May 03, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Reverend Deacon David Justin Lynch
Acts 9:26-31 Psalm 22:26-28, 30, 31-32
I John 3:18-24 John 15:1-8

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

About three weeks ago, I talked about how difficult evangelism is for people of the Catholic or Anglican tradition. It just seems that it’s not in our DNA to talk to other people about our faith in God, and by that I mean our loyalty to Jesus and our Trust in Him. As uncomfortable as that may make us, today’s set of lessons thrust that subject even more directly in our laps than when we last encountered it, and illustrates some of the challenges we face when doing it. In our secular world, the public at large often does not trust those who talk God all the time. People are skeptical of our motives when we go so far as to invite them to church, so we back off so as to avoid an uncomfortable conversation.

Today’s first lesson from Acts is part of a longer story about Paul the Apostle, and illustrates that when we talk about Jesus, people get suspicious. To give some context to the situation, Paul the Apostle, before he became known as Paul, was Saul, a Pharisaic Jew, who violently persecuted the followers of Jesus at the behest of the Jewish religious establishment. On his way to Damascus, he encountered a sudden vision of Jesus that blinded him, and based on that encounter, he got himself baptized by Ananias and thereafter undertook a mission as the apostle to the Gentiles, that is, everyone who wasn’t Jewish. After this miraculous conversion, the disciples didn’t trust him and his motives, because all of a sudden, he had done an about-face, changed 180 degrees, from one side to another. Former enemies do not become fast friends overnight.

But Paul stepped from the frying pan into the fire as he got into a confrontation with the Hellenists who, according to this story, tried to kill him.   The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews who had a different interpretation of the scriptures than those who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic, illustrating that theological differences between factions of the same religious community are nothing new, as to either existence or intensity. Paul, who once was a persecutor, became the persecuted, a bit like me, who once worked on behalf of insurance companies to deny money to injured people, but now representing injured people to get money from insurance companies.

Paul was lucky to have had a friend like Barnabas to reassure the other disciples that everything was OK, that Paul had legitimately become one of the followers of “The Way”, as Christianity was originally called. What Barnabas did was integrate Paul into the community of the followers of Jesus, just as we here at Saint Cecilia’s must do when new people join us.

       Many Christian traditions emphasize so-called, “personal conversion experiences,” where people suddenly, shall we say, are “born again” and their lives suddenly and radically transformed.  New Christians who have that kind of experience often embrace their new orientation with a zealous enthusiasm that exceeds that of those who grew up in the church. They are anxious to share their faith with others, and often become judgmental of others who haven’t “seen the light” in the same way they did.

The danger of relying on conversion alone as a basis of faith, is that it becomes a passing phenomenon, a stage in one’s life through which one goes, rather than becoming a part of who one is. It is a bit like a plant that blooms without taking root in the ground.  It is the seed sown on thin soil that washes away with the next storm.

Today we encounter the last of the seven “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Jesus tells us, “I am the vine” and describes the disciples as branches. Faith is like a plant. It has to be nurtured to grow, and to be nurtured, it has to take root somewhere,  and that somewhere is the Church, the Body of Christ. To grow as Christians, we have to become part of that Body, that is, part of  the Christian community. A plant that does not take root somewhere cannot survive. To become rooted in our faith, we have to become like a branch of the vine which is Jesus. Like a vine, Jesus is alive. Jesus gives life. As we are connected to Jesus, He gives us life. Our strongest connection with Jesus is through our receiving His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, which nourishes our souls and bodies. Being a branch on the vine which is Jesus, being nourished by His Body and Blood, enables fruit to grow on us as we live in the world. What kind of fruit do we bear? The fruit called love. That is the fruit we bear, the fruit Jesus intended us to bear. Without being part of the vine which is Jesus, we cannot bear the fruit that we could if we did.  Today’s Gospel tells us that if we go it alone, without being a branch on the vine of Jesus, we will not survive. As I look outside this church, I see so many people who live apart from Jesus. I always wonder if they can be truly happy without Jesus in their lives.  But unfortunately, the church in ages past has not been concerned about that. Churches have been so hung up on maintaining themselves as institutions by enforcing rules, that they forget the true purpose of being Christian: to build up the Kingdom of God by loving others as Jesus loved us.

