If we are to judge by the nightly and now hourly news reports, we have just survived another week of violence and political chaos that seem to many to point to the serious fragmentation of society along racial and economic fault lines. Unless we turn off the TV, anyway, and sometimes that’s a wise thing to do. In any case, today’s readings have something urgent to tell us about solidarity and unity.
The gospel shifts our Easter focus from sheep and shepherds to the image of a grapevine. At first glance that might seem a little odd, especially because Jesus compares himself to
the main vine and his followers, ourselves included, to branches, if not grapes, mercifully enough. We’re familiar with the image, because we have heard it all our lives. But it is odd. Odder, say, than his comparing himself to a shepherd, or a light blazing in the darkness, or even a gate, or life-giving water.
But there are points to be made, first of all that just as sheep depend on the shepherd’s voice for their safety and well-being, learning to trust and follow him, so too the branches totally depend on the trunk of the vine for their life. But something else is going on here, and as we peel away the layers of meaning, like Mae West peeling away the skin of her grapes, we learn something important about our relationship to Jesus and each other.
Those of us who live in large cities likely think of grapes in terms of jelly, jam, and juice from the supermarket. My first experience with growing grapes was actually in Rogers Park. Stretching along a wire-link fence in the back yard of the two-flat where my community lived for some ten years was an old grape vine. I never saw any grapes on it, just lots of leaves and overgrown dead branches underneath. The house and property belonged to a very elderly Jewish couple who were no longer able to tend to gardening, so I asked if I could work on it. They agreed, so I began to work without knowing very much about grapevines. But I did know that in grape-growing regions, excess growth is routinely cut away. So I pruned away a lot of straggly growth, cut away the dead parts, added fertilizer, and watered. The next year, the vine produced a few little green grapes about the size of orange seeds. So I repeated my work of the previous year, and the following year, I got clusters of tough little grapes about the size of orange seeds. But they were purple. So I cut back and fertilized and watered some more. Eventually, I got quite a few clusters of grapes, purple ones, but small, tough, and pretty bitter. Then, the old couple died and the house was sold. The last I looked the grape vine was still there, but I don’t recall seeing any grapes on it. If I did, they would probably be small, tough, and bitter. Some vines are like that. Someone even said it might have been a wild grape vine and would never produce anything but little, bitter grapes, purple or otherwise.
My second experience growing grapes was even less productive. Over in Ireland, some years ago I bought a rootstock that was allegedly developed to prosper in Ireland ‘s cool, wet climate. My neighbor had one in his greenhouse and it did wonderfully well, producing clusters of huge, juicy grapes every year. But I didn’t have a greenhouse. Planted outdoors, my grapevine grew, but has never produced any grapes. So far, anyway. I still have hope.
So you might say the readings speak to me in a particular way. The point is the vine has to be the right kind, planted in the right place, and in the right way. The rest is magic. Or in today’s case, grace.
In the bible, beginning with the book of Genesis, Israel was compared to a grapevine. A number of parables were developed, some about the vineyard itself, some about the vine, some about the gardeners, but always about Israel and her relationship to God. The most striking of these is from the fifth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, which we use so much in the Lenten liturgy:
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He spaded it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” [Isaiah 5:1-2. Others: Jer. 12:10, Ps 80: 5-10 , Ezek 19:10, Prov. 30:30 and 31:16, Song of Songs 8:11, etc.]
Jesus continued that tradition with several of his own parables, especially about the workers in the vineyard. But here, there is a difference. Now, Jesus himself is the vine, and we are his branches,
At this moment in John’s gospel, when unity is such an important theme, preserving our life-giving union with Christ is certainly the main point. But there is an additional theme that goes back to the original parables, that of productivity, producing appropriate and abundant fruit, the kind of thing I was never able to get my grapevines to do. And the gospel tells us that it is because we are members of Christ, really connected to him as the life-giving source of activity, that we are able to produce anything at all. But especially anything worthwhile.
