5th Sunday of Easter Year B
For those of us who love gardening, there is no greater joy than to plant a good fruit tree and watch it grow and eventually produce an abundance of fruits. As we witness a branch overhanging with juice fruits, are we grateful that we have a good branch; or are we grateful that we have a good tree? We are grateful for the tree, of course! As we prune away dried up branches that do not produce fruits, the tree continues to grow new branches that produce more good fruits. It is the same with discipleship.
In the Gospel this week, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (verse 1). For a tree or vine to bear fruit, the branches have to draw nutrient from the vine. In discipleship, Jesus is the vine and we are His branches. Just as the branch draws its nutrient from the vine, we too must draw our spiritual nutrient from Jesus. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (verse 5) This is the meaning of discipleship. As we abide in Him. we bear much fruits (verse 8). We live in true peace and joy; we serve the community in humility; we enjoy the fullness of life. These are the fruits of Jesus’ love as we live out his love in words and in deeds. Conversely, if we are separated from Him, we wither and die. My brothers and sisters, let us ask ourselves: am I truly abiding in Jesus? Or am I just giving lip services in my faith? Unfortunately for many of us, while we profess to be believers, many of us do not live like true disciples.
Firstly, is my love pure? Do I preach love but yet cannot forgive someone who wronged me? Do I preach love but yet could not welcome into my community those I deemed less worthy than me – the divorced, the same-sex attracted, the substance abuser? Do I preach love but yet gossip about the mistakes of others? Secondly, is my motive pure? When I serve, is my main concern on the people whom I serve? Or am I more worried about myself? Am I more concerned about being recognised for my work? Am I more concerned about earning praises from others? This is when we develop the tendency to draw attention to the branch rather than the vine. We want people to be grateful for the branch rather than the vine. We are making the mistake of the Pharisees. As Jesus warned, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.” (Lk 11:43) Thirdly, is my worship pure? In other words, we can become more obsessed with our words than the disposition of our hearts. As Jesus said, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (Mt 6:7) Formula prayers like the Lord’s Prayer or impromptu prayers that fit the moment are really beautiful. But they take their true meaning only when we mean what we pray. As St John said in the Second Reading, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (verse 18) Christianity is not just about reciting beautiful prayers, verbalising our beliefs and reciting our creed. It is about loving in truth and loving through our action.
Christianity is a lived experience. Faith is to be lived. A true believer must live his faith in truth and in action. He must be true to his heart. St John continued in the Second Reading, “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God” (verse 21).
Another reason that some of us are not living as true disciples is that we lack courage. True discipleship comes at a cost. In Acts 9, we read how Paul has been persecuting Christians before he was dramatically converted on the road to Damascus. After his conversion, Paul did a complete turnaround. He preached God’s message so much so that the Jews wanted to kill him. (Acts 9:1-25) In the First Reading, we read that as Paul laid foot in Jerusalem, the “headquarter” of Christianity at that time, the disciples were suspicious of him due his earlier track record. Imagine how Paul would have felt when he first arrived Jerusalem. Life for Paul was easy before his conversion. He was a respected Pharisee; he studied under the great Jewish scholar Gamaliel; he enjoyed special privileges by virtue of his Roman citizenship. After his conversion, he was rejected by both sides. The Jews wanted to kill him and the disciples were suspicious of him. As if there was not enough persecution, later in the First Reading, we heard how Paul preached fearlessly in Jerusalem, so much as that he offended the Hellenists (the Greek-speaking Jews) and the latter too wanted to kill him (verse 28-29).
So my brother and sisters, we ask ourselves: Were there times when discipleship brought me hardship? Were there times when I am persecuted for serving God? Were there times when I suffer alienation for doing the right thing; for standing up against selfish interest; for pointing out the errors of another person lovingly? And in midst of the difficulties, were there times when just as the world seems to turn against us, a brother or sister supported us in our moment of crisis? This was what happened to St Paul in the First Reading. “Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.” (verse 27) Paul and Barnabas would later become travel companion as they embarked on evangelisation missions together. Perhaps Paul was reflecting on how Barnabas came to his aid in his times of need when he wrote later, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor 10:13)
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” (Gospel, verse 4) Like St Paul, let us attach ourselves to Christ the vine and draw spiritual nourishment from Him. Let the Holy Spirit enter our hearts, give us the wisdom and courage to be true disciples. Amen.