A branch fell off the tree of the Republican party last week when longtime Republican Senator Arlen Specter decided to switch his affiliation to the Democratic party. The news caused an immediate reaction with some Republicans decrying it as a purely political attempt at self-preservation, others pointing out his disloyalty to the constituents who elected him, and still others fearing that it signals a Republican party increasingly unable to accommodate opposing views. The loss of such an influential colleague will no doubt cause much soul-searching among party leaders.
Changing affiliations is a common occurrence not only in the political sphere but in the religious as well. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life looked at what led people to change their Church membership. The reasons varied from loss of faith in the Church's teaching to joining the religion of ones spouse. Whatever the case, faith and religion continue to play a major role in American life. The search for the transcendent persists especially in an increasingly secular and materialistic culture. Nonetheless, the loss of someone to another religious tradition causes much heartache in parishes and families.
Despite our romanticized image of the early Church, the loss of members was a common occurrence in the communities founded by the apostles. Whether members left because of persecution or to join a heretical sect, we can imagine that their departures had a discouraging effect among the fledgling churches. One wonders whether Saint John, writing his gospel for a later generation of believers, had this in mind when he recalled for his readers the image of Jesus as the True Vine. Only by maintaining that vital connection to Christ could the believer hope to continue to thrive and bear fruit. Those who cut themselves off can only whither. Could it have given them some consolation to know that it was God himself who pruned the vine and ensured that those who remained in his Son by keeping the commandment of love would bear abundant fruit?
Still, what do we do about the branches that have been pruned away leaving scars on the vine? Can we gather them back to ourselves before they are gathered up to be burned? If we believe that, as a community of faith, we are the privileged place of encounter with the Risen Lord, then can we ever give up reaching out to those who have chosen another way? Is that not the "love in deed and in truth" which Saint John calls us to in the second reading?
Paul's case in this Sunday's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is an interesting one. He had seen the Risen Lord and received the mission from Christ himself to bring the good news to the Gentiles. Yet he still needed to be accepted by the community who remembered all too vividly his complicity in the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. It took conversion both on the part of Saint Paul and on the part of the community to welcome him into the fold and open the community up to the next phase of evangelization which would reach the ends of the earth. And the fruit of that conversion was that the Church experienced peace.
As a mystical communion, the Church is a mystery of inclusion and exclusion. Despite our instinct to want to welcome and embrace everyone, there are those who cannot be in full communion with us because of differences of belief and practise. At the same time, there is a yearning in all believers to be one in Christ. If we are to bear fruit in love, then it is an effort we must undertake with full confidence that the Father who prunes the vine can also graft the branches back on.
Your Spirit calls us
to unity in your Son.
Guard our mouths from speaking
uncharitably about our separated
brothers and sisters.
Guide our hearts to move
beyond the pain our
differences can cause.
And call us all to the conversion
which will heal the wounds of
sin and division,
So that we may be one
as you are One
with the Son and the Holy Spirit
One God forever and ever.