5th Sunday of Easter
May 2, 2021
Rating Our Relationship with the Lord
If you were asked, on a scale of one to ten, to rate your relationship with the Risen Lord – how would you rate yourself? (Let’s say that one is a distant, even non-existent relationship with the Lord, and ten is as close of a relationship with the Lord as one could have in this world). I suspect that few of us would rate ourselves at the lowest end of the scale, and that few of us would have the audacity to rate ourselves at the pinnacle. This means that most of us fall somewhere in-between.
If I am right about that, then it represents both good news and bad news. Our midway rating is good news in that few of us Catholic Christians would exclude the possibility of a close, intimate relationship with the Risen Lord. Our middling rating is also good news if it signals that we are flawed but earnest pilgrims on our way to genuine holiness – meaning an intimate relationship of love with the Lord that animates and sustains our love for others, including our fellow Catholics. But our in-between rating becomes bad news when it signals mediocrity, casualness, or boredom in our relationship with the Lord and his Church.
How, then, do we go about rating our relationship with Christ and his Body, the Church? Do we rate that all-important relationship based merely on how we feel? Is it in our power to regulate and even control the terms of that relationship? This Sunday’s Gospel, the parable of the vine and the branches, suggests otherwise. For in that parable, the Lord offers to us “the gold standard” against which we might assess our relationship with him.
Two Kinds of Branches
In the parable of the vine and the branches – spoken on the eve of his passion and death, Jesus invites us to be closely and intimately united with himself, just as closely as branches are joined to a vine. In giving us this image, Jesus is appealing to our experience. When a branch is firmly attached, let us say, to a healthy fruit tree, it brings forth new growth and fruit every spring and summer. It draws its life and growth from the sap that flows from the main trunk of the tree. But if a branch is severed from the tree, either by the wind or because it is cut off, that branch will, for a time, look like it is alive, but sooner or later it will wither and die, only to be discarded.
Just so, the Risen Lord teaches us today that he is the vine, the trunk . . . that he is source of all life, both natural and supernatural, that he is the source of all goodness, virtue, and holiness, that he is the font of happiness and peace, here and hereafter. If Christ is the vine, we, the members of the Church, are the branches. The union between the vine and branches is in fact the Church by which you and I are joined in Christ to one another. In the communion of the Church, Christ’s life flows into our hearts, bringing us the grace of repentance, coupled with hope, healing, and new life. The new life of the Resurrection, by which we are saved, reaches us whenever the Word of God is proclaimed and heard, whenever the Sacraments are celebrated and received worthily, and whenever we love others as Christ has first loved us.
Hearing this, we should lay aside the thought that the flow of divine life is automatic, so long as we maintain some kind of a relationship with the Lord and the Church, no matter how distant or how casual, no matter how little effort we put into it. Such a presumptuous attitude does not do justice to the Lord’s invitation to share intimately in his life and love, nor does such an attitude square with the Lord’s teaching about the vine and branches. For in his parable, the Lord points out that there are, in fact, two kinds of branches:
First, there are branches that fail to bud forth with new life and fruit. Such branches are cut off and are thrown into the fire, and the meaning is clear. If we go through life as nominal Christians, giving our faith low priority, mired in sin, claiming to be followers of Christ while marching solely to the beat of secular culture – well, then, we risk separating ourselves from Christ, in this life and in the next. Too late will we recognize that we were meant to share God’s love in our life on earth, and the pain of eternal separation from God will be the cause of untold anguish.
Second, are those branches that remain closely joined to the vine, that is to say, those disciples of the Lord who bear abundant fruit precisely because they are closely joined to Christ, and to his Body, the Church. Such branches bear the good fruit of holiness and virtue, the fruit of peace and unity, the fruit of attracting others to the faith and reconciling those who have left, the good fruit of serving the poor as if they were Christ himself. Jesus tells us that if we would be that kind of branch, he will need to prune us, that is, to take away whatever prevents us from uniting ourselves to him in love. Often the Lord will prune our hearts through some form of suffering . . . so, you see, the standard by which we measure our relationship with the Lord is demanding! When filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles measured up to this standard. They went forth, began to preach boldly and added many to the company of believers. My friends, when we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and are joined to Christ, we too can be fruitful branches in the Lord’s vineyard.
How To Be a Fruitful Branch
How, then, can we become those fruitful branches? The Gospel tells us we can be fruitful only if we ‘abide in’, i.e., live with the Lord, only if we are joined to the Lord in a union of love and a harmony of wills. “So far so good,” you might be saying, “but how do I achieve such union and harmony?” From today’s Scriptural readings, three answers to that question emerge.
First, is to listen attentively to the Word of God, when proclaimed and preached, but also in the silence of the inner-room of our hearts. If we take God’s Word to heart, it will purify us of sin and of every excess that saps our interest and energy – interest and energy that we should be investing in the relationship the Lord wants to have with us, and in the work he wants us to do.
Second is to participate wholeheartedly in the Church’s sacramental life, especially by attending Mass on Sunday and by going to Confession frequently. The sacraments are the lifeblood of those who seek to follow the Lord. They are the means, the conduit by which life of Christ reaches us and transforms us, body, mind, and spirit – and without the lifeblood of Christ in us we can do nothing! Those who willfully cut themselves off from the Church’s sacraments will find that their relationship with the Lord, sooner or later, will dry up and wither.
Third, in the strength that comes from God’s Word and the Sacraments, to keep God’s commandments, for as St. John says in our 2nd reading, “All those who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them.” It is not enough to read the Word of God and to receive the Sacraments, and then to go on our way, living in ways indistinguishable from the world around us. Rather, Word and Sacrament should produce in us the works of love: true worship of God, reverence for our neighbor, generosity for the poor, a passion for justice, zeal for spreading the Gospel and thus advancing the Church’s mission far and wide. Clearly, our relationship of love with the Lord is not a mere fleeting emotion, but rather a way of life – a way of thinking, feeling, speaking, and acting, a way of deploying our freedom, a way of attracting others to the love of the Risen Lord, a love that surpasses anything and everything this world can offer us.
How, then, do we rate our relationship with the Risen Lord? If you find, as I have found, that your relationship with the Lord needs attention, take heart! Let us resolve to open our hearts anew to him and to the grace of the Holy Spirit. May God bless us and keep us always in his love!