Today’s gospel reading is taken from Jesus’ long exhortation to his disciples at the Last Supper, one of the great Johannine parables or similes about his relationship to his followers. Jesus portrays himself as the central, supportive part of the vine that supports and nourishes the rest. Much has been made of his comparison, and much more will undoubtedly be said.
Familiarity has robbed us of the oddness of the comparison. Jesus seems to have been fond of depicting himself and his relationship to his followers in sometimes unusual ways — as a corral gate, an oil lamp, bread, water, or more conventionally to Jewish ears, a shepherd. But the grapevine had particular meaning in Judaism.
Beginning with the book of Genesis, Israel itself was compared to a grapevine. The prophets, Isaiah in particular, created a number of parables, some about the vineyard itself, some about the vine, some about the gardeners, but always about Israel and her relationship to God. Jesus continued that tradition with several 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, drawing life and productivity from our union with him.
In the second reading, the writer tells us that we are to love one another as Jesus commanded us. Love 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. It is the Holy Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Jesus himself, that makes our lives effective, that brings our good works to fruition. John says, finally, it is from the presence of the Spirit of Love that we know Jesus remains with us.
The shared love Jesus promises is nourished and perpetuated by communion with each other. It is surely no accident that this great discourse is taken from the account of the Last Supper in which Jesus says, simply, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:34-35] That commandment and the bond of our love, our unity is the Eucharist, the bread Jesus was about to give for the life of the world [John 6:51-58].
Once again we are hearing episcopal threats of withholding eucharistic communion from those holding problematic views in the political realm, something that especially arises when Catholics rise to political leadership roles. Such threats were made to so excommunicate President John Kennedy, his brother Ted, Geraldine Ferraro, John Kerry, Patrick Kennedy. and now Joe Biden, usually over the fraught issue of abortion.
Withholding the Eucharist to force Catholic politicians to submit to ecclesiastical pressure and in effect to violate their oaths of office and consciences is equivalent to spiritual terrorism, the prospect of which has so alarmed generations of Protestant and other Americans who fear untoward interference in American politics by “Rome.” Suspicion of what was regarded as inevitable ecclesiastical coercion played a large part in the defeat of Al Smith, the first Catholic candidate for presidential office in 1924. That hoary suspicion is not allayed by reiterations today of episcopal demands and threatened punishment by excommunication.
Opposition to abortion is not limited to Catholics of course. And while many Catholics are fundamentally opposed to abortion, as I am, it remains an extremely complex issue morally and politically. Shibboleths and loyalty oaths will not resolve the problems. Neither will weaponizing the Eucharist.
As with his image of the good shepherd, Jesus portrays himself as the true vine, the real vine, the source of everlasting life, Israel itself. Whatever threatens to disrupt our unity as members of his body, threatens our unity with him. If we create divisive issues about the rich and poor, those of different races, so-called illegal immigrants, or anyone else of whom we disapprove or differ from, 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. That is a much deeper and more tragic “excommunication.” What makes us one with Jesus, makes us one with each other. When we forget that, we wither and fall away or get cut back.
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 [Acts 9:31]. Here, surely, we hear advance echoes of the great feast of Pentecost which is coming soon.
On this Mother’s Day, let us pray that our community, our nation, and the wider world too, will continue to strive to overcome whatever divisions threaten that unity, and so become a living vineyard of true friends, animated by the loving Spirit of Jesus living within us and among us.