As with his image of the good shepherd, Jesus tells us that he is the true vine, the real vine, Israel itself. Nothing else will do. Only Christ is the real source of everlasting life. And anything that threatens to disrupt our unity as members of his body, threatens our unity with Christ. If we make an issue about the “old timers” and the “newcomers,” say, so-called illegal immigrants, or the rich and the poor, or between racial or ethnic groups, or anyone else, we are to that extent no longer sharing the same life and love that is the sign of the presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit. What makes us one with him, makes us one with each other.
In the second reading, John tells us that we are to love one another as Jesus commanded us, because love is what holds us together, it makes us one, it is the life flowing through all the members of the community, it is in fact the Holy Spirit at work in each of us because we are part of the whole of us. More, it is the Holy Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Christ, that makes our lives effective, that brings our good works to fruition. John says, finally, it is from the presence of the Spirit that we know Jesus remains with us. We know it because only the Spirit of Christ could produce the abundance of life and goodness that pours like vintage wine out of our communion with each other. God is doing this: as Isaiah said ages ago, it was God who planted the vineyard, God who watered it and pruned it, and in time, God who produced the abundance.
And that takes us back to the first reading, which, at the end, describes what happened when the Spirit of Christ transformed Saul of Tarsus, the enemy of the Church, into Paul, the greatest missionary the church has ever seen. The Church, Luke says, was then at peace, making steady progress in the fear of the Lord, and enjoyed the consolation of the Holy Spirit. Here, surely, we hear advance echoes of the great feast of Pentecost which is coming soon. So let us pray that our community, our nation, and the wider world too, will continue to work together, that we will overcome whatever divisions threaten that unity, and become a living vineyard of true friends, animated by the loving Spirit of Christ living within us and among us.
Traditionally this been called Good Shepherd Sunday. Today’s gospel readings in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd of Israel. Pope Francis and other bishops usually make use of the themes to underscore the responsibilities of those chosen to be pastors (literally, shepherds) of the faithful. Given the awful legacy of clerical abuse in recent decades, it’s still timely. For even sterner words, St. Augustine’s great 5th-century work “On Pastors” [Sermon 46] makes for important and inspiring reading. Every bishop and priest should read it at least once a year. Actually, we are supposed to.
But here Jesus describes his relationship to us in terms of how sheep recognize the true shepherd, particularly by his
voice. Since sheep are not very independent and are generally pretty timid and easily panicked, such voice recognition is much more important for their safety and survival than it is, say, for a computer. In fact, it isn’t important all for the computer to recognize my voice. It’s important to me. But sheep can get into a lot more trouble than computers do if they fail the test of voice recognition. And so can we.
The theme of recognition also appears in both the first and second readings as well as the responsory psalm. In Peter’s sermon from the Acts of the Apostles, which follows on last week’s reading, he declares,
“if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, that is, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well.”
The word “known” here means the same as “recognized,” and the passage could have just as well been translated, “you should recognize that this man was healed in the name of Jesus.” He goes on to say, citting the refrain from the 118th Psalm,
“This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” [Acts 4: 9-12: 9]
The choice is between recognizing Christ as living and active among us, the saving presence of God, or rejecting him. The little parable of how the rejected stone became the cornerstone is an image of the importance of being alert to God’s presence in Christ even in what may appear paltry and insignificant in our lives. For the most important thing is often the one we refuse to pay attention to.
For Peter and, later, in John’s epistle, that lesson is applied to both Jesus, the true Shepherd, and also to his true followers. John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not recognize us is that it did not recognize him” [1 Jn 3:1-2].
For us today the question is, do we really recognize each other as God’s daughters and sons, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, and in fact, members of Jesus’ own body? Because if we do, we will act accordingly. We will love one another with the same love with which God loved us. But if we despise and reject each other for whatever reason, we are also despising and rejecting both God and God’s love for us in Christ.
So when we come to today’s gospel reading, the image of the Good Shepherd, the true one, means something very particular. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Those who are truly followers of Christ are also recognized by their recognition. It is all one knowing: Jesus recognizes us as we recognize him, and as the Father recognizes Jesus and us in Jesus by our effective love for one another.
