Commentary on the Readings
5th Sunday of Easter – Year B – April 29, 2018
Who belongs to Christ?
“There is no salvation outside of the Church.” This statement is famous, delivered in the third century by Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, and is not always correctly interpreted.
Many Christians in the past have made the mistake of identifying the kingdom of God with the ecclesial institution to which they belonged. They flaunted arrogant certainties, cultivated prejudices against other religions and called the others impure and far. In the most abhorrent cases they also resorted to force to coerce others to conversion and baptism.
Church and Kingdom of God do not match. There are gray areas in the church that exclude themselves from the kingdom of God, because sin thrive in them and there are huge margins beyond the confines of the church that can be included in the kingdom of God, for the Spirit acts there.
“Practitioner” is not equivalent to “inserted into the Body of Christ.” “Believer” is not one who limits himself to religious practices: mass, sacraments, prayers, devotions, but one who, in imitation of Christ, practices justice, brotherhood, sharing of goods, hospitality, loyalty, sincerity, the rejection of violence, forgiveness of enemies, commitment to peace.
The line of demarcation between one who belongs and one who does not belong to Christ does not pass in the domain of the sacred, but in that of love to persons and “in all nations he listens to everyone who fears God and does good” (Acts 10:35).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Wherever love, joy, peace and forgiveness sprout, the Spirit of the Risen Lord is present there.”
A few years after his conversion, Paul decided to take a trip to Jerusalem. He wanted to meet Peter and know the community he fiercely persecuted previously. Everyone was aware of his radical change of life. However, for him, there was still a lot of mistrust and before welcoming him, the soundness of his decision had to be verified (v. 26). Barnabas, an eminent disciple and respected by all for his generosity and dedication to the cause of the gospel, intervened (Acts 4:36-37). He knew Paul well. He was aware of his biblical preparation and he realized that he could become a great apostle. He took him and introduced him to the community.
After this first, hard impact with the new brothers in the faith of Jerusalem, a bitter conflict with the most fanatic exponent of the Jewish religious institution started. They even tried to kill him. They considered him a heretic, a traitor to the faith and traditions of the fathers (vv. 28-30). It was just the beginning of a long series of persecutions which the Apostle would have endured for Christ.
The message contained in this episode goes beyond the biographical information.
When, for the first time after his conversion, Paul went to Jerusalem, he had already done—as he himself refers in his letter to the Galatians—an apostolic ministry in the kingdom of the Nabataeans (modern Jordan) and Damascus, where the ethnarch of King Aretas had tried to capture him. He had not proclaimed Christ to the Gentiles on his own initiative. The mission had been entrusted, on the road to Damascus, by Jesus himself (Gal 1:11-16). Yet, despite having received a truly special revelation, he did not feel empowered to act independently of the brethren in the faith. He immediately wanted to establish close relations with the mother community of Jerusalem, headed by Peter.
He would have had every reason to follow his own path. Before all others he had sensed the right pastoral decision; he realized that the Christian community was in danger of closing herself in a ghetto. She would have to dissolve the moorings that bound her to the Jewish establishment and launch herself into the world. But they were a minority who, in the church, thought like him and Peter himself was hesitant. What to do? Has he to go on his own, without regard for others?
Through the conduct of Paul, the author of Acts wants to send a message to those who, even today, are passionately committed to the cause of the gospel, but feel a little understood by their communities. They must face misunderstandings and differences and perhaps they are tempted to abandon all or isolate themselves. Paul has sought, since the beginning, unity with fellow believers and, even then, no contrast was able to keep him away from ecclesial communion.
Although we strive to live in a manner consistent with our faith, we realize that we remain sinners. John reminds us of this at the beginning of his letter: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). How do we know then if we are united to Christ or not, if we are the branches where his sap or his Spirit is present, or if we are dead and unproductive branches?
Jesus is amazed at the faith of the Canaanite woman (Mt 15:28) and of the centurion of Capernaum. He exclaims: “I have not found such faith in Israel” (Mt 8:10). He finds that there are many kind and generous pagans, like Cornelius who “gave generously to the people and constantly prayed to God” (Acts 10:2). This obliged them to ask if the unbaptized leading an upright life are in some way already united to Christ.
