Thursday, May 21, 2009

Easter V - Ian Boxall

Being only a very poor amateur when it comes to gardening matters, it is with some trepidation that I approach this morning’s gospel, with its rich horticultural resonances: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ But, continuing the horticultural imagery, one might be tempted to ask why other possibilities didn’t suggest themselves to the evangelist. ‘I am the rose-bush, you are the thorns’, for example. ‘I am the fern, you are the fronds.’ Or ‘I am the rhododendron, you are the petals.’ But of course, the choice of the vine is far from arbitrary. For the vine, like the vineyard and the vine-grower, is a metaphor deeply rooted in the religious consciousness of the people of Israel. Israel was the vine which God brought out of Egypt and planted (Ps. 80:8); a vineyard planted by the beloved on a very fertile hill (Isa. 5:1), which was expected to produce grapes, but instead produced wild grapes. Or again, the Psalmist tells us how the vine – this time representing the Northern Kingdom – has been ravaged and burned by its enemies, leading to that heart-felt cry: ‘Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted’ (Ps. 80:14). Or again, the vine comes to symbolise the Messiah, the one who represents and sums up the whole people (e.g. 2 Baruch 39:7). And if the vine has such profound significance, so does the fruit of the vine. Clusters of quality grapes – or more often the abundant, quality wine they produce – become a potent symbol of the good things God has in store for his people. As a reminder of all this, pilgrims entering the Temple in Jerusalem would have been confronted with a massive golden vine above the doors to the sanctuary, with clusters of grapes the size of a human being hanging from it (Josephus, Ant. 15.11.3; War 5.5.4).

So with all this in mind, we hear in today’s Gospel of Jesus as the true Vine, the trustworthy vine, the reliable vine which can be relied upon to produce fine grapes, and his people as the branches, who may not be quite so true, quite so trustworthy, quite so reliable. Which is why the focus of Jesus’ words is on what is required for us, the branches, to remain part of the vine, and how the fruitfulness of the vine might be ensured and enhanced.

What does this involve?

First, it involves some rather heavy duty pruning on the part of the vine-grower. ‘You have already been pruned by the word [logos] that I have spoken to you’ (John 15:3). John, playful as ever with his Greek, exploits the resemblance between the verb for pruning and the adjective meaning ‘clean’, and also the ambiguity of the noun Logos. The Word-made-flesh, the Word spoken to us by the Father, cleanses his people by the word that he speaks. He has just shown this in a very dramatic way in this same Upper Room through washing the disciples’ feet. And he repeats this a few verses later by speaking about his words [his rhēmata] abiding in us (verse 7).

So one of the fundamental means of bearing fruit is to allow Christ’s words to do their pruning/cleansing work in us. Which requires spending time reading and praying those words. But I wonder how many of us have built into our rule of life the regular practice of spending time with the words of Jesus in the Gospels? I don’t mean speed-reading, or picking one or two phrases as sound-bites or proof-texts, or reading the gospels from beginning to end, or spotting likely passages for examination gobbets. But engaging in an activity which is probably much more difficult for us that for our forebears in the faith, because it is so countercultural: mulling over the words, maybe just a phrase or a couple of verses, staying with them, so that we absorb them slowly and purposefully, and as they become part of us expecting them to transform us as the Father’s work of pruning takes effect.

Second, it involves abiding in the vine, with all the richness of that Johannine verb: staying, remaining, abiding, that mutual indwelling in which we are invited to abide in Christ as he abides in us. And here John seems to give a crucial role to the Eucharist, in nurturing and sustaining that intimate relationship between Christ and his followers. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus taught his disciples that ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them’ (John 6:56). Now, the image of the vine and the fruit of vine brings the same Eucharistic mystery to the fore again. Remaining united to the vine who is the source of life; drinking of the divine life; growing into fruitfulness through regular reception of the Eucharist. It is a connection which is already made in one of the earliest Eucharistic passages, from the Didache: ‘We give thanks to you, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David your child, which you have made known to us through Jesus your child; to you be glory for ever’ (Didache 9:2).

Finally, the process of being pruned by Christ’s words, and abiding in the vine through the life-blood of the Eucharist, should be manifest in the quality of the vintage. It should bear fruit in our attitudes and dispositions and relationships. The definition of bearing fruit provided by this gospel is that Christ’s people keep his commandments, which for John is really only one commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you (verse 12). Or as our second reading from the First Letter of John puts it: ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them … The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also’ (1 John 4:16b, 21). The sign of the fruitful branch, the living branch, and the fruitful healthy vine, is ultimately to be found in the exercise of charity, manifest in our life together.