Recognizing Jesus, and therefore recognizing God in our midst, is especially important for those young members of the community who are about to receive the Eucharist for the first time. That is why the minister holds the Eucharist in front of the communicant and says “The body of Christ” and “The Blood of Christ.” What he or she is really doing is asking each of you whether you really recognize the Body and Blood of Jesus in this sacrament. And when you say “Amen,” you are affirming that you do. “Amen” means “Yes, so it is, so I believe.” You can’t make that statement until you really understand what the Eucharist means and what communion is all about.
But even more importantly, you recognize the body and blood of Christ in how you treat one another before and after you receive communion. That is the sign and the test of whether or not we really recognize Jesus in the Eucharist. That’s what Good Shepherd Sunday is all about.
So let us pray that all of us will forever be able to recognize the presence of Christ in each other and that the world will recognize Christ’s presence in us by the love and devotion we express — putting our lives on the line for one another just as Jesus taught us and showed us.
On a beautiful summer day twenty-three years ago, I drove through Oklahoma City on my way to see my parents in Albuquerque. Everything seemed normal. A year later, I made the same trip, two months after a home-made truck bomb destroyed the Murrah Federal Building and killed 160 people. The city had been changed completely and probably forever. We remember that event on Thursday of this week. Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. For many of us today, even here in the US after Blacksburg, DeKalb, Binghamton, Manchester, Oak Creek, Sandy Hook, Waco, Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, and Parkland (to cite only some mass shootings in this country since 2008), the whole world sometimes seems to be teetering on the verge of chaos. Violence seems epidemic. Even the weather has turned weird, if less so here than elsewhere in the nation. So the temptation to try to exert control over even the ordinary affairs of life can be huge. And it has always been a trap, for as we erect more and more defenses against perceived forces of disruption, our ability to live freely and gracefully become increasingly compromised. Today the Word of God has something important to tell us in that regard.
It is still Easter evening as far as the Church is concerned, and always will be. The gospel reading
resumes the account we heard on Easter Sunday of how Jesus suddenly appeared in the midst of his disciples just after two travelers related breathlessly how they had encountered him earlier on their way home. They must have run hard, because Emmaus seems to have been about 20 miles away and Jesus had stayed for supper. Nothing is said here about the absence of doubting Thomas, no mention of the Holy Spirit. But here, too, Jesus shows the disciples his hands and feet, the wounds of his passion and death, and his message is the same — the same one we heard from Peter in the first reading and in the Letter of John. We hear it often, but somehow we often fail to grasp its meaning. Perhaps that is why we need to hear it again and again.
The first reading continues the second sermon of St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles, preached just after he and John healed the man born crippled. Toward the end, Peter says two things to the people who have gathered around, first, that “what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled.” He goes on to say, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” [Acts 3:19].
Familiar words, and yet their very familiarity can hide their meaning from us. The word Peter uses that we hear as “repent” (and we’ll hear again in the Gospel) comes from the Greek word metanoia. It’s the same command that John the Baptist and Jesus preached when they were baptizing people in the Jordan River. We heard it a lot in Advent. It’s notoriously hard to translate, but it does not mean “repent” or “reform” as we use those words today, but “change your mind — the way you think.” That should change the way we live, but Christians have often put the emphasis on undertaking some kind of special penance, hoping somehow to expiate our sins by our own efforts. Peter is really telling us to wake up, to recognize the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and to appropriate the power it gives us to completely reorient our lives. All we need do is turn again to God.
It is here that things get down to a matter of control. Like little children, we complain “I want to do it myself!” Maybe mostly when we are least able to. That’s where Jesus’ message truly comes home to us.
In both John’s gospel and Luke’s, Jesus first says to his terrified disciples, “Peace be to you.” The disciples needed to calm down. They were already very scared by his violent death and the reported disappearance of his body. Now they think they’re seeing a ghost. Thus the first gift of the risen Christ is peace. But he goes on to talk about metanoia and especially about forgiveness.
