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This Sunday is the Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B — True Vine Sunday, when Jesus Christ turns an Old Testament metaphor on its head, and makes it even more consequential.
Before, Scripture compared us to laborers in God’s vineyard. Now he says he is the vine and we are the branches.
Jesus wastes no time to get to the point: There is no substitute for producing fruit.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower,” Jesus tells the Apostles. “He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.”
It’s the same message he had shared many times before: It’s not those who say “Lord, Lord” who will be saved but those who do the will of the Father. When he returns, he will judge you on how you served him in his poor, how you used his talents; on how brightly you kept his light burning.
But this time is different. He has just given his apostles the gift of the Eucharist, and he is on his way to the Garden of Gethsemane, the place he will take ourr sins on himself. He may have been walking past a giant metal gate at the Temple cast in the likeness of a vine ripe with grapes.
Now he is identifying the source of the power we have for good: His grace coursing through us after our union with him in the Eucharist. In one metaphor he sums up so many more of his metaphors: The spring of water welling up in us to eternal life is like the veins of his vine; we are one body, his; we are the new Temple of his presence in the world.
“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,” he says. And he means it.
Along with the Gospel’s mystical description of what a Christian is, we get readings that say the same things without metaphor.
In the First Reading, from Acts, the disciples are scared to death of Paul. They don’t believe their former persecutor is truly a Christian. Paul stands accused of faking his faith, and Barnabas rises to his defense. Paul spoke out boldly for Jesus and debated with the Hellenists. Paul proved he was a Christian because he evangelized.
The Second Reading, from the Letter of John, offers another way we can each know if we are a Christian.
“Because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him,” John says, especially when we “love one another just as he commanded us. 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.” How can you tell if you love Jesus Christ? Because you will follow his commandments if you do, loving God above all things and your neighbor as yourself.
Obviously, the Liturgy is asking us the same question: Are we real Christians?
We fake Christians, we fruitless vines, will make a big show of seeming to be Christian. We will look like other Christians at Mass; we will say the creed and put a check in the basket. We may even be showier than other Catholics, big green leaves on the vine that sit up front and tithe even more.
But if we don’t produce fruit — if we don’t talk about Jesus and defend him, develop a love relationship with him, change our lives to look like his and reach those around us to influence others — we are just taking up space on the vine, and we will be pruned.
As St. Augustine put it, “When his words abide in the memory, and are not found in the life, the branch is not accounted to be in the vine, because it derives no life from its root.” On the other hand, true Christians will show their faith in everything they do. “So far as we abide in the Savior we cannot will anything that is foreign to our salvation,” he said.
That sounds demanding and difficult — so much so that it often leads to two errors that Jesus addresses with the vine.
It would be a grave error to hear the demands of the Gospel and decide, “I had better impress God with my fruit so he won’t condemn me.” That is the heresy of the ancient moralist Pelagius from the turn of the fourth and fifth century, who believed that our free will and the commandments are the grace we receive from God, and our job is just to follow them.
Most of us are Pelagians to some degree, figuring we will win or lose heaven solely by our choices. But Jesus purifies this idea when he says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” He explains: “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.”
Grace is something outside us that we participate in. It is the wind that we catch with our sails — the vine that we cling to for everything.
A second error we fall into is scrupulosity, when we become obsessed with the fear that they have displeased God. This is an easy mistake to make, too. After all, God said to be perfect and that we only really love him if we keep his commandments. And we break his commandments all the time.
Sunday’s Second Reading is a great reminder against scrupulosity, when it explains how we can “reassure our hearts before him in whatever our hearts condemn, for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.” If our hearts condemn us, we should remind ourselves that it is Christ’s love for us, not ours for him, that saves just as it is the true vine, and not our branch, that is the source of the grace coursing through us.
The true vine is the perfect image of the Incarnate God. He is not a policeman. He is not an exacting moralist. He wants to join us in a life of love, not tower over us in a life of cringing domination by a demanding deity.
He is the desire our hearts that is always fulfilled and always wanting more. We are always unworthy of him, and always welcomed by him. He wants us to talk with him, listen to him, risk for him, act with him, know him and share him. In short, he wants us to remain in him. Do that and the fruit will come.