It may seem obvious, but I keep going back to the question of what life and death mean in the gospels. For my Catholic-school-through-seminary thoughts, the first level of response to these texts with which I've lived my whole life, I default to a personal eschatology—I'm alive, I'm going to die, and life and death are as simple as that. But as I've learned through my life about how we are all connected to one another, how our living now affects the living and dying of others now, I'm no longer satisfied with my original answers, and see that the gospel is calling me to a different way of seeing life and death.
The very heart of the gospel image today, of a vine and branches, is a corporal image, that is, it's an image of a living organism, a body. Jesus suggests that life is interdependent, that we are bound together with him by a single life, and that it is precisely in our being bound together that more life is possible, "bearing fruit," which suggests both nourishment and continuity in the vine. St. Paul's word, in fact, the gospel of St. John's word, for the way that the vine is kept alive with the life of Christ in God is "Spirit." The Holy Spirit of Jesus, the breath of God, the wind of Pentecost, respirated into the Church from the cross and in the revelation of the resurrection, unites us with the life of God and the mission of Christ.
But God is not just another agent in the multiplicity of forces that run the universe. God is not like "one of the gods" to whom we have traditionally ascribed that kind of role, a benevolent or malevolent or insouciant or random force competing with others forces for our allegiance or worship. No, as James Alison says, God is much more "like no god at all" than like that. Infinitely patient, kind, and without any malice or envy, God is the agent in the universe, the I AM whose life is so wildly generous and so utterly shared that, like it or not, there is no other life to be had. Like with the other I AM sayings in the gospel of John, we are to hear the echo of the voice from the burning bush when Jesus speaks, whether of the life of the vine, the flock, living water, living bread, or anything else. The life is the life of God, the life shared in God's given Spirit, deathless, liberating, freedom-for-others, companioned in covenant. It is life that invites participation, and participation which awakens new identity and solidarity among those who relax into it, and that very participation leads us into the life-for-others which is the kenosis and agape of the paschal mystery of God.
St. Paul, whose conversion to Christ was the focus of more than a little skepticism in Luke's Acts narrative Sunday, is a good example to me of someone moving from death to life, all while worshipping, in his own heart, the very same God. Did God change, or did Saul/Paul? After his "conversion" (turning toward) Jesus he did not serve a different God, but he perhaps he saw that he he had projected his own anger, prejudice, and constricted sense of grace and belonging onto God because of a particular way of worship, behavior, and orthodoxy. His catechetical style certainly changed. He left his fire-breathing, sword-wielding, warrant-serving, death-penalty-enforcing self on the desert road, and became a bold persuader, a poet of the body, one who invited participation in Christ and with Christ in the grace made universally available by the Holy Spirit for the equalizing, loving-kindness of every person: man, woman, slave, free, Jew, Greek. No more threats and violence, just the bold invitation to be a part of the body dwells richly in the unifying, liberating grace of the Spirit of God.
"I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people," was the psalm refrain in the liturgy today, and it reasserts the very same principle—whatever the novelty theology might be that infers that we can experience God on our own, the authentic experience of the God revealed in scripture is that God is experienced and worshiped by participation in community life. But God is not in rivalry with individualistic models of belief! With infinite patience, by the gentle, persuasive participation of those who submit to the experience of the vine and branches, all shall be one, because at a depth perceptible only to the Creator and only barely imaginable by the rest of us, we are already one.
What does it mean to "rise from the dead" then? For today, for me, it means to stop projecting my restrictive brand of grace onto God and to accept that God loves everyone equally. St. Paul said that in Christ there is neither "Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, woman nor man." We might today say there is neither "Anglo nor Arab, poor nor rich, liberal nor conservative, straight nor gay," or any of many false dichotomies around which we rally like idol-worshipers. To "rise from the dead" means to try to shed the envy and rivalry in me against perceived enemies, perceived competitors, and to try to encourage others to reject rivalry as well, and to try to let our "sun shine and rain fall on good and bad alike," the way that God does.
To "rise from the dead" is to remain in Christ, and to "love one another" as Christ loved us, ready to occupy the place of the enemy and the victim, full of faith and hope in the I AM whose life is so abundant and without rivalry that death does not even exist. It is participation in that life, the life of God's Spirit, that is the beginning of God's gentle reign, right here, right now.
And his commandment is this:
we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and love one another just as he commanded us.
Those who keep his commandments remain in him,
and he in them,
and the way we know that he remains in us
is from the Spirit he gave us.