Thoughts To Live By…

Jn 15:1-8 – Sunday Gospel Reflection

Posted on: May 10, 2009

Jn 15:1-8 – The Vine and The Branches
Fifth Sunday of Easter

Somebody once compared a Christian to a basketball player. To be good player, he said, it is not enough that you run fast, dribble well, assists timely and execute the play as planned. It is not enough that you have years of experience, full knowledge of the rules and regulation, good nutrition, enough rest  and constant practice. What matters most is to be able to shoot, to make points  and eventually to win the game.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel, is saying the same thing but in ways familiar and understandable to his people during his time.  Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears much fruit…He who abides I me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit…By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (Jn 15:1-2, 5-8).

Our Lord is describing two kinds of followers: that of those who, although they are still joined to the vine externally, yield no fruit; and that of those who do yield fruit but could yield still more. The Epistle of St. James carries the same message when it says that faith alone is not enough (James 2:17). Although it is true that faith is the beginning of salvation and that without faith we cannot please God, it is also true that a living faith must yield fruit in the form of deeds. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). So, one can say that in order to produce fruit pleasing to God, it is not enough to have received Baptism and to profess the faith externally: a person has to share in Christ’s life through grace and has to cooperate with Him in His work of redemption.

Jesus uses the same verb to refer to the pruning of the branches as He uses to refer to the cleanness of the disciples in the next verse: literally the translation should run: “He cleanses him who bears fruit so that he bear more fruit”. In other words, He is making it quite clear that God is not content with half-hearted commitment, and therefore He purifies His own by means of contradictions and difficulties, which are a form of pruning, to produce more fruit. In this we can see an explanation of the purpose of suffering: “Have you not heard the Master Himself tell the parable of the vine and the branches? Here we can find consolation. He demands much of you for you are the branch that bears fruit. And He must prune you `ut fructum plus afferas”: to make you bear more fruit’.

“Of course: that cutting, that pruning, hurts. But, afterwards, what richness in your fruits, what maturity in your actions” (St J. Escriva, “The Way”, 701).

After washing Peter’s feet Jesus had already said that His Apostles were clean, though not all of them (cf. John 13:10). Here, once more, He refers to that inner cleansing which results from accepting His teachings. “For Christ’s word in the first place cleanses us from errors, by instructing us (cf. Titus 1:9) […]; secondly, it purifies our hearts of earthly affections, filling them with desire for Heavenly things […]; finally, His word purifies us with the strength of faith, for `He cleansed their hearts by faith’ (Acts 15:9)” (St. Thomas Aquinas, “Commentary on St. John, in loc.”).

Christianity, therefore, is not just a religion of “don’ts” or simply avoidance of sin but one of “do’s”. Christ is very definite about it, “You must bear fruit in plenty,” fruits of good works.  The only thing that matters is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6) as St James beautifully put it: “What good is it to profess faith without practicing it? Such faith has no power to save one, has it?” (Jas 3:14).

We must bear abundantly the fruit of holiness (see Gal 5:22ff) and evangelization (Jn 15:5). Otherwise, we will be like “a withered, rejected branch, picked up to be thrown in the fire and burnt” (Jn 15:6). We bear fruit abundantly by being attached to and living in the Vine, Jesus Christ (Jn 15:5). We must be abiding in Jesus and He in us, and stay in communion with all the others who abide in Jesus.

The life of union with Christ is necessarily something which goes far beyond one’s private life: it has to be focused on the good of others; and if this happens, a fruitful apostolate is the result, for “apostolate, of whatever kind it be, must be an overflow of the interior life” (St J. Escriva, “Friends of God”, 239).

The Second Vatican Council, quoting this page from St. John, teaches what a Christian apostolate should be: “Christ, sent by the Father, is the source of the Church’s whole apostolate. Clearly then, the fruitfulness of the apostolate of lay people depends on their living union with Christ; as the Lord Himself said: `He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing’. This life of intimate union with Christ in the Church is maintained by the spiritual helps common to all the faithful, chiefly by the active participation in the Liturgy. Laymen should make such a use of these helps that, while meeting their human obligations in the ordinary conditions of life, they do not separate their union with Christ from their ordinary life; but through the very performance of their tasks, which are God’s will for them, actually promote the growth of their union with Him” (“Apostolicam Actuositatem”, 4).

If a person is not united to Christ by means of grace he will ultimately meet the same fate as the dead branches–fire. There is a clear parallelism with other images our Lord uses–the parables of the sound tree and the bad tree (Matthew 7:15-20), the dragnet (Matthew 13:49-50), and the invitation to the wedding (Matthew 22:11-14), etc. Here is how St. Augustine comments on this passage: “The wood of the vine is the more contemptible if it does not abide in the vine, and the more glorious if it does abide….For, being cut off it is profitable neither for the vinedresser nor for the carpenter. For one of these only is it useful–the vine or the fire. If it is not in the vine, it goes to the fire; to avoid going to the fire it must be joined to the vine” (“In Ioann. Evang.”, 81, 3).

Jesus, makes it clear that those baptized into Christ have been baptized into one body (1 Cor 12:13). If we are united to Jesus, the Head of the body, we are to be united to all the other parts of the body. Jesus promised that the world would believe when Christians are one (Jn 17:21). In unity, we will bear the great harvest leading to Jesus’ final return.

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