Not only that, in Luke’s gospel he says that metanoia and the forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem [Luke 24:47]. Jesus does not say “do penance.” Rather, he is again telling us to change our way of thinking — our whole way of seeing reality. We miss the point entirely if we think Jesus is telling us to adopt some kind of penitential practice in order to atone for our sins. A lot of Christians do think that way, desperate to regain control over their moral and spiritual lives with some special kind of activity, something we can do to get God off our backs. But the simple fact is, we can’t atone for our sins. Only Jesus could do that and he did it. Once for all. That is what the Letter from John insists on when he writes, “He is an offering for our sins, and not for our sins only, but for those of the whole world.”
The desire to atone runs very strong in the human heart. Estrangement from God because of our crazy, sinful ways is hard to bear. But if we think we can fix that ourselves, that it’s somehow in our control, then the sacrifice of Jesus was pointless. The more we try to atone by ourselves, the farther we get from Christ. We are actually denying that Jesus reconciled us to God, completely and perfectly. In fact what Peter and John and Luke and ultimately Jesus are all telling us is that Jesus himself IS the atonement. Recognizing that, accepting it, and living that truth is how we are to change our way of thinking. That is the Easter message.
Does that mean that we are free from the burden of making amends with those we have harmed? Not at all. In fact, just the opposite. And this is what Jesus next gives us, the second part of the message in today’s gospel. Because we have been forgiven, we have the power to forgive and the command to do it.
Last Sunday, we heard in the Gospel of John about the mission Jesus gave his disciples on the evening of his resurrection. He breathed the Holy Spirit into them, the Spirit of love and unity, of reconciliation, and said “forgive.” Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearance that night contains the same lesson, the same command — a complete change of heart expressed in forgiveness. That shouldn’t be surprising, because that was what Jesus preached and taught before he was crucified. If Jesus had not preached it after his resurrection, that would be surprising.
So if you want to know whether the grace and power of the risen Christ is alive in you, consider forgiveness. Whom do you need to forgive, and who needs to forgive you? Then go forgive them and ask for forgiveness if you need it. You’d be surprised how wonderful things can get after that — once we let go of our desire to be in charge and let God take control of our lives. Miracles start happening.
On this Sunday, now also known as Divine Mercy Sunday, the focus of the Word is on God’s compassion toward sinners, which means, if we are to accept the words of Scripture, all of us human beings. In his 2001 homily on this April Sunday, Pope John Paul II pointed to the revelations of a Polish nun, Sr. Faustina Kowalska, whom he had canonized in 2000, as “the appropriate and incisive answer that God wanted to offer to the questions and expectations of human beings in our time, marked by terrible tragedies…. Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity at the dawn of the third millennium.” [https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20010422_divina-misericordia.html].
Long before Sr. Faustina’s revelations and Pope John Paul’s endorsement of her devotion, extending it to the entire Church in 2002, the 14th-century Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, extolled divine mercy as “the highest and purest acts God is capable of.” [Sermon 7, Walshe translation.] He declared in one of his most memorable sermons, “God’s highest work is mercy, and this means that God places the soul in the highest and purest place that she can attain to, into space, into the sea, into a bottomless ocean, and there God works mercy. Therefore the prophet said “Lord, have mercy on the people that are in thee,” drawing on his favorite verses from the prophet Hosea [Hosea 2:23].
Looking at the world today, not least compared to 1931 Poland or 14th-century Germany, there is certainly evident need for mercy, not only God’s mercy, but its fruit, a vast increase of human compassion toward each other, especially toward the poor, the defenseless, and those victimized by war, disease, and the violence born out of ignorance and hard-heartedness. Addressing the wounds of hunger, ignorance, want, and disease has from the earliest times been collectively known as “the works of mercy.” In Matthew’s gospel, they provide the heart of Jesus last sermon (Matt. 25:31-46). Today we are increasingly aware of the desperate need for active compassion toward the wider world of Creation as well – the animals and plants and the whole living planet itself, all now under threat because of selfishness, greed, and indifference.
As Jesus taught, the measure of our compassion is the compassion we show to others, which is the heart of forgiveness. Today’s readings underscore this in the story of “Doubting Thomas,” whose disbelief is overwhelmed by a simple act of kindness. “Come, see. Touch me and believe.”
Saving the world begins with forgiveness, the work of a merciful heart.