In the Gospel text last week Jesus is quoted as saying: I am the Good Shepherd. In this week’s Gospel he says: I am the true vine.
Last week’s text was all about the role of Jesus in guiding and protecting his flock. The words of Jesus were very comforting and reassuring. They make us feel that we can leave the initiative to him and need merely to follow where he leads us.
We know that he will care for us, that he won’t lead us into error and that we can feel safe. It also speaks about the great sacrifice that Jesus makes; as the Good Shepherd he gives his life for his sheep. The accent is all on him and his role in our salvation. We are the passive recipients, the objects of all his love and concern. However, as if to restore the balance, the Church presents us with quite a different emphasis today and the accent here is on our role.
In the Bible, and especially in the Gospels, we find many analogies of the Christian life. No single one can give us an adequate picture. Like any good teacher Jesus uses many examples to get across his point. This Parable of the Vine is a particularly apt one.
Jesus says: I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser... I am the vine; you are the branches.
Now looking at things from this angle it seems that Jesus has the more passive role and we have to do a lot more of the work. He is the vine who feeds and nourishes us, the branches. And our job is to bear much fruit.
This is not quite so comforting or easy going as thinking of ourselves as sheep who merely follow in their master’s footsteps.
The snag is the worry that if we are found wanting and are unable to yield fruit then we will be quickly pruned and cast into the fire along with all the rest of the dead wood.
We are left with questions such as: What kind of fruit ought we to bear? And what sort of fruit is acceptable to the Lord? And how do we actually go about ‘bearing fruit’?
Of course, we are using the language of analogy here; we are not talking about a harvest of actual grapes. When Jesus says ‘I am the vine’ he is clearly meaning a vine of a heavenly order.
The fruit, is therefore surely also of a heavenly order. We realise that the harvest is one of souls for heaven. Our task is in fact to continue the work of Christ in the world. In order to know what to do we must look at his life and imitate him as best we can.
He taught the truth, he spoke words of comfort, he healed the sick, he brought sight to the blind, he rebuked the devil, he spent much time in prayer and in communion with the Father. And ultimately he laid down his life for our salvation.
These then are the things we must do. We must think hard and find ways to translate his actions and his words into our actions and our words.
This is easier than you think. Wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves we only have to ask ourselves the question: What would Christ do if he was in my position? Then we have a plan of action.
And there is, of course, an important Eucharistic dimension to these words of Jesus. Remember that this text is part of that great ‘farewell discourse’ given in the upper room after Jesus washed the feet of his disciples during the Last Supper.
It is no mistake that Jesus refers to himself as the vine when it is wine that is used as one of two great Eucharistic species.
Using the comparison of the vine we see that we are in total unity with Jesus. It is a wonderful analogy of the Church; one organic whole with Jesus at the centre from whom all the branches draw life and nourishment.
However, the opposite is also true. When we separate ourselves from Christ we no longer receive nourishment from him and consequently the divine life within us can only wither and die.
The Eucharist is all about unity; the whole community gathered round a common table drawing life from Jesus who makes himself present to us in Word and Sacrament. Our regular attendance at mass is ‘the’ sign of our Christian commitment, ‘the’ sign of our union with each other in Christ.
Yet this unity is not easy to maintain, it is frequently a struggle. Look at the trouble Paul has in the text from the Acts of the Apostles. First the other disciples didn’t want to accept him, then, because of an argument, the Hellenists wanted to kill him. So, for the sake of peace, they sent him off on a mission to his own home town. It took a long time before they realised the crucial significance of his contribution.
We in this parish are not always completely at one with each other. There are surely holes and gaps in our unity. But as St John says: ‘Our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something real and active.’
We are the branches of the true vine; but this is not something passive. We draw our life from Christ. That word ‘draw’ is an active word. To draw life and nourishment from the Lord requires constant attention and effort; it won’t happen by itself.
Our unity as Christians is not something we can take for granted; it too requires constant attention and effort. It too doesn’t happen by itself. And yet this unity is an important and vital aspect of our mission.
If we want to focus on one thing in the weeks and months ahead then let us try to put into practice the lesson of today’s Gospel, then we can reflect on how our words and actions break down or build up the unity of the Church.
If each one of us, even in a small way, manage to improve in this regard then we will find that this vine that we are part of will indeed flourish. This vine, which is our Church, will bear fruit in plenty and will give glory to our heavenly Father just as Jesus wants.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket