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WHO ARE YOU?
Fifth Sunday of Easter B
Years ago I was part of an interfaith team that worked with Navy chaplains stationed around the world. Our primary task was to help them design, use, and evaluate worship services. In one of the exercises we asked them to tell us how they would describe themselves. Was their primary identification based on gender, occupation, vocation, rank, relationship, ethnicity, race, religion or something else?
In today’s gospel (John 15:4a, 5b) Jesus uses yet another metaphorical expression to describe himself — the true vine. It was the seventh figure of speech in this gospel that included: I am the bread of life, the resurrection and life, the light of the world, the sheep gate, the way, truth and life, and the good shepherd.
One wonders if the carpenter Jesus from Nazareth had a little trouble discerning his identity. Or, did he use so many illustrations to help his followers understand who he truly was and what he had to offer them?
Jesus’s reference to vines and branches is pertinent today. Often the passage is explained in ways that are quite demanding. If we do not identify with Jesus or follow his ways we will wither on the vine and be burned in a fire. But, if we bear good fruit we will flourish and be saved.
Once again, as with the good shepherd passage, this portrayal speaks of our relationships not only with Christ but with each other. Commentator Mary McGlone suggests that “By using the image of vine and branches, Jesus explains that we are an intimate, inextricable part of him and of one another.”
We are slowly coming to understand how closely connected we are to other inhabitants and plant life on this fragile planet. The spread of the Covid-19 virus is universal. Climate change has a worldwide impact. No country is isolated from the global economy. Conflicts within foreign nations affect every other nation.
How we identify ourselves as key players in the world will make a difference in our lives and those of our neighbors here and elsewhere. The international vineyard depends on how much we share the fruit each one of us produces in this land of abundance and liberty.
Who are we as a nation? There are different opinions about our identity. Are we an egalitarian republic that welcomes and supports racial, ethnic, and gender diversity? Are we a country defined by a caste system that divides us into racial and economic parcels? Is our national vineyard slowly shifting from being a democracy where all voices and votes matter toward a plutocracy dominated by a minority of the wealthiest citizens?
Who are we as a Catholic Church? The pastoral vision of the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council invited all faith traditions into spiritual solidarity and a liturgical and social action agenda for all to participate in. Are we a synod of laity and clergy working together to maintain an effective voice amidst changing religious, cultural and moral frameworks? Are some privileged patriarchs making solitary decisions that cause feelings of disenfranchisement among even the most faithful Catholic citizens?
The pandemic made us aware of how important our identity as a nation and a church is. We rallied together to care for one another. Parents, teachers, partners, health care providers and volunteers of all kinds stepped up in their respective roles to ease the pain caused by a relentless virus. The biblical text for today both affirms our efforts and challenges us to look more deeply at our identity as people of faith and how that affects our causes in the public sphere.
Theologian Gennifer Benjamin Brooks said the vine and branches narrative “speaks of interdependence rather than the independence and self-dependence so highly valued in these United States.” In this context a social safety net is necessary so that the fruits of our labor are distributed more equally.
The “new deal” set forth by government leaders on the national level aims to rescue those who are just barely clinging to the vine. The plan needs our endorsement. We realize that all of us belong to the same human sheepfold. We can identify with shepherds responsible for keeping the flock safe from all harm. Likewise, we are the vines where branches grow and flourish and are expected to yield good fruit.