great –great- great- grandfather who fought courageously in the Civil War or farther back signed the Declaration of Independence or at least knew someone who did.  Or what about coming over on the Mayflower with the early Pilgrims?  For some there may be a revelation farther back. 
Last year, after a Sunday Homily in which I pointed to the example of St. Thomas More as an illustration of heroic virtue, one parishioner came up to me and humbly shared a discovery about her family tree. She was related to the saintly Thomas More through her mother’s side of the family. There’s an ancestor anyone of us would be proud to have.  It is all about relationship, shared life and our identity as a people.
This Sunday we hear of a well-known image that Jesus used – that of the vine and the branches.  “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower . . . I am the vine, you are the branches . . .” (Jn 15: 1-8). It is an agricultural image with which Jesus’ audience would have been immediately familiar.  The image of the vineyard was another name for the ancient people of Israel.
To our minds, if we live anywhere near grape growing country and bountiful vineyards, as we do here, this familiar metaphor may bring to our taste buds rich Cabernet’s and dry Chardonnay’s.  But this is about much more than one’s wine tasting palate.  
In a true sense it is about our spiritual family tree and about the very source of life that flows from Christ to every one of us when we remain loyal to our faith.  As Jesus reminds us: “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing . . . “(Jn 15: 1-8).
Grafted on the vine of Christ and in forever relationship to one another through baptism and a shared common faith, we draw life and produce fruit (good works and virtue) abundantly in a way that no other relationship can do for us.
The fruit produced are lives of holiness, goodness, virtue, courage, charity.  But it is also clear that this is not about “Jesus and me.”  It is very much about “Jesus and we.”
Have you ever noticed that when speaking of this fruit we never speak of “a grape.”  We always refer to them as “grapes.” What could you do with a grape?
In the plural sense and in bunches at the grocery store we find them bagged and we know that one makes fine wine only through the juice and fruit of many grapes.  Only through a joint effort of many grapes, many hands, and many hours of painstaking care and experience does one bottle bring joy to its’ tasters.
In the same way, our first reading for this Sunday (Acts 9: 26-31) reveals the excitement of the early Church as the Holy Spirit bore much fruit among believers: “The church . . . was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.”  Not just a few but in the thousands. 
Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches brings hope to every one of us who find ourselves in those moments of isolation, doubt, lukewarmness, or in times when we struggle to love the Church that may appear to be producing scandal rather than holiness.
Yet, in three ways, it seems to me, we draw life as Christians: from Christ, in Community, and in our sacramental life we are joined together like branches on the vine.  For us Christian/Catholics we are blessed with a rich and lively spirituality. 
In Christ we draw life from the branches of faith as he makes himself present to us through the relationship we share with our brothers and sisters in community.  In the sacraments, particularly in our weekly celebration of the Eucharist the Church comes together and we share fellowship but most importantly the very mystical presence of the risen Christ as we break bread when we eat his body and drink his blood.  That life, his life, flows through us like blood through a body or water in a river.
How and where do I see myself as connected to Christ and my faith community? Do I treat the Eucharist as merely a private devotion or do I find myself moved to deeper love and desire for Christ-like service to greater humanity?  To remain faithful to Christ may sometime mean we have to pay a price for discipleship. How strong am I connected to endure?
Much food for thought on this Easter Sunday.  More to come . . .