In today’s passage John answers these questions and suggests the criteria by which to determine who truly belongs to Christ. What discriminates is not the fact of having one’s name written in the records of the parish, but receiving the Spirit that is as free as the wind, that cannot be monopolized by any institution, nor by the Church and acts in anyone who welcomes him.
There is an unmistakable sign of his presence: the works of love. In the verse immediately preceding our text, John introduces his thinking: “If anyone enjoys the riches of this world, but closes his heart when he sees his brother or sister in need, how will the love of God remain in him?” (v. 17). He concludes: “My dear children, let us love not only in words and with our lips, but in truth and in deed” (v. 18). The sign of the presence Christ’s Spirit are not the professions of faith proclaimed in words but concrete actions in favor of people.
One who does not have the Spirit of God cannot produce works of love. If he does such things it is a sign that he is united to Christ and to God.
Even one who did not know Christ, if they love, can be sure to have divine life in himself, because “love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Those who do not love have not known God, for God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8).
The reading continues with one of the most beautiful statements of the whole Bible. If we make a balance of our lives, we are forced to admit to have made mistakes. We realize that we have been conditioned by faults and habits that we have not been able to correct. That is why we cannot free ourselves from the thought that even God refuses and condemns us, as our heart does.
John’s reply is comforting: if we commit ourselves to concrete love of the brethren, we no longer have to fear our miseries, fragilities and even the severe judgment pronounced by our heart; of whatever thing it condemns us, we can assure it, because “God is greater than our conscience” (v. 20).
The most diabolical of temptations is what makes us imagine God smaller than our hearts. A mother is willing to forgive any mistake of his son, even if he does not repent of the evil he has done. Yet this same mother may be convinced that God, being just, one day will send his son to hell. Who does not reject this thought holds that God is smaller than his heart.
The promised land is mentioned in the Bible, not only as one where “milk and honey flow,” but also where vines and olive trees grow (Jos 24:13). Every Jewish family grew, near the house, the vine that provided shade during the long summer (1 Kgs 5:5) and precious grapes which in part were dried to make raisins and some were pressed to get good and strong wine.
Associated with spontaneous joy and celebration, the vine and the vineyard are often used in the Bible, in a symbolic way. They are an expression of God’s blessings. Even Jesus, who grew up in the farming community of Palestine, has used these images in his parables and allegories.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins with the solemn affirmation “I am the true vine” (v. 1).
To grasp the meaning and also the challenging part of this sentence it is necessary to note that the vineyard of the Lord, sung by the prophets, was Israel. She was a vine that had produced abundant fruits of faithfulness, when she was “like wild grapes in the desert” (Hos 9:10) and when she responded to the kindness of God: “Praise to my fruitful vineyard. I, Yahweh, am its keeper; I water it every moment. So that no one will harm it, day and night I guard it. I have no wall, who will cleanse me from thorns? I myself will march against them, I will burn them altogether” (Is 27:2-5).
Symbol of Israel—the vineyard of the Lord was—in the temple of Jerusalem, the golden vine that covered the walls of the vestibule and that kept growing more and more, thanks to the vines, the grapes and the golden vine-leaves offered by the pilgrims.
The vine-Israel had been planted in the fertile soil of a hill, but disappointed his God and she began to produce sour grapes (Is 5:1-4). The Lord complained: “I planted you a choice vine, a shoot of wholesome stock, why have you become degenerate, a wild vine?” (Jer 2:21) He took a painful but necessary decision: “I will remove its hedge and it will be burned; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled on. I will make it a wasteland, I will neither prune nor hoe it and briers and thorns will grow there. I command the clouds, as well, not to send rain on it” (Is 5:5-7).
However, the works that God begins never end in failure. Israel had behaved like an unfaithful vine, but what did the vintner who “looked for justice, but found bloodshed; righteousness, but heard cries of distress” (Is 5:7) do?
He did not repudiate her, despite the infidelity because “the call of God and his gifts cannot be nullified” (Rom 11:29). From the old and sterile strain of this vine, a new, genuine shoot, Christ, the true vine, sprouted on the day of Easter.
Jesus is the vine and his disciples, which form the branches, are part of him and it is from them that the Lord expects delicious fruits: justice, righteousness, love; for this he acts as a gardener, as vinedresser: he breaks off and prunes them (vv. 2-3).
