Fifth Sunday of Easter – The True Vine
The New Testament was written to strengthen the first converts, who not only faced great times of persecution but also philosophical attacks from Jew, Greek and Roman critics. The apostolic community needed to hand on coherent teaching but also to develop the strongest possible affinity of this teaching with Jesus himself. The fourth gospel ponders the meaning of this affinity or “Communion with Christ” especially in the seven “I AM” sayings; “I am the Way”, or “I am the Good shepherd,” “I am the bread of life,” etc, but especially I am the true vine, you are the branches.
Any serious gardener will immediately connect with this very powerful image of the vine and vinedresser. I read this passage each year, while preparing for Easter, often at the same time finishing tending my own fruit trees, removing diseased, dead and unwanted branches, and looking for fruit buds in the hope of a future crop. Each tree like all nature is subject to life generating and life threatening forces and need attention. My trees are also old friends. I have grafted and nurtured them from single stems and now I look up to them on the steps of a ladder. If our Lord’s teaching is powerful to me it was likewise powerful at the time to those familiar with the symbol of Israel as God’s vine. “I will sing of my vineyard” says Isaiah [Isa 5;1] in the vinedresser’s harvest song to the beloved, “planted with the choicest vines waiting to bring forth grapes.” Jesus takes this image to a deeper level by saying he was the “true vine” and his followers were his fruit bearing branches.
This image of interdependence is simple. The life-giving sap must flow from root to branch to bear fruit. Yet critics rarely understand that the Christian life is meaningless, bearing little of worth without this communion between Christ the vine and his people the branches. It is the goal of Christianity. Of all the “I am” sayings this gets to the spiritual root! It dramatically highlights the huge misunderstanding that exists in the anti religious culture surrounding us. Our faith is rejected as collection mere ideas, no longer relevant because humanity can solve almost everything itself. Humanity has become the measure of everything in the pursuit of material needs, and that it has the ability, although perhaps not the will, to dig itself out of any problems on the planet. Humanity is the highest good and if religion has any place at all it is in terms of satisfying human welfare or human rights and justice. Today Homo sapiens, is its own centre of gravity, in which the life of Jesus has ceased to flow.
The New Testament records and reflects upon the words of Jesus while he travelled through Galilee and Judea. His concern was to resolve the tragedy of human frailty caught between constructive and destructive forces that surround us, whether in the vineyard or human heart. These forces cause instability in human behaviour and the deficit cannot be solved by religious dogma or secular laws alone, but by giving energy to the will, realigning the mind and body with the “energies” of God. None of this can happen in a soul-less context.
The true vine feeds the soul driving the will to restore harmony and balance within each person, offering a way to free the individual from brokenness by the intermingling of divine energy with the human mind, body and soul. The great Christian Fathers call this theosis. The need hasn’t changed in over two thousand years. Most likely in the present world of isolation it is more urgent than ever.
Fr. Geoffrey Neal