Fifth Sunday of Easter
Any college student knows that when a professor repeats the same thing multiple times in a lecture, it’s probably important and you should pay attention. It just might be on the final exam. Well the same principle holds true when it comes to scripture. When Jesus repeats a certain point over and over again, we can be sure He’s trying to get our attention. He’s telling us, “Don’t miss what I’m saying here. It’s important.”
A clear example of this would be the bread of life discourse in John chapter 6, when Jesus says over and over again that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life; that His flesh is true food and His blood is true drink.
Another example is found in this Sunday’s gospel reading (Jn 15:1-8), when Jesus tells the disciples, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Christ is making the point that just as branches can only live if they remain attached to the vine, the disciples must remain attached to Jesus. Listen to how often He repeats the word “remain” in just these few short verses.
- “Remain in me, as I remain in you” (Jn 1:4a).
- “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” (Jn 1:4b).
- “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 1:5).
- “Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither…” (Jn 1:6).
- “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you” (Jn 1:7).
Do you think Jesus might be trying to tell us something here?
As Christian disciples, we need to remain connected to Jesus in the same way that a grape vine is connected to the main branch of the plant. This means a real connection, not just a vague identification with some ideal or noble principle. This is what makes Christianity different from other religions and philosophies. Christ doesn’t just ask us to follow Him. He makes us members of His Body. He incorporates us into Himself.
A grape vine is connected to the branch in a very real and tangible way. They are part of the same whole. So we are called to be part of the same whole as Christ. This means more than just reading the Bible or saying your prayers. It means more than just trying to be a nice person. It means being part of His Body, the Church.
From the beginning, being a Christian was not something done in isolation. It was always done as part of the community of believers centered around the Apostles. We see this illustrated in this Sunday’s first reading from Acts 9:26-31. We are given an episode in the life of Saul, the Pharisee known for persecuting Christians who becomes Paul the Apostle after receiving a vision of the Risen Christ. In the part of his story we read this Sunday, Saul comes to Jerusalem and discovers (no surprise) that the Christians are all afraid of him! But the Apostle Barnabas takes Paul to see the other Apostles. With their approval and protection, Paul is allowed to preach in Jerusalem and eventually goes on to become the great Apostle to the Gentiles. What this teaches us is important. Even though Paul received a direct vision from Jesus, he still needed to work in union with the Apostles in conjunction with the Church. Why? Because the Church is the Body of Christ on earth.
A few days ago I wrote a blog post about the earliest recorded use of the name “Catholic Church.” It comes from the writings of St. Ignatius who was bishop of Antioch for forty years, having been installed there by St. Peter and St. Paul. He learned the Christian faith directly from St. John. In his letter to the Smyrnaeans c. 107 AD, written while he was being transported to Rome for execution, he implores the Christians there to maintain unity with their bishop, because this is how they maintain unity with Christ.
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the priests as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as those who carry out the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist which is administered either by the bishop of by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.
The Church is not merely some invisible union of all self-determined “true believers” in Christ. The Church, like the human person, has both a visible and invisible reality. Historically, union with the Church has always been understood to mean union with the bishop who, as successor of the Apostles, represents in a real and tangible way the continuation of the Incarnation in space and time. Jesus promised to be with us always. He planted His vine in the persons of the Apostles and it continues to grow and bear fruit today. We become grafted to this vine by baptism and confirmation. We are nourished from it in the Holy Eucharist. By remaining attached to it, we will bear the fruit of eternal salvation.
To cut ourselves off from the vine is to cut ourselves off from the source of our spiritual nourishment. This is important to remember. Sometimes we might find ourselves in situations where we might not particularly like the other grapes growing near us. We might find ourselves growing in a spot where we feel we get too much sun or too much shade for our liking. We might get pecked at by birds or infested by insects. Sometimes life on the vine isn’t easy, so we may be tempted to just cut ourselves free and strike out on our own.
When we feel this way, we need to remember the words of Jesus: “Remain in me.” Stay. Wait. Remain connected to the source of eternal life. Jesus is the vine. Stay grafted to Him. Remain in His Body, the Church, and He will remain in you.