Over the last few weeks since Easter, we have been hearing two parallel stories in the readings: one about the appearances of the Risen Jesus to his followers, the other about the growth of the young Church. In the Gospel readings we have encountered Jesus in the upper room, on the Emmaus Road, by the lakeside; in the readings from Acts we have encountered the young church as its members come to grips both with their own new life as a gathered community and with the imperative to preach the Good News – the gospel of the risen Jesus.
Last week and this week, the two stories come together, as it were, in what Jesus tells us about himself. In last week’s Gospel we heard Jesus speak of himself as the Good Shepherd – a powerful message still, in a world of hard concrete and, at least locally, a distinct absence of sheep: how much more powerful for his first listeners, when for so many of them sheep were their livelihood, and good shepherding rather than bad shepherding was not just a matter of a pretty symbol, but was on the one hand an economic reality and on the other an expression of genuine concern for the sheep. Even in today’s high-tech farming milieu, you may remember from the time of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, or in more recent pieces recalling that disaster, how movingly many farmers spoke about having to see their livestock culled.
But this week the words of Jesus are such as to touch us more directly: we don’t, most of us, as far as I know anyway, keep sheep. But we all know what growth is, what happens to the branch of a tree if it gets broken off, what that annual miracle of new life is as the plants and the trees around us burst into fresh green and respond to the rain with the promise of fruitfulness.
‘I am the true vine’, says Jesus, ‘I am the source of your life. With me you can bear fruit, without me you can do nothing.’
Do I believe that? Well, of course I do: I wouldn’t be standing here like this if I didn’t believe that – just as you wouldn’t be sitting there like that unless you believed that. But maybe that’s not the right question. Maybe I need to ask myself how deeply I believe that Jesus is the source of my life, the source of all my capacity for love, the source of all the good that I do, the source of all my capacity for being with others in all their imperfection and all my imperfection. Because maybe, just maybe, if I believed that, not just at the level of my head, but at the level of my heart, not just at the level of something that I find comforting but at the level of something that empowers me and challenges me to move beyond comfort into joy – then I might not be standing here quite like this – and, touched by such belief in your lives in turn, you might not be sitting there quite like that either.
Evangelical Christians can sometimes tell you – and sometimes whether you really feel you want to know or not – that at such an such a time on such and such a day they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. For many Catholics that sounds extreme, but as one of my American jesuit brethren points out, we make an even more startling claim.
Jesus is my personal Lord and saviour: “I am the true vine: you are the branches.” It is in Jesus, and accepting his loving transformation of my life that I can be a sign of the Gospel in the world – that I can fulfil the primary calling of my baptism – to witness to the Resurrection as a present, transforming, reality. That’s a startling enough claim: maybe that’s why so many of us – myself included – shy away from it.
St Augustine points out the even more startling claim that we make each time we come up to receive the Eucharist. Instructing new Christians, he tells them: “This is the body of Christ, says the priest: and you respond Amen – you are saying “Yes, I am.” “The Body of Christ: I am.”
Here, in this place, the presence of God incarnate is made manifest in a reality that goes beyond our fellowship and our remembering events of the past – even the events of the death and rising of Jesus.
Here, in this place, on this April morning, the incarnate and risen Lord becomes present to us:
And not just here – but here for our feeding. Not just here to be seen and worshipped from afar, but here to become our sustenance, our food, our nourishment. The life of Jesus enters into our life as food for our life. Our bodies become the place where Jesus is embodied: our nature is transformed by the nature of God-made-man, Emmanuel, God-in-our-midst.
The body of Christ. “and you answer Amen: you are saying “yes – that is who I am – that is who we are.”
The opening prayer of the Mass (in the old translation) asked the Father to look upon us with love. Perhaps as the Mass continues we might do two things; we might allow the spirit to help us sense that we are looked upon with love by the Father. But we might ask the same Spirit to let us see what it is – who it is – that the Father sees when he looks upon us with love: that is, the men and women, the children, the young, the old, all branches of the vine, all fed by the presence of Jesus, all bearers of the Body of Christ and members of the body of Christ.
The Father sees us as we are. As we let that true vision touch us, perhaps we too in our turn will touch those among whom we live and work – and so be even more true signs of the Good news, signs of the truth of the presence of the Resurrected One in our midst. The two post-Easter stories come together in us – the church, today, still young, still being the sacrament of the presence of the Risen Jesus in the world.