John 15:1-8 (5th Sunday of Easter, year b)
While studying theology, I lived in a dormitory which has a large courtyard. Above the courtyard is a trellis in which grows an enormous grapevine, creating a kind of natural roof. The courtyard is a great place to read, especially during the summer as the leaves from the grapevine provided great shade. One day I sat in the courtyard reading Jesus’ parable that we heard in the Gospel, in which He says that He is the vine and we are the branches. That day, while looking at the grapevine above me, I was able to appreciate the lessons of the parable in a new way.
I noticed for the first time that fruit only grows on the branches and never on the vine to which the branches are connected. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. It is through us that Jesus continues His ministry of love and healing in the world today. If we, His followers, do not bear fruit, we prevent Jesus from continuing His work. St. Theresa of Avila illustrates well this principle that fruit is found on the branches and not the vine:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Recently, Nepal and the surrounding area were devastated by a powerful earthquake. Thousands were killed. Hundreds of thousands are in desperate need of food, water and shelter. As we watch these events unfold on the news we can think to ourselves “Jesus, do something to help these people!” Jesus will help these people, but how? Will He make food and shelter drop from the sky? Hardly. It is through us that Jesus aids these people in need. Thankfully, different countries have provided assistance and many individuals have donated money. People are in need and we are in a position to help. Fruit only grows on the branches. Jesus is active in the world through the Church, which is His Body.
Another lesson described by Jesus in the parable that I observed while sitting beneath the grapevine was that when a branch becomes separated from the vine, it quickly shrivels up and dies. Sap, containing life giving nutrients, flows from the vine and into the branches. When the branch is no longer connected to the vine, the flow of this sap ceases and the branch perishes. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. When we are connected to Him, we receive His life, something we call grace. We receive grace when we stay close to Him in daily prayer and regular reception of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. In fact, Jesus’ parable has Eucharistic undertones as wine, the “fruit of the vine”, is an indispensable element of the Mass. When we separate ourselves from Jesus, the flow of His life into us is cut off. This can happen is different two main ways, one sudden and the other more gradual.
- We are separated from Jesus the vine suddenly when we sin seriously. Breaking away from Jesus in this way is something that we are generally more on our guard against.
- We become cut off from Jesus and His life in a gradually. We begin to pray less. We go to confession more and more seldomly. We give ourselves permission to miss Mass from time to time. This way of becoming separated from Jesus the vine is less obvious and expected and therefore in some ways more dangerous. Over time our actions demonstrate that we don’t think we need Jesus as much as He says we do.
The final lesson from the parable that became clear while sitting beneath the grapevine is that the branches must be regularly pruned if they are to bear fruit. Each year when the weather turned cold, a gardener would come and prune the large grapevine. It was surprising how much of the plant he cut off. Later in the spring, however, the grapevine grew back stronger and more fruitful than before. Likewise, God prunes us so that we can be more fruitful instruments of Jesus in the world. Being pruned is not a pleasant thing. God prunes us effectively by means of people we live in community with: family, friends and coworkers. Life in community is a kind of heavenly rock tumbler. A rock tumbler is a small, hollow, machine that you put small stones into. Each stone has its own jagged edges. After the stones have been placed in the machine and you turn it on, it begins to spin. As the machine turns over and over, the rocks tumble inside, hitting each other and grinding one against the other and the sides of the machine. Slowly but surely, the jagged edges of the stones rub one another smooth. After some time each stone becomes polished and beautiful. We are like these stones. Just as the stones have their rough edges, each of us have our own weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, for example, impatience, pride, or laziness. As we live together, we have confrontations and frustrate one another. We smash into each other like the stones inside the rock-tumbler. Over time we begin to see that the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of those we live with are opportunities for growth. With God’s grace, living with others can make us more patient, sympathetic towards others and capable of cooperation. Like the stones inside the rock-tumbler, we become more polished – our weaknesses become smoothed. Living with others, especially those who we don’t get along with easily, is one of the ways that God prunes us, making us capable of producing greater fruit.
In the parable of the vine and the branches, Jesus gives us an incredibly encouraging message. He loves and trusts us so much that He wants us to be the instruments through which He continues His mission in the world. Provided we remain with Him, Jesus will always strengthen us with His life, helping us bear fruit. The parable of the vine and branches challenges us to rethink the way we view hardship. What is a difficulty you currently face, particularly when it comes to those you live with? What would change if instead of viewing this merely as suffering you wished would go away, you saw it as a way that God is pruning you? He sees you are already bearing good fruit. God is pleased with you and wants you to produce even greater fruit in the future.