“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus tells the disciples. What a perfect message for our followship, as we begin to come together again in our church on a Sunday morning. The image of the vine and branches invites us to consider our relationship with God in God’s church. The connection between vine and branches is vital. God is the One who gives life, sustaining our lives through nourishment and hydration. It is, organic, natural and pure. When the vine is healthy, it enables the branches to bear much fruit, to love, to preach, to be of service to others, to pray; even to live well, sing, laugh and enjoy the simple pleasures of food, wine and soft cuddly puppies.
So, it is with our relationship with God. As Jesus says, He is the vine and we are the branches.
Continuing our celebration of Easter, we are reminded that we are united with Jesus “the vine” through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. Our union with Christ Jesus is real. Though unseen, we can actually feel, we can truly experience this connection every day. And while baptism, confirmation and Eucharist are the outward and visible signs of our relationship, our relationship is actually invigorated and strengthened in millions of ways.
The celebration of the Eucharist is an ongoing and essential source of nourishment for this relationship. Grace combines with followship, mindfulness and tradition to feed us with spiritual food, bringing vitality to us, the branches. The source is the vine. The source is Christ Jesus.
Prayer is another way in which the relationship is strengthened and sustained. Prayer can be done at anytime and anywhere. It can be as simple as a “Good morning God”, or a hasty sign of the cross. Or prayer can be a dedicated daily hour for holy contemplation or a moment at night before we go to sleep when we survey the things and people for whom we are grateful. Prayerfully clinging to the vine often includes reading and studying scriptures or just listening to a spiritual podcast on one’s daily walk. Prayer is acknowledging our relationship, it can be done at home, in a park or in a church: in school; in a boat, in a moat; in a box or with a fox.
Since Easter we have reflected upon and celebrated Jesus’ life, passion, death and resurrection. The lectionary has kept us focused on the ways of the early church through the Acts of the Apostles. In those days after the resurrection, hundreds of people from diverse backgrounds were coming together in the name of Jesus to be baptized. They became part of the vine. The relationship was established and the branches begin to bear fruit.
Today this relationship is seen in the world by the way we love God, our neighbors and ourselves; in how we pray for willingness to accept God’s will and the power to carry it out. You can witness the power of the vine to the branches in how we experience and show care, forgiveness and concern for others. Proof of the living branches is seen in our works of service to the homeless, and the hungry and addicted. The branches are evidenced in the healing miracles of the once broken and hopeless who find peace, sobriety and freedom of mental illness. The branches care for the sick and dying, they are the people who give comfort to the sorrowful, and provide support to those who face adversity with faith and courage from God.
You may call it woke, but I call our new cultural openness to face our biases and prejudges as branches being feed by the true vine. The vine feeds us with the nutrients needed to grow in our humility; learn to honestly acknowledge past and present transgressions, and to forgive the sins of our people, and of our country and culture. And it is the vine that gives us the courage to face our own mistakes and be forgiven.
The account in this Sunday’s reading recalls Saul’s (later named Paul) visit to Jerusalem. This is his first visit since his conversion. Recall that prior to this Saul was persecuting the Christians. The last time he was in Jerusalem, he had even participated in the martyrdom of Stephen. Now he returns, in a sense, a new man. His life has been turned around through his relationship with Christ and His followers. He was baptized in Damascus and while there the relationship bean, developed and grew.
Members of the church instructed him in the life and teachings of Christ Jesus. His faith grew strong and he began to preach. Now he returns to Jerusalem. Naturally the disciples in Jerusalem are apprehensive at first, knowing his past actions. Soon they realize the authenticity of his faith. His proclamation in Jerusalem joins with that of the others and many more people come to faith.
The church is at peace. And with the “consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.” The gospel is being proclaimed and many are coming to believe. They are being united with the vine and now begin to bear fruit.
The second reading for today’s liturgy is from 1 John. The reading encourages us to keep the commandments of God. The author states: “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.” He goes on to use the language of “remaining” similar to what Jesus says in today’s gospel passage. “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.”
Life is a gift from God. Eternal life is poured into us through Christ Jesus. He is the vine through which we continue to live. Jesus reminds us today that we will bear great fruit if we remain in him and in his love. The words encourage us to faithfulness every day, to allow that life-giving grace to animate in love, so that we can love as we have been loved.
In this, the gospel is proclaimed in our work and prayer and the gift of life is given and sustained. And so today we are encouraged, by Jesus himself, to “remain in me, as I am in you.”
I would like to end this sermon with the Third Step prayer from the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book: This is the prayer that prepares new addicts to the program to become a branch of the sober community and begin a life of service to other addicts.
"God, I offer myself to Thee—To build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of Life.”
Borrowed heavily from today’s sermon by Joseph Prior, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, PA and former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.