3 May 2015
5th Sunday of Easter, Year B
It’s a difficult thing to judge how “successful” we are as a Church. You know, we might go to business models and start to compare numbers. Things like: how many baptisms and weddings there were in the parish the past year; or how many contributing units there are in the parish. But the numbers are only a part of the picture of how we’re doing as a Church.
Scripture today gives us another perspective, though. St. Luke writes (in the Acts of the Apostles): “The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.”
He reports that the church was “at peace.” Every person in this wide-spread community was working together; it was running like a well-oiled machine. That doesn’t necessarily mean there weren’t issues now and again. But it means that those issues were taken up and resolved by the ethos—the spirit—of the community. Just like a healthy human body which is able to overcome sickness, so the church “at peace” is able to overcome the occasional “illnesses” in its life.
St. Luke also reports that the church was “being built up” and “grew in numbers.” So, there is something to the idea of looking at our success as a Church in terms of numbers. The Church that’s alive and doing well is one that’s growing—both spiritually and in numbers. But this being “at peace” and growth in numbers is first and foremost because of the Holy Spirit and what St. Luke calls “fear of the Lord.”
This phrase, “fear of the Lord,” doesn’t mean that people were “afraid of” Jesus. It just means that they paid attention to him. They paid attention to the example he gave them, to the teachings he spoke through the Apostles, and to the promises and the hope he gave them. In other words, a healthy Church is one that’s rooted in relationship with God. The Church has the Holy Spirit of Jesus flowing through its veins, giving it life.
And so, St. Luke gives us a pretty succinct image of what “success” as a Church looks like: “The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.” And Jesus adds to this picture of a healthy Church when he says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.”
If the Holy Spirit is the lifeblood of a healthy church, then Jesus is the veins and the arteries which carry that Spirit, that lifeblood, to each member of the church, the Body. If you ever look at a grapevine, you’ll see the vine and the branches. It’s not like a tree, where there’s a trunk, and then big branches, and branches off of those branches, and yet more branches off of those. The grapevine isn’t like that. There’s the vine and the branch, with nothing in between. And each one of us is a branch on the vine.
In other words, Jesus is saying that a healthy church is one where each branch, each person, is personally connected to him, to the Vine. There’s no substitute for that individual life of faith, prayer and good works. Not even our involvement in Church is a substitute. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you’” [7:22-23].
The Church and its ministries may be the presence of Christ in the world, but the Church is not Christ himself. And so, it’s not enough to say, “I go to Church. I go to Mass on the weekend. I do things in the community.” The Church is not the Vine. The Church is a cluster of branches on the Vine; a cluster of people who are each connected to Christ.
Jesus is saying that a healthy Church is one where each branch, every man, woman, and child, is connected to him personally. That being said, however, in a healthy church there is also a pervading sense of community.
In spite of differences, each person who’s united with Christ is also united to their brothers and sisters—in spite of differences. You know, it’s so easy to categorize people as belonging to this camp or that camp: this priest is liberal, this priest is conservative; young people have no sense of reverence, old people are out-of-touch. It may be true, and it may not be true. But a healthy church isn’t torn apart by all that. A healthy church remains a unity, in spite of differences, in spite of the “illnesses” which afflict the Body of Christ.
Very early in the Church’s history, Peter and Paul were at odds with one another. Two towering figures at the birth of the Church, and they’re fighting. But that was okay. It was okay because they saw each other as fellow branches on the One Vine. Together, in spite of differences, they were part of the catholic—that is, the universal—Church. Every now and again Peter and Paul had their disagreements. But they got through them. And that ability to resolve problems by the grace of the Holy Spirit of love and trust was a sign of a healthy Church. And, of course, where that spirit of true community is, there is bound to be growth.
A healthy, “successful” Church is one “at peace” within itself, where each person is in a personal relationship with Christ, and the community as a whole pays attention to Christ and grows in numbers by the sheer working of the Holy Spirit. That’s the image Scripture gives us today of a “healthy” Church. Now, as we look at the Church today, as we look at our parish, our families, and each of us as individual branches on the vine, we see, of course, both health and sickness.
Every time somebody comes to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as says, “I want to be reconnected to Christ,” there is a sign of health. Every time there is true and selfless love between a husband and wife, between friends and neighbors, there are signs of a healthy Church. Every time we offend a brother or sister, but we make amends, there’s a sign of a healthy Church. There are lots of signs of health in the Church, in the parish, in the family and within each of us. There are also signs of sickness, of course.
The generational gap is hard to overlook. Comparing and contrasting the faith life of youth and the faith life of elders is almost like looking at two different value systems. There’s a pretty big disconnect there. It’s a belly-ache in the Church which should tell us something is wrong. And what about unhealed, festering wounds—not wounds themselves, but unhealed and festering wounds between this person and that person, between this group and that group. The presence of unresolved tensions is another sign that the Church isn’t as healthy as it could be. And so, the Church is both healthy and not.
She has her aches and pains. And those aches and pains are signs that the Church isn’t entirely “at peace” within itself. And the remedy isn’t necessarily more programs or more activities. The remedy, the medicine, is Christ himself, the Divine Physician. As Jesus says: “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.”
That’s where the renewal and healing of the Church begins—our individual relationships with Christ. When we see ourselves as branches—as brothers and sisters—of Christ, then we can see others around us as fellow branches on the One Vine. Then we can see ourselves, and live day-to-day, as a community of faith “at peace” with itself. But it all begins with that individual relationship between the Vine and the branch, between Christ and each one of us.
There, hanging out together as clusters of branches on the One Vine, we can live and work together in peace and harmony. In fact, that’s our prayer at every Mass. That our Lord grant us “peace and unity.” That the Lord make us a healthy, growing Church.