Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Easter
(Click here for readings)
(Click here for readings)
“Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.”
Occasionally, in their friendlier moments, students will tell me that they like me—but hate my class. They enjoy my company, particularly my willingness to listen to them and take them seriously, but they hate English. Needless to say, hearing this does not really bring much comfort. Perhaps some teachers hope to win personality points with their students, but more teachers simply want their students to love their respective subject.
Similarly, many Christians profess to love Christ but hate organized religion. They may clutch their dog-eared bibles, pray with eloquence, make Jesus their friend, but they feel uncomfortable with a church, especially a church that holds itself in such high regard and importance as the Catholic Church. For whatever reason, these individualist Christians do not see their position as contradictory; they simply do not like Church.
Some people, particularly today, will go so far as to say that Christ came down to actually abolish the Church, not to establish a new one. In a quasi-libertarian fashion, they imagine that Jesus fought against the establishment, Romans as well as Pharisees, in order to liberate the world from authority, rules, and other people in general. After all, if history has taught people anything, it has demonstrated again and again that institutions and organizations will always suffer corruption. By contrast, all the great heroes in history earned their fame by thwarting convention, exploding institutions, and charting new courses for mankind.
Tempting as it might be to believe that Jesus came to free mankind from the obligation to worship or associate with one another, all this completely ignores His mission. Nearly everything Jesus preaches, every miracle He performs, every prayer He utters work towards the building of His Church. All of Jesus’ symbols for His Kingdom—a flock of sheep, a loaf of bread, a field of grain, or a fruitful vine—directly indicate a solid body of believers, not a loose collection of spiritual anarchists.
In His discourse on the vine, Jesus explains that a disciple without a Church is like a branch without a vine. Not only will he produce no spiritual fruit; his soul will hardly survive for very long. The Church is the physical embodiment (the bodily form) of Jesus. This is what is meant when Paul calls the Church the body of which Christ is the head. Thus, to act or relate to others “in Christ” means to act or relate within His Church. It is a physical unity as well as a spiritual one.
Paul and Barnabas model the practical functions of the Church in the way they respond to the controversy of circumcision brought up by newly converted Pharisees. Quite brilliant in his own right, Paul could have easily settled the matter on his own authority, but he instead makes the trip to Jerusalem to have them judge the matter. He acts in Christ, not alone. As a result, his missionary activity bears fruit and the Church grows both in numbers and in fervor.
Those who break away from the Church do not enjoy this success. They are branches that have broken off of the vine. For example, the bishop today who desires to change Church teaching on marriage, on life, on the interpretation of scripture essentially breaks with the Church and suffers the consequences: his community will dwindle; the faith of those remaining will fade; and his knowledge of Christ along with those left will dissipate into ego-driven confusion. The same applies to the believer who stops attending Mass. He will not receive the grace of the sacraments, the wisdom of the Word, or the solidarity of his Catholic brethren. He will act alone in his own weakness instead of in the strength of Christ.
Jesus warns His disciples: “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” Simple agreement is not enough. They must remain in Him; they must remain in his Church.