The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: A loving Father purifies his Son’s Church
The Holy Spirit brings to believers an awareness of their dignity as sons and daughters of God, inspiring them to call him, as his Son Jesus did, “Father”. This is the spirit of self-awareness, bringing with it confidence in God’s saving presence at all times. With the human person and the human community there has been, and is, a self-awareness that has guided human advancement throughout the ages. Sometimes this can bring to light shortcomings, or downright scandals, within the Church, especially in ministers of religion or those associated with them. Ireland is experiencing this in an acute form in our own day.
It is good to reflect on what is happening in the light of the teaching of Christ himself and of the early Church. Jesus speaks of himself as the vine, and his Father as the vinedresser. The vine is the Church he has founded, his Body, his bride. When shortcomings or scandals come, his Father will work to restore her to the sanctity that should be hers. The apostle Paul puts the same truth in different words. Paul himself laid the foundations of the church in Corinth, but the Church’s sole foundation is Jesus Christ. On the foundation laid others may build, some with gold, silver, precious stones; others with wood hay or stray. A divine visitation will test this inferior material (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
A period of upset, arising from scandals and other factors, can be trying for Christians. The concurrent presence of a number of factors must be borne in mind: first the scandals themselves, whether great or small; then the presentation of these in the media; the use of the scandals and confusion by secularist or even atheistic groups for the purpose of denigrating the Church in general and to terminate her involvement in educational or public life.
On occasions like these it is good to reflect on what Jesus has to say on himself, and his Church, as the vine and his Father as the vinedresser. In this discourse at the Last Supper Jesus is preparing his followers for trials ahead. Earlier, when speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his beloved sheep (the Church), Jesus had said: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30). That same spirit is present in the parable of Jesus as the vine, and his Father the vinedresser. God purifies the beloved Church of his Son as a kind and understanding Father, not severe remote judge. And it is well to bear in mind that this cleansing is for all the “branches” of the vine, lay as well as clerical and religious.
In this context of ongoing self-awareness we may also reflect on words of the opening prayer of the Mass for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, in which we pray: “God our Father … give us true freedom and bring us to the inheritance you promised”. Freedom is a word of which religious and thinking people down the centuries have been proud, and on which they have strongly expressed their views. Greeks and Romans prided themselves in freedom, which held for citizens only, not the slaves. In a debate on the issue Jesus tells his listeners: “The truth (which he preaches; that is, himself) will set you free” (John 8:32), to which the Jews reply: “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been slaves (in bondage) to anyone”, to which Jesus replies: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin”. Through the Gospel message, Paul preached freedom from the limiting, nationalistic, observance of the Jewish law, but reminded one of his churches: “Christ set us free so that we should remain free”; “You are called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opening for self indulgence, but be servants of one another in love” (Galatians 5:1, 13). Paul put himself outside the Jewish law, but only to be under the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21).