In our Gospel today we heard Jesus say- “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4b). Of the many questions prompted by our readings for this Fifth Sunday of Easter, it seems to me that perhaps the most urgent question we need to explore is, How do we remain “in” Jesus?
Yesterday, I explained to our 17 First Communicants that the word com- union means “union with.” Holy Communion is how Jesus unites us to Himself by the power of the Holy Spirit. To receive Holy Communion also means being united with each other by the power of that same Spirit. We have one word to describe everyone who is joined together by Christ in Holy Communion and that word is “Church”. So, the primary means of being “in” Christ are the sacraments. All of the sacraments flow out from and back to the Eucharist. Without the nourishment we receive by participating in and partaking of the Eucharist frequently, we are like branches cut off from the vine, which, as we all know, quickly wither and dry up.
Many of our non-Catholic Christian sisters and brothers talk about the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus. As Catholics we ought to agree with them about this. Can you think of how you might possibly have a more personal, more intimate, relationship with our Lord than by receiving Him in Holy Communion? But the Eucharist demonstrates that our relationship with Christ also has a communal dimension. After all, we don’t celebrate Mass alone. We come together to celebrate what the Father has done for us in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. We read the Scriptures, pray for our needs and those of our parish, especially those who are sick or in need, as well as for those who have died. We also pray for our diocese, the whole Church, and the whole world.
In addition to being primary way we love with all our heart, might, mind, and strength, it is our participation in the Eucharist that enables and empowers us to keep Jesus’ second commandment- to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
In our second reading, from the First Letter of John, we learn what it means to keep Jesus’ commandments and so do what pleases Him. “And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23). This, too, is how we remain “in” Christ, but in order to love “in deed and truth,” we need the grace we receive in and through the sacraments.
Grace is a word we hear a lot in Church. Sometimes when we use words a lot the meaning is lost, or becomes watered down, through frequent repetition. Grace is nothing other than God sharing divine life with us. When we receive Holy Communion with a clear conscience, that is, a conscience unburdened by serious sin, which unburdening happens in the Sacrament of Penance, we are infused with divine life. By this infusion we are filled with the Holy Spirit. As Jesus tells us in our Gospel, the vine bears branches and the branches, in turn, bear the fruit. According St Paul, the fruits of the Spirit are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a very concrete example of how to love through what we do. Before becoming a Christian, which happened as the result of the resurrected Lord appearing to him while he was on his way to Damascus, Saul, who we also know as Paul (Saul was likely his given, Jewish, name and Paul his name as a Roman citizen), persecuted Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. His persecution of Christians there culminated with the stoning of St Stephen, the Church’s first martyr and one of the first seven deacons selected by the apostles to assist them in ministry. The reason Paul was going to Damascus was to continue his persecution there.
Based on this, it is easy to see why, when Paul returned to Jerusalem from Damascus, the Christians there were both scared and suspicious of him. But Barnabas, who became a close friend and associate of Paul during his first missionary travels, loved Paul and trusted God by giving Paul the benefit of the doubt and taking his side. Barnabas had Paul meet with the apostles and vouched for the authenticity of Paul’s conversion, mentioning how Paul “had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus” while in Damascus (Acts 9:27), and no doubt assured the apostles that their former persecutor was not pulling some elaborate ruse by only pretending to be converted in order to then turn around and persecute the Church more effectively.
After being accepted by the apostles, Paul began move around Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of Jesus, as he had done in Damascus. In doing so, he ran afoul of the Hellenists. In an ironic twist, these Hellenists are the same group with whom Stephen argued. As one commentator put it, Paul came “back to Jerusalem to finish the argument with the Hellenists that Stephen had started,” by so doing, Paul provoked “the same violent response” as had Stephen (Loveday Alexander, “Acts,” The Oxford Bible Commentary, 1040). In the face of this danger, not only Barnabas, but the entire Christian community in Jerusalem came to the aid of their former persecutor. They removed him from harm’s way by taking him to the Mediterranean coast and booking him passage back to his hometown of Tarsus. This is an example of loving our enemy, as Jesus taught us to do.
Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, who, like Paul, experienced a very dramatic and unlikely conversion, once observed, “there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.” While these are words with which we would all agree, we all know how truly difficult it is to love someone, to forgive someone, who has harmed us.
How do we receive the strength to live, the strength to love, in this grace-filled way? We receive the strength to live and to love by being connected to our life-giving branch, Jesus Christ. Our reception of the sacraments, especially of the Eucharist, is what unites us to Him and to each other by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Because of this we can rejoice, as we did in our Psalm response- “I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people.”