An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, John 15:1-8, May 5, 2012
WHEN SOME PEOPLE think of a church, they usually associate it with an organization, governed by laws that define the relationship among the members. In their view, it is a society as visible as the political set-up, hierarchically structured, that mediates salvation to all its members by means of the preaching of the Word, prayer, and the administration of the sacraments. And as in any organization, what unites the members is law that regulates the life of the church. Law, in other words, is the principle that binds the members to one another. This Sunday, however, John provides us an alternative view of its principle of unity.
Admittedly, today’s Gospel (John 15:1-8) is not primarily about the Church. It is obviously about Jesus who, in contrast with Israel of old, came to fulfill the calling to be fruitful for God. In the Old Testament, the image of the vine is used to describe Israel (Hos 10:1; Ezek 15:1-6; 17:5-11; 19:10-14; Jer 2:21). Despite Yahweh’s lavish care for her, Israel bore bitter or non-existent fruits. Now in the gospel, Jesus claims to be the true vine. But in portraying himself as the vine, Jesus describes the relationship that ought to exist between him and the disciples, that is to say, between the head of the Church and its members. For this reason, the parable can be applied to the Church. In a passage that has ecclesiological overtones, Jesus says: “Live on in me and I do in you… I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:4a-5a). And one way of looking at this text is to interpret it in terms of what binds the members of the community to their head and their fellow members.
Unlike in the government where people are bound to their head by virtue of law, the members of the Church are linked to Christ in virtue of the fact that Christ himself calls each one and sustains them. The members, on the other hand, are to be committed to him in person. The Church, therefore, is a relationship of persons, and the principle of unity, the one that binds the head and the members, is the person of Jesus himself. A comparison is probably in order. In the government, one need not be sustained by Noynoy Aquino or believe in his slogan Matuwid na Daan to be a functionary. As long as one believes in the class struggle and the revolution, one can be called a communist without having the follow the footsteps of Karl Marx, the founder of communism. But in Christianity, it is entirely different. To be called a Christian is not a matter of following a law or a principle. In Christianity, the central place is not given to the law, or even the Ten Commandments. There is only one who grafts a person to the Church—Christ, who binds all the members in unity, and all of them are personally bound to him. This is why St Paul can even say that it is Christ who makes us grow and joins each member to the body: “Through [Christ] the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself in love”(Eph 4:16).
Since the principle of unity in the Church is Christ, binding each member to himself and to one another, it is obvious that for one to be a part of the Church, he has to live or abide in Christ. As the Johannine Jesus declares, “Live on in me, as I do in you” (John 15:4a). One then has to be faithful, and make a constant decision for faith. His existence is always in relation to Christ, both as a purpose and as a norm. It is too obvious to note that one cannot be a Christian apart from Christ. Just as a branch that is severed from the vine dies, so it is with a Christian in relation to Christ. For it is Christ who nourishes the Christian, and once he no longer lives on in him, the Christian dies. “A man who does not live in me is like a withered, rejected branch, picked up to be thrown in the fire and burnt” (John 15:6). This means, of course, that the personal relationship is mutual. Christ must remain in the Christian, just as the Christian must abide in Christ. Both are aspects forming one reality, which is the unity of persons in the Church.
Obviously, we have here a different perspective of what unity in the Church is all about. Law, of course, has a place in the Church. As a hierarchical body, it shares the nature of human organizations that need laws to put order to human relations. But to make law the sole principle to regulate the relationship between the head and the members, and among the members, and to unite them into one body is certainly inadequate. What the Gospel today emphasizes is that personal relationship between Jesus and the disciples has a central place in the unity of the Church. The Acts of the Apostles expresses the unity in quite similar language: “The community of believers was of one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). Christianity, after all, is a religion of a person, not of law. Being Christian is not about laws to be fulfilled, but about life—the life of Christ—to be lived in the body of relationships: the vine sustaining the branches, and the branches remaining in the vine.