Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year B 2018 at St John the Evangelist Parish, Riverstone
29 April 2018
Dear friends in Christ,
Last Sunday, we reflected on the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd who cares for his flock, especially the weak and the stray. This Sunday, we move from the symbolism of shepherding to that of the vine. We are challenged to grow in our discipleship in such a way that we can produce good fruits.
The image of the vine is familiar to our biblical tradition. The prophets use it to describe God’s relationship with his people. Isaiah, for example, wrote a song of the vineyard in which he lamented Israel’s failure to bear fruit. Despite God’s constant care for the vine, it only produced sour wild grapes. Similarly, the Psalms speak of the vine that was brought out of Egypt but now ravaged by the enemies. This was a reference to the people’s journey into the Promise Land and their subsequent exile that witnessed much shame and destruction. They go on to plead with God to restore Israel and make it fruitful again.
It is in this context that Jesus describes himself as the true vine. In contrast to the ravaged and unfruitful vine of Israel, he bears the fruits that God the owner seeks. That is because unlike Israel’s unfaithfulness, Jesus is united with the Father. His disciples will likewise bear fruit if they are united with him as the branches to the vine. It is our union with Christ that enables us to draw life from him and pass it on to others.
We need to be grafted onto Christ as well as to be knit together in love, to grow strong, to be stable and to be able to stand as people of faith. In Jesus who is the nucleus of the new Israel, God has established the church in which we are to grow, to bear fruit and to channel God’s life and love to the world. It is by imitating Christ’s self-emptying love that we can be true to our mission of sharing God’s life and love for the world: an oasis for the weary, a hospital for the wounded, a refuge for the oppressed and a voice for the voiceless.
The church in Australia, however, like the old Israel, has been humbled and ravaged, not just by inimical forces but also by our own failures. But it is not necessarily a bad thing that we now have to start from a position of weakness and vulnerability in order to regain our trust and indeed our Gospel compass. The first reading today is a continuation of the story of the apostle Paul on his way to Damascus. He fell off his high horse. But it was the fall from his privileged position that was the catalyst for a whole new way of seeing, acting and relating. Paul was never the same afterwards. He learned to be humble, open and docile to God’s way. His strength no longer came from his status, entitlement and privilege but from the power of the cross.
The Catholic Church has had its Damascus moment in the sexual abuse crisis. It has fallen from the privileged position in society and the power and influence that came with that status. Now, like Paul who fell off his high horse and was led into a place of vulnerability, we are undergoing a time of uncertainty and darkness until we can learn to see, act and relate in the way of Christ the humble servant. We should not fear this time. For it can be a great opportunity and a tremendous blessing in disguise. We need to remember that the church was not at its best when it reached the heights of imperial power in what was known as Christendom. The church was at its best when it was poor, persecuted and powerless. In this time of affliction, we should learn the art of living grace in vulnerability and weakness. We should avail ourselves of the discipline of the Lord who like the Master of the vineyard applies his pruning sickle in proper time.
We should be under no illusions about the demands of discipleship. Jesus warns us of the costs of being his disciple in this way: “Every branch in me that bears no fruit, my Father cuts away, and every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes to make it bear even more.” The Church as a whole needs pruning. But each of us too must not shy away from the fundamental task of dying to what is not worthy of Christ. Each of us needs to be pruned and nurtured in order to grow and bear the fruits expected of his followers.
We gather as people who have been grafted into Christ by baptism, as the people who have heard His voice and who seek to follow Him in our lives, and to join with Him in prayer in thanking the Father. Let us pray that our lives are rooted and grounded in our communion with God and with one another. Let our unwavering faith, undivided loyalty and unconditional trust help us to become authentic followers of Christ. May our union with him nourish and strengthen us in our mission of making the vine of God’s life and love reach our brothers and sisters.