The two actions were carried out by the farmers in different seasons of the year. The first was during winter and consisted in the removal of unnecessary branches, the second, done in August, was intended to remove the weakest shoots to foster the best.
The most immediate interpretation of these images can lead to sadness. They seem, in fact, a severe threat to the dead and unproductive branches, which could indicate the Christians who become lukewarm or inconsistent with their faith. Their end would be the fire: “Whoever does not remain in me is thrown away, as they do with branches, and they wither. Then they are gathered and thrown into the fire and burned” (v. 6).
It is a misleading interpretation and inconsistent with God’s special love for the weak.
To prune and to trim are not images of retaliation, but God’s care for every person and every disciple. Being inserted in Christ—or by direct action of the Spirit, as is the case for those who have not been baptized, or rebirth “by water and the Spirit,” as in the case of the baptized Christians—does not put one in the position of automatically producing fruits. The dead branches are not individuals who are less edifying, but the miseries, the infidelities to the Gospel, weaknesses, small and great sins present also in the best of disciples. No one is immune, all have a constant need for purification.
The Manichean separation between good and evil, between those who feel fine because they belong to the institutional church and who are out, is a form of spiritual arrogance and hypocrisy. Anyone who sees dead branches only in the others, who thinks that only others are in urgent need of pruning, even claims to exclude them from the community or declares them outcasts from God, is just an opinionated person, who sees the mote in his brothers’ eye and does not realize the beam that is in his (Mt 7:4).
The discouragement in the face of human miseries in the church is also a sign of mistrust in God’s purifying work. The disappointments caused by the sins of those who profess to be Christians can lead some to the difficult decision to abandon the community. It is an understandable and worthy of respect choice, but still wrong. Who does not understand the brothers/sisters who make mistakes, who rejects them also deviates from the vine, Jesus, who touched the lepers (Mk 1:41) and was “the friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 11:19).
“You are already made clean by the word I have spoken to you” (v. 3). It is not a declaration of innocence of the disciples, but the indication of the instrument the Father uses to prune.
At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples: “Not all of you are clean” (Jn 13:11). He was referring to Judas, the disciple representing one who, having given his commitment to Christ, cultivates plans opposed to his: power instead of service, the search for the first place instead of the last. Judas is the image of one who does not allow the Father to intervene in his life, who does not accept to have the mind and heart “cleansed” by the word of God and, therefore, run the risk of perishing.
The comparison with the person of Jesus and his word is a continuous, necessary pruning. This word “is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword. It pierces to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and judges the intentions and thoughts of the heart” (Heb 4:12). There is no dark or secret corner of the heart that escapes his light; there is no shadow of death that it does not dissolve. This indicates the branches that should be removed and the useless leaves that take space and sun rays to the productive branches. It shows just how ephemeral the outward manifestations of piety which do not correspond to a genuine commitment to Christ.
While it entails a painful aspect, being carried out by the Father, this cleansing is always a cause joy; God’s hands cure the wounds he has inflicted (Job 5:17). “What you endure is in order to correct you”—says the author of the Letter to the Hebrews—“that you suffer! God treats you like sons and what son is not corrected by his father?” (Heb 12:7).
The sometimes harsh and biting criticisms, which, for many, today are directed to the church, cannot be dismissed too easily, as hateful expressions of prejudiced people who do not love Christ and who do not deserve any consideration. They could instead be references to a life more in keeping with the faith we profess, a healthy although painful pruning.
For whose benefit are the fruits produced? To the glory of the Father—the last verse of the passage answers (v. 8).
God does not expect applauses and praises. His glory is the manifestation and the outpouring of his love for humanity. In view of this work, the disciples are associated with Christ in perfect unity, because with him they are one vine.
The vine does not produce grapes for herself, but for others. The branch finds its fulfillment when it is alive, when it sees the buds, flowers, leaves and sweet grapes sprouting.
The Christian does not produce works of love for himself, for the self-satisfaction of his own moral perfection nor to get a prize from God. He is like the Father who is in heaven: loves without expecting anything in return. His reward is the joy of seeing someone happy, verifying that the love of God was manifested through him. Nothing more, but nothing less: for this is the joy of God, and when he will have reached in all the fullness, it will be the kingdom of God.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: