5th Sunday of Easter
Acts 9.26-31; Ps 21(22); 1 Jn 3.18-24; Jn 15.1-8
Do You Know Who I am?
The Los Angeles Times published the story of a commercial airline flight cancellation which resulted in a long line of travelers trying to get bookings on another flight. One man in the line grew increasingly impatient with the slow-moving line. At last, he pushed his way to the front and angrily demanded a first-class ticket on the next available flight. "I’m sorry," said the ticket agent, “First I’ll have to take care of the people who were ahead of you in the line." The irate man then pounded his fist on the ticket counter, saying, "Do you have any idea who I am?" Whereupon, the ticket agent picked up the public address microphone and said, "Attention, please! There is a gentleman at the ticket counter who does not know who he is. If there is anyone in the airport who can identify him, please come to the counter." Hearing this, the man retreated, and the people waiting in line burst into applause. We are like this man. We have forgotten how to wait patiently. In today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to learn his meekness and humility because he compares himself to be the true vine and we are the branches. He does not boast about himself to the supreme, but he says he is one who gives life to us.
Marriage Vows of Convenience
Once I blest a marriage and the couple had come earlier to allow me to slightly change the wordings of the wedding vows. According to them “to love and honor, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part” has been replaced by, “for as long as our love shall last.” It sounded pretty, but what are they really saying? “I promise to do whatever I feel like.” This shows that people’s view of commitment is only commitment to themselves, and their view of remaining is only to remain selfish. But that is not remaining and that is not love and that is not friendship. Jesus is calling us to remain in him, to the end! As he promised to remain in us to the end, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt 28.20)
I am the True Wine
I am the true vine, and my father is the gardener; he cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.... I am the vine, you are the branches. If a person remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
You are the Branches
I do not think that there is any better image of the Christian life and of what is supposed be like than this. I want to dwell on this image today and on the promise that is made with it, the promise that says: "If a person remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit". I find this image of what it means to be a Christian tremendously reassuring.
What We Are and Where We Are
There is so much grace in these words for people who are tired out from all their work or discouraged by the fact that they do not feel they are good enough for God or that they have not done enough for Him. The image of Jesus as the vine and ourselves as branches reminds that salvation and wholeness, and indeed all good things that we experience and produce, come not because of what we do, but because of what we are and where we are.
Even obedience to the Law of God, that obedience which, as we were told in the Book of Deuteronomy leads to abundant prosperity and blessings upon the land, even this necessary obedience is transformed by the image of the vine and the branches from being something that we strive to do by our own power and might and effort to something that God produces in us when we are attached to him as a branch is attached to a vine.
The Plant Dying
An avid gardener told me one time about a plot he had planted: He had been very careful to select the best seeds, and plant each one at its proper depth. He fertilized and watered the plants, he worked the soil faithfully each week to prevent weeds from encroaching and he sprayed to prevent bugs and blights from afflicting the young plants. The season was a good one - just the right amount of rain and sunshine, and on the vines appeared broad green leaves and in due course the blooms. It looked magnificent. One day he noticed that here and there certain leaves were dying, certain blooms fading. Most of the leaves remained a healthy glossy green, but scattered among them were those turning brown. Why, he wondered, would some die in the midst of all the living? So he investigated.
Stepping carefully among the tangled mass of vines he traced the ones on which the leaves and blooms were dying, until he found that they were all connected to a single stem. There, just above the ground, cut-worms had severed the stalk. The entire vine above that point was dying because it was no longer attached to the roots and the stem that had produced it.
How We die Spiritually
It reminds us that we die spiritually, that we are incapable of producing fruit, when we are not attached to the vine, or when we are not connected to the roots which nourish us. It also reminds us that when we are attached that the fruit that we produce - indeed the prosperity of the land itself, comes to us naturally, as a gift of God.
The gardener does the work and the vine he plants carries the sap and all its nutrition to us, and we, because we are in the right place, prosper and produce for the world the fruit that it needs. All of us want to do good things, we want to produce good fruit, but many of us - in trying to do good things, end up feeling burned out, exhausted and even despairing. This particularly happens to many people in the so-called caring professions - to doctors, social workers, nurses, and the like. They do much good - but many get frustrated, angry, and tired, their ability to help others decreases, and some end up giving up entirely on their professions.
How We Live Spiritually
There are others - others who do as much if not more, others who are full of hope and of life, full of care and love for their neighbours and their world, who never fall prey to this plague, but rather go and on, touching and healing those around them by what they do.
