Only Connect: The Vine and the Branches
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. May 2, 2021
On this fifth Sunday of Easter, we are presented with this beautiful image of the vine and the branches, from the 15th chapter of St. John’s Gospel. Reading it over several times, I was struck especially by the word “abide”, which appears eight times in these eight verses, and the phrase “bear fruit”, which recurs four times. What might these phrases/thoughts mean to us, here and now? Where and how are we being called to “abide”, to connect, to find our home? And what is the fruit that we are being called to bear – as individuals, as parish communities, as global community?
It seems hard to believe that nearly fourteen months have gone by since our first lockdowns began on the second weekend in March last year. And though there have been various “ebbs and flows” as we negotiated the successive waves of the pandemic, doing all we could to “flatten the curve” and protect the most vulnerable members of our community, many of us are feeling tired … and dare I say it, “disconnected”. Many of us in parish leadership attended a webinar held by Divine Renovation this past Wednesday, entitled “Parish Reboot: Helping People Find the Way Back”. It was a wake-up call to the reality that unless parishes actively engage their parishioners to keep them connected – using whatever means of communication are most adapted to reach the different constituencies that make up our communities – many will not “return” just because it becomes legal or perfectly safe to do so. You can’t take connection for granted, it seems. You have to work at it.
One of the challenges we have been facing is that many of those activities that foster the strengthening of community bonds in our gatherings are precisely those things we have had to forego. Greeting people at the door with a warm handshake and a smile; chatting with our fellow parishioners; standing and singing the Lord’s praises together in full voice; gathering the children around the altar for the Lord’s prayer; exchanging the sign of peace with our neighbours; coming to the altar to receive the fullness of the Lord’s presence in the Body and Blood of Christ; going downstairs for coffee and fellowship or standing outside with fellow parishioners to catch up on the news – all these things which make up good liturgy and the building up of the community are what we have had to let go of. It has not been easy.
So we have had to be creative. I remember our Archbishop saying that he refused to use the expression “social distancing”. He fully acknowledged the need for physical distancing to prevent the propagation of the virus, but he insisted that what we needed more than ever was social connection, not social distancing. We have learned to use our telephones, our computers, our smartphones, and our ingenuity to find safe and effective ways of maintaining those connections, and even strengthening them. Families that in the past were too busy or too far apart to speak regularly have learned how to use Zoom or FaceTime to schedule regular family check-ins. I know personally that an essential dimension of my staying sane as an extrovert who misses my family has been our weekly family Zoom calls on Saturday afternoons. Although a year has gone by, we have never missed a week and although one or the other of my nine siblings may miss an occasional meeting, we are almost always all there. Book groups, online concerts, viewing parties, shared “sugar shack” meals … so many ways of keeping relationships alive, decreasing social isolation.
From a spiritual perspective, we have also been creative in finding ways of staying connected. Wardens and pastoral council meetings are conducted over Zoom. Our Food Pantry has gone from a pick-up to a delivery service, so that the needs of the poor are not overlooked while volunteers keep safe. Our pastoral home care visitors have not been able to bring Holy Communion or visit in person, but faithfully phone people every week to connect and pray. Many of you have committed to online giving as a way of providing the parish with the financial support we require. Many of our parishioners have taken part in a book group, or a faith-sharing session, or the daily Ignatian prayer offered through Montreal Directed Retreats. We had over 100 people take part in a Lenten retreat on the journey of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. I have been discussing with Fr Lloyd the possibility of an online Video Divina based on the new mini-series on Jesus and his disciples called “The Chosen”. So the possibilities are endless. But what it requires from us is a refusal to be bound by isolation, a will to remain connected.
How, in the midst of a pandemic, can we strengthen and nurture this sense of being connected to one another? I think we get some important insights into this process in our readings today. Jesus says in today's Gospel: I am the vine, and you are the branches. What is he getting at? Sometimes, we can feel like outlying branches, very far from the life-giving vine. We don’t really see where the life is coming from, or what fruit is being produced. We can easily feel disheartened.
That is why we need each other. When we connect with others, when we have someone with whom we share the journey of life, including the hard parts, we know that we are not alone. When we see what God is doing in someone else’s life, it becomes a little easier to recognize the signs of what he is doing in my life. When I hear someone else share their struggles, their experience of feeling “pruned” by the Lord, I begin to see that my struggles are not for nothing, that they have something to teach me, that God is using them to “prune me”: not to make me bear less fruit, but more and better fruit. When I am feeling isolated or distant from God, being with other believers helps to renew my own faith, my own desire to stay connected or to re-connect if I have drifted away. We need each other, and we need God. Only connect!
All around the world, people experience this hunger for connectedness, for the feeling of belonging. Typically, this first connection happens in the context of our family. We know what it means to belong to a nation or culture, to a linguistic group, to professional associations, to a religious tradition. These different communities of belonging are important, even essential. Without them, we would have no sense of identity, of security. But as we have learned, they can also become closed, exclusive, suspicious of others. “Us vs. Them.” And that's when they turn dangerous and destructive. Racism. Sexism. Classism. Xenophobia. Forms of connection based not on inclusive love, but domination and exclusion. Do I use my belonging to a group as an excuse to exclude or ignore or oppress others? If I do, I am no longer a branch that is bearing good fruit. I have cut myself off from Christ who is the vine.These are the branches that bear a strange and bitter fruit, that we must do all we can to excise and, in the imagery of Jesus, gather up and burn.