The love we show that comes from Jesus is unique. It is, as described in today’s Epistle, not love in word or speech, but in deed and truth. In other words, genuine love shows in what we do. Love doesn’t always mean romantic love. It can mean simply random and simple acts of kindness towards others, such as sending a card and flowers when someone is sick or has experienced a death in the family, helping out a single parent who is short a few dollars at the supermarket cash register, buying a meal for a homeless person, or even just holding a door for someone who has their arms full. It is all about your deeds, in the way you show that you care for other people as well as yourself and your immediate family.

Why do we do those things? Because God’s command is that we should show our belief in the name of Jesus, by loving one another, just like Jesus told us to do. By fulfilling that commandment,  we remain part of Jesus, and Jesus remains part of us.  For you and me to be disciples, we must remain in Jesus, and if we remain in Jesus, He will give us whatever we ask.

A vine and branch system is similar to how we relate to Jesus. A branch is part of the vine and the vine is part of the branch. We live in Jesus, and Jesus lives in us. As Jesus is in us and we are in Jesus, fruit, in the form of genuine love, is able to grow on us.  But fruit on a vine is not something that the vine decides to make happen. It grows naturally, without anyone telling it to do so. So too, our love as Christians for one another. It grows naturally from our hearts, rather than as something we decide to do.  However, engaging in loving behavior ultimately becomes part of who we are and becomes a part of our hearts, the core of who we are, deep inside of ourselves.

For people in the time of Jesus, a vine was a rich source of symbolism in the Middle-Eastern world. The author of today’s Gospel had in mind a plant which fastens itself to other objects by means of its tendrils. So too, Jesus, who fastens himself on the world and on us. His tendrils are His love.  He grabs us and holds us.  The vine in the days of Jesus on earth was noted for luxuriant foliage, intertwining branches, and climbing shoots. Jesus, then as now, is as alive among us as luxuriant foliage, beautiful beyond all human measures of beauty. A vine was a common sight in a Palestinian courtyard climbing a tree or trellis. Why not make  Jesus a common sight in our lives? Why not allow Jesus to climb on us without limitation? The vineyards of the Holy Land required intensive care over long periods of time to grow and bear grapes for wine and raisins. So to the church, and in particular, Saint Cecilia’s. To build us up to be the Church God wants us to be will not happen overnight. To do that will take intensive care and effort over time. The twining branch signified life and the grape cluster symbolized fertility. We, the people of God here in Palm Springs, are the branches on a vine growing in our vineyard, and that vine is Jesus. The love we show each other, and the greater community around us, will be the fruit that we bear. Only if we love one another are we assured of our standing as Christians.

But it will not be easy. We will encounter people suspicious of us and our motives, both catholic and protestant.  On Facebook, I’ve encountered people whose message is, “how dare you be catholic without being part of the Roman Church,” and “how dare you give the sacraments to people Rome says they can’t have them.” Our answer is this.  The relationship between people and churches is one big system of branches coming from a vine.  Each church, including ours, is a branch from the vine called Jesus, in the vineyard tended by God the Father as its gardener, a loving Father to a Jesus who taught us how to love. The vine and its branches are thus a demonstration of trilateral love between God, Jesus and the church, the Body of Christ nurtured by God, which nurtures us.

But not all those branches on the vine are all good all the time. Today’s Gospel also talks about pruning, that is, cutting off branches from the vine that are not productive, are not bearing fruit. In the context of the overall inclusive message of Jesus, that does not mean cutting people off from the church who aren’t pleasing to us. What it does mean is the church cutting off those aspects of its behavior which do not further its growth.  I’m talking about churches which silence and/or excommunicate non-conformists, churches who don’t offer communion to everyone, churches who won’t marry divorced people and same-sex couples, churches who silence non-mainstream theologians, and churches who move pedophile priests from parish to parish instead of removing them from ministry. That’s the kind of junk that needs to be gathered and thrown into the fire.

We, as a parish, are one more branch on the vine which is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ, who always has been, is now, and will be forever, head of the church, and the author of our salvation, through his incarnation, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension.  Jesus will always be there to pray for us, as He did for His disciples, that all Christians may be one, as Jesus and His Father are one. We are all branches on the same vine. This is the same Jesus who said, “I am the bread of life”, “I am the light of the world,” “I am the door”, “I am the Good Shepherd”, “I am the resurrection and the life”, “I am the way and the truth”, and “I am the “true vine.” Jesus is all of that. If we live in Jesus, and allow Jesus to live in us, our hearts will bear much fruit, and much love, to the world around us.  AMEN.