Most Rev. Robert F. Prevost, O.S.A.
Bishop of Chiclayo, Peru
Acts 9: 26-31
Ps 22: 26-27, 28, 30, 31-32
1 Jn 3: 18-24
Jn 15: 1-8
Riding in a taxi in Lima recently, I was struck by the quantity of rosaries and religious images that the driver had placed on the rear-view mirror and on the dashboard. Even for a devout and pious culture, this was exceptional. As we were nearing my destination, the driver looked in the mirror, and asked “are you a priest?” Yes, why do you ask? With that, he began to tell his troubles (several recent accidents, etc.) and said he was ready to “cut God out of his life.” God had let him down, and so why should he continue to do all the things he thought were important in being a Christian.
Listening to the driver, it seemed that his idea of being a Christian had more to do with the number of religious objects on the dashboard than it did with having a real living relationship with Jesus, and living a life whose meaning comes from fulfilling the mandate to love. His simple concept of being religious was measured by external objects and not be a life of faithful commitment, of persevering in God’s love.
Many are familiar with the words oftentimes attributed to Saint Augustine, “The measure of love is loving without measure.” (The expression more likely was written by Severus, the bishop of Milevi, in a letter to Augustine.) Today’s second reading, from the first letter of John, gives us another expression of the same message: “let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” One of the criteria by which we can determine if love is authentic is in its relationship to the truth, and in the coherence of our actions.
In the Gospel, Jesus offers what must have been a familiar image to explain what it means to live in his love, and how we can “measure” the love that gives us life. “I am the vine, and you are the branches… Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”
This text comes from the moving and intimate dialogue that Jesus shares with his disciples at the Last Supper. Up until now (in John’s gospel), the images or metaphors that Jesus used to express the concept of receiving life from him were external actions: drinking the life-giving water (John 4); eating the bread of life (John 6). But now, in the context of this final supper shared by Jesus with his disciples, he offers this much more intimate connectedness that expresses in a very deep way the necessity of living in deep and constant union with Jesus, as the branches are united to the vine, and receive their life from the vine.
Certainly, the image of the vine is an allusion to the People of Israel. (Israel is the vine that the Lord brought out of Egypt and planted in Israel - Ps. 8; Hosea 10:1, etc.) With the birth of the Messiah, a new People is formed, called together in Christ as the new chosen people, the true People of God. “I am the true vine…” Now Jesus takes that same image, and applies it, we might say, to the life of each and every one of his disciples, as well as the community of his followers. Those who hear his words are the new vine, the new People of God. The community will have life only in as much as it is fully connected to the source of life, the true vine.
But as he says this, Jesus also says some things that are a warning to his listeners: “if the branches do not remain on the vine, they cannot give fruit.” Christ is our “life-line,” the only way we can truly find life, be fruitful and give life to others. If the branches do not bear fruit, they are taken away, cut off from the vine. And in order to produce more fruit, the Father prunes the vine. These are powerful images of the relationship between the Father and Jesus, and with each of the branches, the members of the Church.
To be faithful in our life as Christians, in the world as we know it today, requires a vital, life-giving experience of encountering Christ as well as a sense of commitment to the cause of the Kingdom. We may be occupied by many things, distracted by less important activities, involved in activities that make it difficult to remain “attached to the vine.” And yet it is essential is that we remain united with Christ. “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” (1 John 3:18).