In the early Church, as the readings from the Acts of the Apostles in this Easter season show us, the community was very close-knit. Because it was being persecuted, because it often had to go into hiding, it needed to be careful of who was admitted. It's not surprising that in our first reading today, the disciples are somewhat suspicious of Saul's sudden conversion. Could they trust him?
But then we hear a marvelous thing: Barnabas brings Paul to the community and gives testimony on his behalf, and witnesses to the apostles that he really has changed. As a prisoner of his past, Saul stands cut off from the community; but Barnabas becomes the link which allows him to be accepted and welcomed. And we know the end of the story, Saul the persecutor becomes Paul, Apostle to the Nations, proclaiming that the Good News of Jesus is not restricted only to one nation or people, but is indeed for everyone. And think of how much fruit came from the Vine which is Jesus through that branch of St. Paul, and all those nations that encountered the Gospel through his preaching and writing?! Think of what might have been lost if the disciples simply said, “he can’t be trusted” and given up on him as a lost cause?
If you look closely at a grapevine, you will notice that not every branch is directly connected to the vine. Branches grow off other branches, life flows from the vine to the farther branches through the nearer branches. Mysteriously, it is at the tips of the farthest branches that the best fruit is often found. In the same way, those of us who experience ourselves as directly connected with Christ, are called to be connectors ourselves, to be conductors of God's love and life and strength to those who are connected with us.
Without the generosity and friendship of Barnabas, the Church might have been deprived of the mission of Paul. But God's grace flowed through the community to Barnabas to Paul to all those who received Paul's preaching. It's the same for the various support groups to which we belong. It's about much more than distracting ourselves or feeling good about ourselves. It's about feeding one another, supporting each other through the difficult pruning process, so that we can help others to experience that sense of connectedness to Christ and his community. In the healing we experience, we are freed to be instruments of Christ's healing.
The imagery of the vine and the branches reminds us that we are not alone. Last Sunday, we had the powerful imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who calls us by our name, who goes after us when we stray, who is ready to lay down his life for us, who came “that we might have life in abundance.” It is a beautiful image, a reminder of a God who loves us, who cares for us, who “has our back”. It is also “one step removed”, as there is a certain “distance” between flock and shepherd. But here at the Last Supper, pouring out his heart to his disciples, Jesus takes it one step further, goes even deeper. We are no longer merely his sheep, his students, his disciples; Jesus calls us intimate friends. He invites us to “abide in Him”, just as he “abides in the Father.” It is not only a matter of following, but of indwelling. It is to experience being fully myself, totally “at home”.
Jean Vanier expresses this longing powerfully in his book “Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John”:
“To abide or dwell in Jesus is to make our home in Him, and to let Jesus make His home in us. We feel at home with him and in him. It is a place of rest for one another, and presence to one another. It is a place of mutual indwelling and friendship. This rest is also a source of life and creativity. Abiding in him, we bear fruit, we are empowered to give life to others. We live in this mutual indwelling, this friendship which is the uniting force of Love.”
In order to do this, to sustain this, we need God, and we need each other. I mentioned earlier that I have been watching this new miniseries on the life of Jesus called “The Chosen”, which I highly recommend. What I appreciate about this series, and what makes it in some sense stand apart from the dozens of other attempts to put the life of Jesus on screen, is that it really succeeds in giving us of a portrait of a Jesus who connects. We sense palpably the deep link that connects Jesus to his Father when he prays, when he teaches, when he heals in His Name. But we also sense the very human connection Jesus makes with children, with his mother Mary, with Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene and Matthew and Andrew and Simon as he calls them.
We also see that just because Jesus sees something in each disciple when he chooses them, does not yet mean that they see it in one another! There is a great scene where Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector, who, as one might imagine, was not terribly popular with the fishermen of Capernaum whose taxes he was collecting! Matthew seems genuinely shocked that Jesus should be calling him, with a “who, me?” look on his face. Peter tries to dissuade Jesus from calling him, basically saying “but he’s not worthy.” Jesus answers, “didn’t you say that when I called you?” And Peter says “yes, but that was different.” So Jesus says with a smile, “Get used to different!” This ragtag group of disciples often has nothing in common – except the bedrock experience of being loved, chosen, and called by Jesus. And this will become the glue, the connecting tissue holding them together in spite of their conflicts and differences. And so it is today.
No man - or woman - is an island. Alone, we can do nothing. But working together, with Christ as our vine, there is much we can do. It is a growing process, one which often involves pain and difficult decisions, but it is ultimately growth-producing. Jesus promises us the joy that comes from being rooted in him.
I conclude with a sonnet from my favourite liturgical poet, Malcolm Guite, on what it might mean for us to abide in Jesus, and to bear abundant fruit:
I Am the Vine (Malcolm Guite)
John 15:5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
How might it feel to be part of the vine?
Not just to see the vineyard from afar
Or even pluck the clusters, press the wine,
But to be grafted in, to feel the stir
Of inward sap that rises from our root,
Himself deep planted in the ground of Love,
To feel a leaf unfold a tender shoot,
As tendrils curled unfurl, as branches give
A little to the swelling of the grape,
In gradual perfection, round and full,
To bear within oneself the joy and hope
Of God’s good vintage, till it’s ripe and whole.
What might it mean to bide and to abide
In such rich love as makes the poor heart glad?