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Grafted to the true vine

May 1, 2015
Father Mark Doherty

All the religious traditions of history except the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have maintained that the heart of reality is mankind’s quest for the divine, for God. What sets the Abrahamic traditions apart from the others is that they insist that things work the other way round, namely, that the heart of things is God’s quest for us.

That’s the central reason why Christians call their message “good news.” That God is the initiator, that God quests for us more than we quest for him, tells us that he loves us and wants to draw us into relationship with him. There can be no greater or better message than that God has loved us so much that he went to the point of assuming our nature, becoming one of us, so that we might become like him.

But while this message may be good, it’s also quite daunting, and it often incites within us a spirit of fear and resistance. Because if God is the one in search of us it means that he is his own person, with his own mind and will and whatnot. If the initiative rests with God it means I can’t decide for myself who I want God to be, nor what I want his will for my life to be. I can’t decide for myself what true life consists in. I can’t graft myself onto a vine of my own making. There is one God, one true vine, so the challenge put to each one of us is whether I will accept to be grafted into a real relationship with God or whether I will undertake the futile effort of setting up an alternate life-source, an alternate vine.

Where and how do we resist God’s revelation of himself and his plan for our life? In every age the point of resistance is different. In chapter six of John’s Gospel we learn that a large number of those who were initially interested in Jesus turned their backs on him when they found out that to have life in God, to be grafted to the vine, involves eating the body of the Son of Man and drinking his blood. This was a “hard saying” for many, so hard that they turned away after failing to pressure Jesus into changing his message.

Today there isn’t so much open controversy or resistance about the doctrine of the Real Presence, but there are surrounding doctrines treating human nature and marriage. As Jesus was clear and insistent in his teaching about the bread of life, so too was he in his teaching about marriage. He met strong opposition from his interlocutors in both areas; in both areas he held firm, even to the point of accepting the loss of large numbers of followers.

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles today we learn how surprised the early disciples were to learn that the very man who had been most zealously persecuting them – Saul – was now most zealously preaching the Gospel. Saul’s conversion was surprising precisely because it entailed his surrendering his own position and accepting to be grafted to the true vine. Saul’s surrender included the loss of his position in the community, his reputation, his livelihood, his friends and colleagues; in short, everything he had worked to build up and accumulate for years. Think of the staggering loss he endured. No wonder the disciples of Jesus were so surprised to learn that he was now preaching the Gospel.

Paul turns and puts the question to me, to us: How do I resist Jesus? How do I seek to graft myself to a vine of my own making and choosing? How ready am I – as Saul was –to lose status and friends for the sake of being securely grafted to the true vine?

Father Doherty is a parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish, San Francisco, and a member of the faculty at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory.

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