In the last conclave of Cardinals to elect the new Pope, each Cardinal was given 5 minutes to speak. They were to talk about the problems they felt needed to be addressed in the Church and what kind of man the next pope should be. Cardinal Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, spoke for less than four minutes. Many felt that this speech was a major moment in his path to becoming Pope Francis.In his speech, the Cardinal compared an inwardly-turned Church to the woman that Jesus heals in the Gospel of Luke, who had been crippled by a spirit and been unable to stand up straight for eighteen years. In the same way, he suggested, if the Church has a self-referential spirit, it interferes with its ability to carry out its mission. He therefore argued that the Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.
He also quoted Revelation 3:20 where Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Obviously, the text refers to his knocking from the outside in order to enter but the Cardinal had a different take on it. There are times, he said, in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referential or inwardly looking Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out.
According to today’s Gospel, being a Christian means that Christ is living in us and working through us. The image of the vine and branches simply yet powerfully expresses this. Jesus is the true vine, full of life; the disciples are the branches who live off of the sap that comes from Jesus; the Father is the vinedresser who personally takes care of the vineyard so that it gives abundant fruit. To use the Pope’s analogy, there are only two things that matter. The first is to receive Christ, to let him into our lives so that the sap of his Spirit will nurture us. The second is to bear fruit, which is achieved by letting him out and allowing his overflowing love and reconciliation to bear on the world at large.
The vine image focuses on where the problem lies, namely the dry branches through which the sap of Jesus doesn’t circulate. These are the disciples who don’t bear fruit because the Spirit of Jesus doesn’t flow through their veins. The dry branches can also refer to Christian communities that languish, unconnected to Jesus’ person.
It’s essential then that we receive from Jesus. This means abiding in him and realising that the branch can’t bear fruit all by itself. “Without me you can do nothing.” His word provides the necessary pruning to guide us and help us realise dependency on him. Not to remain in Jesus is to become sterile. The vine is a particularly apt image as its branches are inextricably bound to and interwoven around the vine, and this is what gives the plant its strength and fruitfulness. In the same way, the strength and fruitfulness of believers and their ministry reside in the fact that they remain in Jesus. The early church is proof of this deep bonding with Christ. How else could they have survived the many difficulties and persecutions had they not been grafted unto Christ? In the words of St. Paul they could all say: “I live now, not I, but Christ live in me.”
Barnabas gives us an excellent example of letting Jesus out. In the first reading Paul has a PR problem. On his arrival in Jerusalem, the Christian community could not accept that he was a true disciple of Jesus. All this is very understandable as only recently he had been persecuting the Christians. This is where Barnabas saves the day. The text tells us that “Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.”
When it says Barnabas took him, the Greek verb here is the same which is used when Jesus takes Peter’s hand as he is about to sink in the lake during the storm. We can picture to ourselves a bewildered Paul in Jerusalem. Doors are shut in his face and the community devoted to the Christ he has come to love cannot accept him. It is then that Barnabas takes him by the hand and says “come with me, I’ll go with you and introduce you.” Had not Barnabas done this would we ever have heard of St. Paul?
Obviously Barnabas was deeply united to Christ to the point that Jesus was pulsing through his veins, enabling him to see the good in Paul, and that he had really changed and was now a true disciple of Jesus. Barnabas was indeed a channel for the risen Christ to reach out to Paul and welcome him into the Christian community.
To be Christian today demands a similar vital experience of Jesus Christ, an interior knowing of his person and a passion for his project. What’s decisive is to remain in Jesus. We are all branches but we can only bear fruit by our abiding in the vine. It is only by living out of an immediate and passionate contact with Jesus, that we can bear fruit, fruit that will last.
Sunday, 3rd May 2015