MAY 17, 2006, WEDNESDAY OF THE 5TH WEEK OF EASTER: JOHN 15:1-8
I AM THE VINE, YOU ARE THE BRANCHES.This past Sunday the same Gospel text was proclaimed in the liturgy; if it is repeated today, it is because of the fundamental nature of the message it proclaims. Though he does not refer to wine as the symbol of fuller life, yet this view furnishes the background of this parable. There are several major lessons our Lord inculcated in using the image of the Grape Vine. The first is the living union between Jesus and those who accept him in faith. "I am the Vine, you are the branches. He who lives in me and I in him will produce abundant fruit." There is need, not only to decide for the Lord in faith upon encountering his message; a person must also carry through in that decision by putting his teaching into practice throughout life. "Live on in me, as I do in you", he adds by way of giving assurance that our fidelity is made possible by his continuing to accompany and empower us through his invisible but very real presence. There is no stronger encouragement, no more strengthening support in this daily effort to remain united in mind and heart with the Lord than his personal and abiding presence within us.
We certainly stand in need of such effective assistance. That is one of the lessons our Lord brings out in this passage. "Apart from me you can do nothing", he affirms. To abide in him, to remain attached to him by faith and by conformity to his teaching is not an optional choice of piety; rather, it is an essential condition for salvation. "A person who does not live in me is like a withered, rejected branch, picked up only to be thrown into the fire." It would be hard to state the case more strikingly than these words bring out. St Augustine understood this absolute necessity of our need for the life-giving sap flowing from the vine into the branches. His doctrine of grace, more clearly than other early theologians had managed, states the matter. It is not a question of God supplying the impulse to obey his will and our responding out of our fund of good will; all depends on Godís inclining us to please him to be sure, but also on his supplying the light and strength required to choose the good. In short, all depends on Godís initiative and empowering us in the first place; our very response, necessary as it is, is made possible by his gift.
Another lesson, one explicitly asserted, is that the Father does not merely shelter us from the storms of life so that we might bear fruit; he prunes us, cutting away those growths that detract from a richer harvest of fruit. As Jesus, speaking of the branches, puts it: "he trims clean to increase their yield." The image our Lord uses here is a vivid one. He provides us here with the meaning we are to find in experiences that are painful trials, real suffering, whether physical or mental, the operations of love not of displeasure or rejection as we are inclined to interpret them. We have our Lordís word for it that the Father actively cuts away those portions of our very self that are obstacles to progress in his service. Suffering, humiliation, failure are regularly accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame; Jesus gives them another meaning, provided only that we abide in him: They are occasions for growth that brings forth more abundant fruit for the kingdom of God.
There is a final point made by Jesus in this passage. It is, however, unlike the others a rather surprising feature in this context. Directly after using this figure of the vine and pointing out that the Father cleanses every shoot of the vine that it might bear more fruit, Jesus changes his imagery. He inserts th is phrase:"Already you are clean by virtue of the word I have spoken to you." Only then does he continue with the statement consistent with the symbol of the vine by adding: "Abide in me and I will abide in you." This is the only time our Lord awkwardly mixes the images he uses in a parable, as far as I am aware. Did St. John himself insert this reference to the cleansing power of Jesusí words? Or was the text overloaded in this way by a later editor concerned with making a theological point even at the expense of literary refinement and consistency of expression?
In any case, it is an inspired text and the point it makes is certainly loaded with spiritual significance for all of us. John represents Jesus as assuring us, on the night before he gave himself up for our salvation, that "Already you are clean by virtue of the word I have spoken to you." To hear Jesusí words with faith, to take them into the heart is to be purified in the inner self; it is to become acceptable to the Father. Words spoken by our Lord are more than a source of revelation of hidden mysteries: they are a source of reconciliation with the Father. They impart the fullness of life, for they come from the heart of his Son. In speaking from the depths of his heart, Jesus brings forth not only the light of understanding but the cleansing flame of his love. At this Eucharist, instructed by his words, let us draw near their source so that, warmed by his love we might always abide in him, faithful in the midst of trials and such sufferings as cleanse us further as we bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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