I believe it is because they are connected to the source of hope, to the source of life, to the source of care and love, for their neighbours and their world. The cup of water to those who thirst, the word of assurance to those who are in doubt, the comforting hug to those who are in pain, the gift to those who do not know if they are loved, and the deed of kindness to the one who is in need, all these things are things that God wants us to do, they are part of what Jesus calls the fruit of being in him. They are also the evidence and the badge of the Christian life, proof that we are who we say we are.
What is the Fruit like?
Let me remind you of what fruit is. Fruit is the excess, the overflow of the life that a plant has taken into itself. The more life that a plant takes into itself the more life it produces.
When there is an abundance of sunshine to fuel photosynthesis, and when there is adequate water and nutrient in the soil to be passed up the trunk and into the branches those branches thrive, and grow, and produce, and grow again. The plant and its branches don't have to force themselves to grow, they do not have to make a resolution to bring forth sweeter and more succulent fruit, nor do they need to remind themselves to be more abundant in their production. They simply need to be in the right place, the place that the gardener has prepared for it, the place where the conditions for growth and fruit bearing are to be found.
We are Planted by God
For us the right place to be is in the vine that has been planted by God and which is tended by God - the vine which we call Christ. My friends, each one of us here today, as people who profess that Jesus is our Lord and believe in our hearts that he rose from the dead, are part of the vine of Christ. We are able to produce tremendous quantities of fruit, conditions are perfect for our growth - because God himself tends us and ensures that those conditions are perfect.
All we need do to be fruitful is remain a part of the vine, and perform the simple tasks that every branch performs as a means of maintaining a fruitful life in the vine. Basically there are only two tasks that we need to do, just as there are only two tasks that a branch in a vine does.
First - the branch, through its twigs and leaves, receives energy from the sun to fuel its growth. The leaves, by the miraculous process of photosynthesis, convert light into plant energy which helps to drive the system that produces fruit as its end result.
Secondly - the branch, through its connections to the stem of the plant receives moisture and nutrients from the soil, it receives the life giving sap that makes its grow.
I realize that this description lacks a little in botanical terms, but in theological terms it reminds us of all that we need to do to be pleasing to God.
First - the branch receives energy from the sun through its leaves.
So we too receive energy when we unfold ourselves before God and accept from him the light he offers to us in his Word, both the written word of scripture, and the living word of Jesus Christ. I am sure you have all noticed how plants track the sun, how they focus on it, how they lean towards its light and turn towards where ever it is. Owners of houseplants know this very well.
If they do not want a plant with a permanent lean to it, they must periodically turn the pot it is in so that it begins to lean in the opposite direction, and hopefully, if they catch it at the right time in its leaning, it remains in a nice upright position.
They also know that if you take a plant and you lock in a cupboard for even one day its leaves pale and droop and it begins to die.
Exposure to God
We need in the same way to be exposed to the word of God, we need daily contact with the light it sheds, we need to hold his teachings in our minds and in our hearts so that we might draw from them the strength and energy we need. When we do that - when we lean out to receive God's word, when we absorb his words like the plant absorbs the sunlight, then a miracle occurs in us - God's word gives us part of what we need for life and the production of life.
Psalm One says it very well: Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on whose law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.
Rooted in Christ
Secondly - the branch is connected to the stem or trunk, receiving from it the nutrients and moisture that it needs. The branch is - for want of a better word, in communion with the vine and through that communion it is able to produce fruit. The same truth applies to us. All the light in the world, all the reading of God's word and meditation upon the gospel of Jesus, will not avail us much unless we are connected to him.
The connection, my friends, is established by God; and it is maintained by us through the way of faith and prayer, the way of trust and worship, the way of willingness to receive from God by making ourselves available to God as part of Christ's living body, the church.
These things both keep us in the vine and feed us - that we might produce fruit. When Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and you are branches", he also said - "no branch can bear fruit by itself, it must remain in the vine". We remain in the vine and produce fruit when we desire a relationship with God that goes beyond being content with having parking privileges only.
We remain part of the vine - when we are willing to obey the commandments that Jesus has given us, - when we are willing to love each other and to love God, - when we are willing to forgive each other and trust God to forgive us, - when we are willing to be seen with the rest of the branches in the vine.
We remain a part of the vine and produce fruit when we commune with God - when we are willing to pray to him and listen for his answers, - when we are willing to worship him even if it takes us away from our Sunday dinner and the latest baseball, hockey or Cricket game for a few minutes, - when we are willing to trust in him even when we think that he is not doing enough.
Fr. Rudolf V. D’Souza
Vancouver - Canada