(See the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29)
Jesus says, “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
We have already seen the Father’s glory in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. His triumph over death has broken its power. Fear gives way to proclamation. The small group of Jesus’ disciples, emboldened by their faith in him and his resurrection, go out into the world to spread the “good news” that the reign of God has begun. Jesus reminds us today that God’s glory continues to be manifest when we follow him and “bear much fruit.”
The Acts of the Apostles follows the spread of the Gospel message in the decades following Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. We have been hearing these accounts since Easter Sunday. The extraordinary spread of the message is carried out chiefly in ordinary events. Jesus’ disciples go to different towns and regions and begin to proclaim that Jesus, fulfilling the Father’s plan, has risen from the dead.
The proclamation, made in love, is accompanied by the disciples caring for the sick and poor, gathering together to support one another in a life of faith and learning, through prayer and reflection, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The activity is mysteriously guided by the Spirit, who is ever present. Obstacles such as rejection, persecution, imprisonment, torture and death have no power to stop the mission moving forward. The Gospel continues to spread; many people come to believe and are baptized, by which they are joined to the “vine.”
The saving work of Christ Jesus continues in the life of the church, then and now. The glory of the Father is seen in faithfulness to Christ Jesus. This is the point of Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel passage. We return to the public ministry in this account. Jesus says, “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.” The image of the vine and its branches is a familiar one that sometimes needs pondering, so as to keep it fresh in our lives of Christian discipleship.
The image is simple and clear. The vine brings nourishment and life to the branch. Anyone who has done any gardening or have plants in the home knows that well, not necessarily by scientific research but by simple observation. If a branch gets damaged or cut and is not completely connected to the stem, then it starts to struggle. It will probably begin to turn brown as food for its life is impeded. If a branch is completely severed, it will die quickly.
Such it is with our lives. Jesus gives us life and shows us the way to life. It all revolves around our relationship with Him. He is the Lord of life and willingly bestows that life on us. Jesus specifically uses this image, probably referring to a grapevine rather than any other plant, because the grapevine bears fruit. New life, then, comes from the vine in the fruit that it bears, so long as the branch remains on the vine.
The relationship between Jesus and his disciples — that is, us — is central in this image. The quality of the fruit, as well as its yield, will depend on the relationship. Jesus gives us a witness to this in his own relationship with the Father. How often has he told us, in many different ways, that he and the Father are one. He sees his own mission and ministry as the Father’s.
As one example, think back on the scene in the garden of Gethsemane before he is arrested. “Not my will, but yours be done,” he prays (Luke 22:42). Or the beautiful invitation in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus says, “Come to me all you are weary and find life burdensome and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 11:28). Just before this, he says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27).
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus tells us that the Father is the vine grower. He is the one who cares for the vine and ultimately ensures its growth and the bearing of fruit. However, Jesus also says that we have a role in that relationship. He tells us that we need to remain on the vine so that we will bear fruit and bear good fruit.
How do we remain on the vine? There are many ways, chief of which is to participate in the saving mystery of our salvation at Sunday Mass. In this celebration of thanksgiving, we are nourished both in word and sacrament. The relationship with the Lord and his body, the church, is fortified and fed.
One aspect of this liturgy that resonates with today’s Gospel is the Liturgy of the Word. This is the first major part of the Mass. Jesus urges us in the vine and branches teaching to allow his words to remain in us. We do this when we not only hear his words proclaimed in the Scriptures, but when we listen to those words and allow him to speak to us, to draw us into that loving relationship, to encourage us to live the life he offers and to prune whatever in our lives are not of him or his way.
Jesus glorifies the Father in making him manifest to the world. He does this through a relationship built on love. The glorification continues today when we are united to Christ Jesus as a branch to the vine, bearing good and bountiful fruit.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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Thank you, Msgr. Prior, for your excellent homilies.