Gospel Reflection for May 2, 2021 – Fifth Sunday of Easter

We all live in a constant tension between wanting to belong to a group or community and being independent. This dynamic is seen within families, especially between parents and children, as well as other close personal relationships. While marriage reflects that the “two become one,” this mindset is lived more as an ideal than a reality.

While we desire, intuitively, to be free from too much entanglement, freedom from is not the promise of the Gospel. Instead, we are called to a deeper sense of belonging; we are called to a freedom for.

Jesus employs a very simple image to define our relationship to him throughout the later New Testament letters. Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches; the individual parts that make up the whole. We know that a leaf, apart from the plant, is doomed to die. Often a leaf falls from a branch because it is already dying and the vine or the tree has cut it off in order to conserve food and strengthen the remaining branches and leaves. When separated from the whole its chances for survival are over.

One of the majestic features of Wrigley Field in Chicago or the universities that form the Ivy League are the ivy vines that cover the walls. One can imagine the growth of the plants from a young shoot to the deep and lush plants that they are today. So it is with the Church. Growing from the small shoot of Jesus and the 12 apostles, countless millions of souls have been baptized and taken on a share in Jesus Christ. While not all of the baptized remain on the vine, just as those ivies have shed branches and limbs through nature, and have been cared for and pruned by countless numbers of groundskeepers over the years, so the Church is constantly being pruned and tended to by the Lord.

As members of this vine of Jesus Christ, we cannot fully or correctly think of our own relationship to Jesus Christ without first thinking about our relationship to the entire vine that is the Church. An individual leaf or a branch on a vine does not have a relationship with the vine itself apart from the rest of the vine. If a single leaf is threatened the entire vine must respond to the threat. When a storm rages and tears at the plant, it suffers as a whole and not just in its individual parts. It takes the energy of the entire plant to regain its strength and to recover.

So it is with us, the vine of Jesus Christ. We are called into a deep symbiotic relationship with the entirety of the Church, what we call the (Catholic) Church Universal. This is also the Church both visible and invisible, those of us who are present and active members of the church along with the Communion of the Saints, those who share in the Church eternal. We are all one in Christ, but one in an assembly or a communion, and not merely in some mystical personal relationship.

The vine nourishes its individual parts as Jesus nourishes the Church. It is through the sacramental economy, the shared experience of entering into the Sacred Liturgy, and our prayer within the body of the Church, that we come to be nurtured in our life of faith. While we all have our individual experiences – no two leaves or branches on the tree get equal amounts of nourishment or sunlight at the same time – we are incomplete outside of the community; a part from the vine.

Some of do us prefer to try and go it alone. Some want to be the only branch on the vine, or perhaps even to separate entirely from the vine and to begin a new vine, one that while it might look like the original is actually not the vine itself.

The history of the Church, the personal history of many disciples of Jesus Christ, has seen the constant desire of individual branches deciding that they are really not a part of the whole – that they can go it on their own. While they might look healthy and even to be thriving at times, lacking the food and nourishment that comes through the Church, it is all destined to wither and die.

May we grow in the humility and faith needed to acknowledge that we are just a small part of a much bigger plant, and not the plant itself.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.