Sunday, 10 May 2009

5th Sunday of Easter Year B

Today’s Gospel must be understood from the perspective that it was spoken at a time before the Passion began. Christ was with the disciples either at the Last Supper or during the journey to Gethsemane. The situation was tense. They knew the end was coming though they didn’t really know how it was going to end.

You can imagine how reassuring these words meant as the parting between them was about to take place. The use of the vine and branches imagery was appropriate and it gives rise to a few characteristics worthy of our consideration. First of all, there is a unity between the vine and the branches indicating the unity that exists between Christ and His disciples. Secondly, the branches have no life once separated from the vine and thirdly the branches need to be pruned to bear much fruit.

Today I would like to consider on a particular characteristic, which is important and that is, how we are to understand this unity between the vine and the branches.

Some of us conceive of this unity on a “personal” basis. As individuals, we acknowledge that without Christ, we cannot do anything. The challenge, however, is to rise above a purely “personal” understanding of our relationship between the vine and the branches. It is important to go beyond just a “personal” relationship with Christ because it has an implication on our understanding of Church and community.

Even though the image lends itself to a “personal” interpretation of the relationship between Christ and me, a deeper reflexion tells us that the image of vine and branches is more suitably a description of who we are as Church.

The idea of a “personal” relationship with Christ is important. But this “personal” emphasis or stress could also be a result of our experience of an impersonal world. In short, the world is cold and as such, we are driven to search for this “personal” relationship and find it most fittingly answered by a relationship with Christ. In such a case, the more we stress the need for a “personal” relationship with Christ, the more we are saying that the world is cold. Thus, He becomes more a security blanket than He is the vine from whom we draw our sustenance.

Whilst the relationship with Christ is meant to be personal, it must also be set within the context of discipleship, within the community, within the Church. Otherwise, our “personal” relationship with Christ makes no sense. If “personal” were the only defining characteristic of our relationship with Christ, then baptism does not make sense. We would not have infant baptisms. A child can’t possibly baptise itself. Neither does it make sense that an adult does so. You can’t take water, pour over yourself and say, “I baptise myself in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Baptism shows very much the “ecclesiality” of who we are as branches of the vine; it brings out the necessity of the Church in our relationship with Christ.

Furthermore, there is the common argument against sacramental confession that starts off with “Why confess to a priest when I can go directly to God”. This mentality comes from a purely "personal” conception of our relationship with Christ; a personal relationship which does not take into consideration that Christ's relationship with the 12 as individuals was also a relationship with the 12 as a whole—You are Peter and upon you, I will build my Church and I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail, and you, once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.

The lack of “personal” relationship with Christ, which is a stressing point of many Evangelical Churches—“have you got a personal relationship with Christ”—may be a contributory reason why there are so many “churches”. The Church is the Body of Christ and as the Body of Christ, it is THE Body of Christ and not THE BODIES of Christ. And we know this so-called phenomenon of “Christians” further disintegrating is still going on.

Therefore, a pertinent question for us to think about is how we are to conceive of this “personal” relationship with Christ. In the context of Church, it is personal relationship that must draw life from Christ and to draw life from Him is to avail ourselves of the sacraments. Why? Because "I am the vine and you are the branches" only makes sense if there is something we can get from Christ and that something is to be found concretely through the channels called sacraments. According to the Catechism,
[T]he sacraments are "of the Church" in the double sense that they are "by her" and "for her." They are "by the Church," for she is the sacrament of Christ's action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit. They are "for the Church" in the sense that "the sacraments make the Church," since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons. (#1118)
Without the sacraments and the Church, the image of the vine and the branches is a dead one. Now we begin to see how the Eucharist is so crucial to who we are as Christians and as Church.

More than ever in an image conscious world, a visual media world, there is need for Christians to bear fruit in plenty. And the Saints have shown us the way to bear fruit in plenty. For them, the image of vine and branches is alive both personally [they pray, they fast] and ecclesiologically [they are always somehow related to the Church]. They have a personal relationship with Christ and at the same time, they are always close to Holy Mother Church. From her, they draw the very life of Christ in the sacraments so that sustained by the very life of Christ they can bear fruit in plenty.

Last week, we celebrated Vocation Sunday and sort of focused on vocation in particular to priestly and religious life. You will find that every founder of a religious congregation had placed strong emphasis on the sacraments notably the sacrament of the Eucharist because it is the sacrament of the life-giving body and blood of none other than Christ Himself. You will also find that the founding of every religious congregation had always been within the context of the Church. It is said that when two Protestants disagree, you probably end up with two new “churches” but when two Catholics disagree, you often end up with two new religious congregations. It shows the ecclesial dimension of the practice of our faith.

This phenomenon with religious life or priestly life is by no means far from each and everyone of us. In fact, the saints and religious or priestly life point us in the direction of how we can better live out this imagery called: The vine and the branches. We live best through the Sacraments and within the Church.