Fifth Sunday of Easter

Dominica in Pasqua V

29 April 2018

Recently I’ve been wondering about the mechanics of grafting the branch of one vine or tree onto another tree such that the grafted branch grows and thrives.  My wondering ‘stems’ (uh hem!) from a recent visit I made to the Crystal Bridge at the Myriad Gardens in Oklahoma City.  Among the many tropical plants and trees growing there, the Bridge features various types of orchids.  There are orchids of colors and shapes I have never seen before.  I was surprised at one point when I noticed that an orchid appeared to be growing directly out from the trunk of a very tall, tropical tree.  How does that work, I wondered?  How do you graft together two very unrelated plants and have them grow?  On closer inspection what had really happened is that an orchid plant, in its small pot had been hung on the trunk and, after time, the orchid’s root system had grown out from the pot, wrapping around it and covering it, giving the illusion that the orchid had somehow been grafted onto the tree.

Now I am very far from a “green thumb” and I don’t intend my thoughts to give instruction on grafting or gardening.  While not pretending to know much about how grafting of plants works, it seems generally true that successful grafting of very different types of plants or trees, while it may be occasionally successful, is the exception rather than the rule.  In other words, generally speaking, successful grafting requires a greater, rather than lesser, degree of genetic similarity between grafted plants or trees.

“I am the vine, you are the branches.”  Can you see why my trip to the Myriad Gardens comes to mind with this gospel?  In the Old Testament God’s Word uses the image of a grapevine to describe His chosen People Israel.  God chooses and plants the choice vine, from which He expects a great harvest and a good vintage.  But through sin and disobedience the choice vine of Israel goes wild and produces bad fruit.  God promises through the prophets to fix the problem.  Thus, when Jesus proclaims himself in St. John’s gospel to be the “true vine” he is emphatically stating that God’s choice vine is here, in his very person.  He is that promised vine.  And a good harvest and a good vintage will only come through him.  Disciples will produce what God wants only if we remain in the Lord Jesus.

By baptism we begin life in the true Vine by being grafted into Jesus, thus being made by the Holy Spirit adopted sons and daughters of the Father.  Disciples who remain in the Lord are called to maintain unity of life with the visible expression of Christ the True Vine – his Church, which Scripture also describes as the very Body of Christ.  In the first reading, after Saul’s conversion (becoming known as Paul) we see him seeking to be grafted onto the Church.  Because of his persecuting past, disciples were suspicious, but in time Paul’s newfound faith could grow and remain alive only because he joined Christ in the unity of his Church.  We who have been baptized are only alive in Christ and only producing good fruit to the degree that we remain united to Christ the True Vine.  Our unity grows by deeper conversion and faithful practice of prayer and the Sacraments.  When we sin, when we maintain a weak unity with the Church, when we don’t accept the pruning of God’s Word leading us to deeper conversion, when we don’t make Christ the center of meaning and nourishment in our lives, well, we are ready to be cut off and worthy of being taken away from the harvest of heaven.  Jesus says, the Father “takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit.”  “Remain in me, as I remain in you.”  “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Friends, it is easy to make the mistake of thinking that being marginal disciples, or Christians pretty much in name only, will lead to salvation.  To borrow the image of grafting, a marginal Christian is about as genetically dissimilar to the True Vine as an orchid to a tropical tree.  The marginal Christian might look like he has life from the True Vine, but on closer inspection he is nourishing himself, just sort of hung upon or near the Vine, much like that orchid I saw on the tree.  To be successfully grafted such that we branches bear good fruit, we must live what was begun in us in baptism, when we were grafted onto Christ.  We do not want to become a branch worth cutting off.  To be worthy to remain connected to the Vine, we are called upon by the Father to bear much, and good, fruit.

Generally speaking, successful grafting requires a greater, rather than lesser, degree of genetic similarity between grafted plants or trees.  We can carry this observation into the gospel image.  Obviously I use this idea of grafting to refer not to genetics, but to a greater degree of conversion or Christ-likeness.  We are first brought into the True Vine at baptism.  But that grafting must be lived and must develop as the Father wants if a living (faithful) branch and a fruitful harvest is to result.  Don’t expect an easy path as a Christian.  No, Jesus tells us we will be pruned.  But this serves to help us bear even more fruit.  We can never take for granted our unity with Christ the True Vine.  We should seek, like St. Paul, an ever-greater conversion and a grafting into Jesus’ Church.  “Remain in me,” Jesus says.  Today’s second reading from St. John gives all of us a clear indication of remaining in the Lord.  “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them.”