It is inevitable that we must encounter Jesus through the filters of the Gospel writers. With anywhere up to three years of the Jesus ministry to generate the original events and memories on which the gospels were based – and a few decades of telling and retelling the stories before they were recorded, we are fortunate that virtually all the material selected appears sufficiently fresh and vivid to stand the test of time.
John for example, has picked up on a number of metaphors Jesus is thought by tradition to have used. Each one of these is related to an aspect of human experience. I am the true vine, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the light etc. Today’s gospel picks up the striking image of Jesus as the true vine. If we go back a little we see that Jesus is addressing this to his disciples, those who had already chosen to follow him. Accordingly, as we consider what he is saying, we might wonder if John chose to record such words for those in the Church who intend to follow Jesus’ teaching.
The grapevine was an image well known to the Jews. The historian Josephus (who is the main non-Christian historian who provides independent evidence for Jesus) describes the Temple in Jerusalem as having golden decorations on its entrance archways with human sized depictions of grape clusters on a grape vine. The scriptures referred to the Jews as God’s vine-stock damaged by captivity in Babylon and brought to Israel. The prophets also captured this image and Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel and the Psalmists all used the same metaphors of the Jews as part of the vine and of God as the Vine dresser.
In John the image is expanded and the new branches on the vine are taken to mean the Gentiles who are now also part of the picture. The bit about the non-fruiting branches being destroyed may even have been partly John’s addition because he was writing at a time between 85 and 115 CE when the Temple had already been destroyed and the Jews driven from Jerusalem.
Certainly some of the reported comments about the Jews are problematic in that Jesus and the disciples were Jews and such passages were later used as an excuse for prejudice against the Jews.
It might be said by some that Jesus as the true vine is only a metaphor, yet metaphors can remind us of truth that we may prefer to overlook. For example, it may seem a minor point but a vine that is grown for fruit production is only cultivated for that one reason. If it does not produce the fruit it has no other purpose. Thus for those who believe that the purpose of Church is getting together for worship, this may be to miss Jesus’ point. It may even be worth reflecting on how those in the community might view the “fruit” being produced. A grocery or fast food shop has a discernible purpose for a community. If our local Church were to disappear tomorrow it is worth asking why it would be missed. What good fruit is produced there?
I want to suggest that the chosen metaphor of Jesus as the true vine is both helpful and thought provoking. It is true that any metaphor can be subject to unwise interpretation, but if nothing else using a true vine is good gardening practice. At worst, the lazy naive gardener might plant fruit trees and grape vines by the process best known as spitting the pips. That grape you have just tasted might well be the best you have encountered, but as any gardener would tell you, the chances of taking the seed from that grape and getting it to produce the same version of grape with the same characteristics is almost impossibly small.
The standard practice is to select the good fruiting vine with great care and having identified the one required, take cuttings and graft them onto separate root stock. Simply being in the same vicinity as the well grafted stock won’t do it. Joining a congregation where there are warm and active Christians doesn’t mean that all who are associated with that congregation will have those same characteristics. Each individual shoot must be considered separately
If we look back over the last two thousand years we see all too often it has not always been Jesus’ teaching with his central principles of compassion forgiveness, peace, justice and acceptance which have always been at centre of the expression of Church, but rather sometimes it is as if there is a graft to power, position, local custom, exclusivity and religiosity. The clue – as with viticulture – is to see what fruit has been produced.
Families are linked automatically by relationships put in place by happen-chance of birth. You may not always like your cousin or brother or aunt but there is a tie which is there as of right by birth. This is not so with a faith. In the case of the vine of Christianity we are not linked to the family tree as of right, because the sap of life for those attached to Christ is in effect the flow of love and compassion. Nor for that matter, are we linked to the vine by self- labels like being born again, like being evangelical, or liberal or conservative. The fruits of faith are seen in our attitudes to one another rather than in our statements of faith.
If the flow is interrupted, the relationship becomes suspect and the fruit will not be acceptable.
If the branch is not productive or if it begins to die, horticultural practice suggests it should be excised. Here it is not clear if Jesus was talking about the person or the characteristics of a person or even if his words should apply to whole communities. Most of us, if we are human, will have human failings as well as human gifts. Our faith communities are unlikely to be exempt. In this observation Jesus is saying no more than we know to be true. Not all parts of the vine produce good fruit – and not all dimensions of human behavior are acceptable.
What is more debatable and which even seems at odds with other things Jesus said, is his reported statements about destruction and burning of the parts which have been cut. The notion that the humans themselves might be cut off, rejected and burned does not fit in with other parts of Jesus actions and teachings. In other places for example, he accepted sinners and those who had no right to be accepted. However since he seems to acknowledge that even among the faithful we should expect there will be those who will have attitudes and behavior which are contrary to the principles he taught, it follows that such behavior and attitudes should be corrected.
In reality the identification of weakness is not automatically followed by instant improvement. The sad truth is that many succumb to a host of addictions and undesirable thinking and behaviour patterns. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for all their successes can also identify many failures. It is all very well to agree in principle to love enemies, to love the poor and fight for the disadvantaged – but in practice it is difficult to do alone. Perhaps we get a hint of how to at least start becoming a productive part of the vine in Jesus’ words of encouragement.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you bear much fruit. But apart from me you can do nothing.”
As with Paul’s words of encouragement in first Corinthians 13, the phrase “abide in me” is an instruction to engage in a series of deliberate acts rather than a feeling. Building Christian Community may start with the identification of the theory of Christ’s teaching but as long as it stays with reading and hearing about Jesus and his interaction with those who would follow, it will remain unrealized.
Jesus talks of those areas of the vine not producing fruit. This calls for honesty – and not, as many seem to think, only honesty about the lack of applied Christianity in others. The fruit of the Gospel in our lives should be apparent to strangers, to friends and neighbors and not least, to ourselves.
What is required is that we actually need to follow Jesus’ example of caring about those who are not necessarily deserving of our care. We need to be peacemakers – not just in theory or expressing peaceful sentiments in pulpit prayers– but in defusing actual disputes, we need to be identifying and meeting injustice, and above all we need to be serving others. In short we need to be abiding in Christ in a way that makes some difference to the life we live outside the artificial atmosphere of the Church building.
When it comes to identifying the useless parts of the vine, knowing that others are likely to have weaknesses may be a truth – but Jesus’ notion that the vine will have weaker parts reminds us that we too may have weaknesses and maybe what is required is not so much our judgment of others, as helping one another overcome our weaknesses. Jesus reminds us that we have to be ruthless in dealing with weaknesses that get in the way of producing fruit. Nowhere does he say only in other people.
Finally I want to suggest that whether or not the metaphors used by Jesus makes a difference in our e veryday lives will ultimately depend on whether or not we truly believe Jesus’ teaching is for the community we inhabit in the setting of a real world. If there was good news in Easter, it has to be good news for the everyday life we and others live. The true vine produces the fruit. May others find in us the evidence of that “true vine”.