FROM A READING FOR APRIL 29, FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action...’ — 1 Jn 3:18

Last week, our Lord gave us that familiar and clear image of the Good Shepherd to help us in our reflections and prayers. This weekend, we have another great image: a vine and its branches. Jesus is the true vine and, if we are to bear fruit, we have to remain attached to Him. As St. Augustine once wrote: “Without you, Lord, nothing; with you, everything.”

In our first reading (Acts 9:26-31), St. Paul, the great evangelizer and Apostle of the nations, finally arrives in the holy city of Jerusalem. His mission and ministry over the three years since his conversion has certainly been fruitful already, even though he has had many struggles.

The same pattern continues as he reaches Jerusalem, for the disciples did not receive him well. In fact, they were afraid of him! Luckily, Barnabas speaks up for Paul, and so Paul is able to preach Christ fruitfully.

It is a reminder that we may meet obstacles as we try to live a Christian life. We might also be asked, like Barnabas, to speak up courageously for someone — perhaps, especially, a person who undeservedly has a bad name.

Psalm 22 helps us to understand Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches. The psalm sings about the sovereignty of God: for all “shall bow down before Him.” We are not God and we are nothing without being attached to Him. Indeed, it is good to recall that all we are and all we have come from God.

Our second reading (1 Jn 3: 18-24) also takes up this idea of attachment and dependence. How can we show that we belong to the truth and that we love God and others? St. John gives us a pithy and direct answer: We can do this not by mere words or speech, but rather in deeds and in truth. In other words, if we keep God’s commandment, then we will indeed remain in Him. Some 2,000 years later, the Second Vatican Council pointed out that our fruitfulness often comes simply in the performance of our daily tasks and of doing these in love. In being faithful to these tasks, we are doing God’s will, and so we will also bear much fruit.

The Gospel (Jn 15:1-8) gives us what presenters would call a “visual.” Jesus is the vine and we are His branches. Let us explore that image a little further:

If a vine is allowed to grow unchecked — that is, without being pruned — then it makes lots of leafy growth. However, it is not then very fruitful. It will have only a few bunches of grapes, because all the energy of the plant has gone into making that leafy growth. Moreover, the grapes that it does produce will be small and useless.

No, a vine needs pruning. This why the Lord “prunes” us by His Word. That pruning may sometimes seem harsh or even painful, but it is necessary if we are to make good growth and to bear fruit. St. Paul, in our second reading, with his joys and struggles, is a good example of that process of pruning.

It is an obvious point, but if branches become detached from the vine, then they are not going to be fruitful, either. In fact, they will wither and die.

In 1987, a huge storm ripped across southern England during the autumn. The many fruit trees that are part of the agriculture of the area were major casualties of the storm. In the spring, something strange happened: All the snapped branches came into leaf and even produced blossoms. They were using up stored energy and nutrients in the wood. However, as the season progressed, the leaves withered and the blossom shriveled up, producing no fruit. The stored nutrients could not be replenished, because the branches were severed from the parent tree.

So, too, with us: If we become detached from the Lord, and we might also say from His body, the Church, we may well be able to use our reserves for a while, but then they will be exhausted and so will we! We can no longer produce growth and fruit, because we are cut off.

In our preparations for the diocesan Eucharistic Congress, the image Jesus gives us of the vine and the branches also assists us in understanding and appreciating the Eucharist. The Eucharist is rather like the sap running through the vine that feeds and sustains us. In this sense, the Eucharist also helps us to be fruitful.

Furthermore, many returning Catholics note that it was the absence of the Eucharist and a longing for it that moved them to come back and to be reattached to the Church.