Jesus’ plan is to unite us to himself in a mysterious, complete, loving, permanent, and perfect way. Ask yourself, is it possible to find where a vine ends and its branches begin? Our life with Christ is intended to be of such an intimate nature that we are to truly become one with him.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
29 April 2018
History is filled with examples of great men and women who have influenced us externally, from the outside in. We might think of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. or some of the saints such as Elizabeth Ann Seton or Teresa of Calcutta, or any number of others. People who make a positive contribution to our lives and in history are always virtuous people—always. The lives of the saints serve as examples par excellence of excellent, holy and virtuous living.
Jesus, however, as the unique Son of God incarnate, infinitely surpasses anyone else in history. He does so by influencing us not only from the outside in, such as through his deeds and words in history, but from the inside out—Jesus transforms us into something beyond ourselves. He does this with delicate, compassionate love, without destroying who we are, coercion, or subduing our human nature.
In today’s gospel (Jn 15:1-8), Jesus gives us a mysterious and surprising metaphor that is itself the rule of life: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5).
Jesus’ plan is to unite us to himself in a mysterious, complete, loving, permanent, and perfect way. Ask yourself, is it possible to find where a vine ends and its branches begin? The sap and nutrients that feed the vine also feed its branches. So intrinsic is the connection between vine and branches that should a branch be separated from the vine, its source of life, it cannot survive. Jesus’ intends not simply to form us from the outside in, but to graft us to himself, the source of life and all that is good. We do not merely stand beside Jesus and know him from a distance—no—we are connected to him in an intimate, life-giving union. The life-sustaining nourishment we draw from Jesus is his own divine life. The human branches are destined to be grafted onto the Divine Vine who is Lord and King.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned. (Jn 15:5-6)
Jesus reminds us that we become complete through our union with him. He also warns us that apart from him we can do nothing and are nothing. Should we be separated from Christ as our source of life, our own life will dissipate, dry up, and wither away as a branch separated from its vine. We will be unable to bear fruit in this condition because of a lack of the supernatural nutrition who is Christ himself. We will lose our worth, so to speak, and be gathered up and thrown away—cast aside to be burned.
A branch without its vine is meaningless. It has no future. It cannot produce.
St. Paul reminds us of the depth of our connection to Jesus:
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Rom 14:7-9)
How does the Divine Vine-Grower graft us to himself?
How does Jesus make us one with him? The first things that come to mind are faith and the sacraments. Through faith and baptism we are configured to Christ and receive the gift of his Spirit, who is the Lord and giver of life. By virtue of the communication of the Holy Spirit into our hearts, we are made members of Christ’s physical body—and this is no metaphor but a reality, just as real as the connection between the members of your body, such as arms and legs, and your head.
Should we separate ourselves from Christ through mortal sin and as a branch begin to whither, Jesus offers us a re-grafting method in order to allow us to be joined once again to his vine. Through the sacrament of penance (confession) we are re-configured to Christ as we receive forgiveness for our sins, an inflow of the Holy Spirit, and sanctifying grace. The sacrament of penance is the preordained re-grafting method of God.
In receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist, we receive the glorified and risen Christ himself—body, blood, soul, and divinity under the appearances of bread and wine. By virtue of consuming Christ, we are transformed into him who we have received, as St. Augustine noted. The Eucharist offers us the highest earthly connection to the Divine Vine. It is a personal, intimate union with Christ like no other. Through the Eucharist, Christ grants us a share in his own supernatural, divine life. That is transformation!
Remaining as branches grafted to the Divine Vine
Today’s gospel also reminds us that we have a responsibility to maintain our grafted connection to the Divine Vine. We must remain in Christ and not allow ourselves to be cut off from his supernatural nourishment (and our efforts to remain in Christ are themselves made possible by God’s grace). How do we do this?
A number of things come to mind: prayer, life in full communion with the worshipping community of the Church, service to those in need (solidarity in charity), studying the belief of the Church and forming one’s conscience (e.g. read the Catechism), and meditating frequently on the Word of God.
Our second reading (1 Jn 3:18-24) reminds us of the importance of loving “not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” That is, one cannot be joined to Christ through an intellectual belief only, but rather must give himself entirely over to Jesus in complete self-entrustment, faithfully keeping his commandments. Belonging to Christ is made possible only by dying to self!
Further, we must love others in deed and truth. Our life must image the life of Christ and his love for his brethren. St. John tells us:
And [God’s] commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and 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.
We are responsible for giving our hearts entirely to Christ! This gift of self must translate into free and loving obedience:
Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. (1 Jn 2:3-6).
And Jesus himself tells us: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (Jn 14:21).
Remaining a branch on the Vine of Jesus is incompatible with a worldly, secular Christian lifestyle in which one is culturally comfortable and thus indifferent to some of the more difficult moral precepts of the gospel that the Church teaches. That is, there is a cost to authentic discipleship. It is not for the lazy or for cowards. It is for those who love with passion and zeal.
Today’s culture emphasizes moral relativism and teaches people they can claim to be Christian while living in ways that gravely contradict Christ’s teaching. This most often occurs in connection with human sexuality. In any case, if we are joined to Christ, our lives must be governed entirely by him. We must pattern morally in our lives the pattern of Christ’s complete and loving obedience to God the Father.
The rewards of “branchhood” are great. When we are grafted into Christ and remain so, not only do we bear abundant fruit and glorify God the Father but we inherit life eternal. In and through and with Christ, we enter into communion with the Tripersonal God. That’s a reality we can experience now and on into eternity. It’s an invitation to a life of love and happiness—forever. Who would want to miss out on that?
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.