Scripture Readings: Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31; First Letter of Saint John 18-24; Gospel of Saint John 15:1-8
Perhaps few or none who read this have grown grapes, though perhaps some have. Even if we have not grown grapes, we are familiar with the notion of a tree branch dependent on larger branches and ultimately on the main truck of the tree and its roots, in order to survive and not wither. No branch of a tree can survive apart from its source, that is, the trunk and roots of the tree.
In the Gospel text this Sunday, Jesus uses the image of a grapevine and its branches to express the truth that belonging completely to God assures us of spiritual survival and even life unending. By the branches adhering to the vine, good fruit can come forth to the glory of God and the building up of Christ’s Body, the Church.
Today’s Gospel emphasizes the importance of the union of the disciple with the teacher. Jesus the Teacher is instructing his followers about their mission, that is, why and what they are being sent to accomplish, and their need at all times of being intimately united with the Lord for completing the mission with which they are entrusted.
And what is that mission? Nothing less than announcing to the ends of the earth that Jesus is Lord and that salvation comes from God and is open to those who will hear God’s word and put it into practice. Good fruit produced by the branches, that is, the followers of Jesus, is the acquisition of more and more adherents to the faith, what we call today the Church. The salvation of humankind is the fullness of the fruit produced, when “Christ is all and in all,” as Saint Paul says to the Colossians, chapter 3, verse 11.
The work of proclaiming the Gospel takes place through Jesus in union with his followers who in turn are untied with their Lord in the one work of salvation. Using the imagery of today’s Gospel text, the unity of Christ and the disciples in their mission, over time and space, until the final coming of Christ, is comparable to the unity of a grapevine and its branches.
Jesus also speaks of God the Father as the vine-dresser, the one who takes care and shows attention for the branches, who prunes, or cuts away what is not good, so that goodness may abound.
Some may misinterpret this imagery as meaning God will punish the unwatchful, but that is not the teaching of the Church. Rather, it has to do with the inevitable ups and downs of life, and the fact that God is present in the midst of it all, never abandoning what he has planted, nor desiring the fall or defeat of anyone, but that all may grow stronger, even amidst trials and setbacks.
Almost inevitably the branches of a grapevine need to be cut back, an apt image of necessary cleansing for growth to take place. It is not about destroying what is under cultivation or of tender shoots being wiped out. Rather, the care of the good vine-dresser is to be understood as God’s loving care in Jesus’ work of bringing salvation to God’s people.
Furthermore, the image of the vine-dresser’s care for the vine and its branches, and the trouble taken to create the best conditions possible for obtaining an excellent yield, is likened to God’s infinite loving care for Christ Jesus in the mission of saving souls.
The word used by Jesus that best sums up the mystery of the perfect union which must exist between the followers and Jesus and then through Jesus between the followers and God the Father, is the verb “to abide” or “to remain.” Abide and remain express the notion of perfect mutual fellowship or communion. That is what we want with God and God wants with us.
We may have been raised to think otherwise about God, but now is the time to modify such thinking and of adopting the best of Christian teaching. I too admit this only came about for me by decades of pondering and praying with God’s holy word in Sacred Scripture, participating in the sacraments and studying the teachings of the Church. As I result I am convinced that God is Love and loves us without measure and forever.
Every follower of Jesus is called to be open to receive Christ’s vital and dynamic influence which comes about by keeping God’s word, which is already within, and seeing it blossom forth, producing good fruit by putting God’s word into practice.
Left to oneself, the disciple or apostle, Jesus says, cannot produce good fruit. We need God and we need one another. There is no way around that! Unity with the Lord and his Church implies the growth and development of God’s word in every disciple. What is meant to flourish is the word of God, namely, God’s love, and then be extended to all people of every time and places.
The wonderful words of Jesus, “Abide in me and I in you,” are as important as ever. This is something that is desirable and needed by young and old, by all who follow Christ, in whatever vocation they may have, as single or married laity, as clergy, as consecrated religious, all who are just beginning the journey, in the middle of it or coming to its end.
We are all called to take a share in the work of Christ’s mission, in the manner and measure determined by God, but with our God-given free will. We are to willingly offer back to God a life on fire for the salvation of all in Jesus Christ.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB