This weekend I happened to officiate at an outdoor wedding in Wye, Maryland, which is an island. As we got to the end of the rehearsal on Friday evening, the wind blew heavily, and then it started raining. I was apprehensive as I watched the wind blew the branches in different directions. I thought, “What if these branches collapse on us?” Looking up, I noticed how strongly these branches are attached to their trees. Branches help the tree to maintain its balance. When the wind moved the trees to one side, the branches on the other side would pull it back again thereby creating some harmonious swings to prevent the tree from falling. We don’t even notice that such a harmony exists among the branches because we often don’t pay attention to it.
Jesus uses the analogy of the vine and its branches in the gospel of today as he maintains, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” The metaphor communicates that his disciples should be deeply rooted in his love. His words are, “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” We cannot function without God.
Saul, is a typical example of one who becomes engrafted into the vine following his conversion. The first reading shows how Saul joins the team of believers and passionately begins to preach. He is met with a push-back from those who know his notorious past. They resist him, oppose his preaching, and attempt to kill him. An interesting turn in that passage is the activities of Barnabas and the community of believers. They rally around Saul, protect him from the Hellenists, and make sure that no harm is done to him. Scripture remarks, “And when the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him on his way to Tarsus.” In this encounter, we witness the great show of brotherhood, people who speak the same language have the interests of one another at heart.
Today’s witnessing challenges us to restore the spirit of brotherhood within our faith community. The Bible describes it this way, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind.... With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all” (Acts 4:32-33). This is the key to unity in God.
I’m reminded of missionaries like St. Francis Xavier who left his home in Spain, preaching in the East of India, Japan and China. It’s estimated that he baptized 30,000 people in his lifetime. He started small but eventually bore incredible fruit. Or Mother Teresa who left the safety and comfort of her sisters in Loretto and took up a small space in Calcutta, India. It eventually bore much fruit and helped thousands of people. We have several missionaries of the gospel such as Damien Moloki who left his home in Belgium to minister to lepers. They could not bear fruit apart from God.
Today, the Family Apostolate is working with a group of religious sisters called the Missionary Daughters of Mater Ecclelsiae. These nuns care for disabled children in Nigeria and it’s hard, back breaking work. These kids have been abandoned for a variety of reasons and there is no government help over there. Some of the kids cannot sit or stand on their own, cannot feed themselves, shower on their own or feed themselves if they have the food. These little ones would die in the streets if it weren’t for the sisters. The Family Apostolate is collecting goods to assist them as well as raising money to build an orphanage. All of these missions in the past and today have the same thing in common; all are rooted in Christ, the source of everything. We must be firmly rooted in Christ. This is the only means of bearing much fruit. This is the only way 30,000+ people are baptized in far off lands, how a community of one nun in India becomes 4,500 nuns in more than 600 missions across 133 countries. This how a small group of sisters in Africa caring for poorest of the poor children bears great fruit. You must be firmly rooted in Christ in your family life, your work, your volunteering, everything you do.
This will make sense reflecting on Saint John’s exhortation in the second reading as the evangelist unveils the authenticity of love in Christ. Lip service is hypocrisy, not religion. John addresses us as “children,” with an invitation, “let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 Jn. 3:18). Undoubtedly, loving defines us as belonging to the truth. Jesus already asserts that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” This truth is the vine whose branches we are. Remaining in the vine implies remaining in God’s truth. Hence, John stresses the meaning of keeping God’s commandment, “we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.”
My dear friends, why can’t we love just as Jesus commanded us? Why can’t we love like the apostles did? Why can’t we take risks of faith for our members despite what others say or think about us? That’s the example set by Barnabas and the apostles in the Acts of the apostles; that is the spirit of brotherhood. That is what it means to remain in Christ.
Aren’t we familiar with Paul’s hymn of love, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1)? Unfortunately, today, Christians do not speak with one mind and heart. Catholics don’t speak with one mind. Bishops, priests, and ministers aren’t united in their teachings and preaching anymore, so, the enemy gets an easy pass into the Church. Even as we are seated in this church, it will be hard to imagine that we speak similar language about our Catholic beliefs. Is the spirit of brotherhood still alive or is it dying? What exactly happened to that spirit?
Today, Christ invites us to remain in him as the vine. Christ ushers us into the love of the Father and the Holy Spirit, the triune God who is love. Also, Christ ushers us into a community of believers that authentically cares for each other. Yes, we must be rooted in Christ, we must be engrafted in Him as the source of our lives. That is how branches survive, feeding from the nourishment of the Tree of life.
The old slogan holds, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” That friend may be near you, or far away, as long as she belongs to the mystical body of Christ. That is where the greatest friendship is found. I want each of us to feel challenged today. Reflect on how we can restore the spirit of brotherhood in the church. Cut off from this brotherhood, we are weakened, just as cut off from Christ we wither. Can we defend each other like Barnabas, Saul, and the first disciples of Christ, for the sake of the faith we share? Can we begin to understand the significance of our bond of faith is? Paul reminds us, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13).
My thought from watching those branches at Wye Island is that they survive because they hold strongly to their trees. Also, they connect with each other and maintain balance against the wind. Similarly, as members of the same faith, we can fight external enemies if we unite in love and in truth as given to us by Christ who is the vine. We will forever be safe and fruitful if we stay connected to him and with one another.