“I AM THE VINE AND YOU ARE THE BRANCHES”
Acts 9:26-31; 1Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15: 1-8
On the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B, our reflection turns our attention to the last of the “I Am’s” of Jesus. John 15 is part of what is called “the Olivet Discourse”. These are the words we believe Jesus spoke as he and the disciples were walking to the Garden of Gethsemane before he was arrested. Because Jesus knew that he was heading to his arrest and crucifixion, these words take on added importance like the last words spoken by a dying man.
In these words, Jesus told the disciples that God’s desire was for them to “bear fruit”. Admittedly that is a little abstract for us. What St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians can throw some light here: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22, 23). According to Jesus, bearing fruit is not only about WHAT WE DO; it is about WHO WE ARE. Here are some clues for what we need to do to be fruitful.
1. REMEMBER YOUR ROLE
Jesus emphasized that HE IS THE VINE. He calls the Father the gardener (the one who tends the vine). Jesus tells us that we CANNOT BEAR FRUIT apart from him. He says, apart from him we CAN DO NOTHING. The only way for us to be fruitful is for the life of Christ to flow through us. We are only branches. We are not the vine itself. As branches, we are dependent on the Lord for our very life. If we become detached from the vine, we may look healthy and competent for a little while but in a short period of time we will wither and die.
A person on kidney dialysis knows that he/she needs the dialysis to live. If he/she decides to stop dialysis, before long he/she suffers from toxins that may throw him/her into a coma and then death. Similarly, if we become detached from the Lord, we will wither and die. Throughout our lives, we need to constantly remind ourselves of this truth. Jesus is the King; we are not. When the circumstances of life are difficult, we must remember that he is the One who knows what is best; not us. When we become impatient and try to force things to happen the way we think they should, we need to remember that HIS TIMING is perfect; ours is not. Our job is to leave the driving to the Lord.
2. WE MUST FOCUS ON REMAINING IN CHRIST
It is interesting that Jesus does not tell the disciples that their job is to produce fruit. No! THEIR JOB IS TO REMAIN CLOSE TO THE VINE. It is our relationship with him that will produce the fruit. In verses 4-7 Jesus uses the word, “REMAIN” eight times!
Imagine a parent who loses track of his/her child, even for an instant, in a large crowd! It is a terrifying thing. Most parents will tell you that their child was standing right beside them and they turned to look at something and an instant later when they turned back, the child was gone. The child did not set out to get lost; it just became distracted. He/she saw something what interested him/her and he/she turned attention to it! Like children, believers, Christians, and religious, are easily distracted.
We start out with eagerness but we become distracted by
Family activities, and family demands
Our position (in the church and in the world)
Social and community obligations (friends, meeting groups, traditional titles, etc.)
Financial obligations (These can push people to go out of their way to look for money)
The list could go on and on. Jesus reminds the disciples that they would have to make a deliberate effort to abide and follow through. In order to remain (or abide) in Christ, one must develop discipline. Some of us have learned the value of discipline when it comes to money, exercise, dieting and even our work. We need that same kind of discipline when it comes to walking with Christ. Practically, if we are going to remain in him, we need to do the following:
a) Make time to be with the Lord every day. Jesus says that the disciples are already cleaned (v. 3) because of the Word spoken to them. The Bible is God’s Word to us. It is the Word of God that provides the standard by which we are to measure our lives. As we allow the Word of God to search us and direct us, we are “cleansed” and made fruitful. It is not just reading the Bible that is important, it is HEARING IT AND APPLYING IT. St. James said we are to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Jas 1:22). Similarly, St John tells us in the 2nd reading of today: “Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” (1Jn3:18)
b) Maintain a constant conversation with the Lord. We should pray. (God cannot answer prayers that have not been said.) In this respect, we need to learn to talk with God throughout the day. (besides, it is in prayer that one can truly say that he/she knows Jesus. “who do you say I am?”) When we commit sin, we need to confess it to God in the sacrament of reconciliation. When we have hurt someone, we need to ask for the strength to apologize. We need to discuss our decisions with the Lord. We need to thank God for blessings as we recognize them. We need to stop and pray for people who are in need. We need to keep the lines of communication with God open.
c) Listen carefully. Listen for the whisper of God’s Spirit. Be open to God’s instruction. Do what God tell us to do in the Scriptures. Learn to ask: “What does God say in this particular situation?” Do what he says even when we do not want to do it. Trust his judgment. Anyone can make resolutions. The person who grows in faith is the one who follows through. Jesus said that if we remain in him, we can “ask whatever we wish and it will be done for us.” This is not magic; it is common sense. If we abide with him, we will understand what God desires for us.
3. THE ART OF PRUNING
Everyone who works with grapes (coffee, cocoa, palms, etc.) understands that the key to fruitful vines is pruning. In this gospel text above, Jesus sets forth two situations. The first is negative: The branch is dry, it bears no fruit, and so it is cut off and thrown away. The second is positive: The branch is living and healthy, and so it is pruned. This contrast already tells us that pruning is not a hostile act to the branch. The vinedresser expects much from it; he knows it can bear fruit; he has confidence in it. The same happens on the spiritual plane. God intervenes in our lives with the cross. It does not mean he is irritated with us but, in fact, the opposite.
But, why does the vinedresser prune the branch and make the vine “weep”, as is usually said. The reason is very simple: Pruning determines the health, the taste and the abundance of the grapes (fruit). If it is not pruned, the strength of the vine is wasted; it will bear perhaps more bunches than it should, with the consequence that not all will ripen and that the rating of the wine will be lower. If it remains a long time without being pruned, the vine even becomes wild and produces only vine tendrils (shoots) and wild grapes. The same happens in our lives. To live is to choose, and to choose is to deny oneself. The person who wants to do too many things in life, or cultivates innumerable interests and hobbies, is dispersed, and will not be outstanding in anything. One must have the courage to make choices, to put some secondary interests to one side to concentrate on the primary. To prune!
This is even truer in the spiritual life. Holiness is like a sculpture. Leonardo da Vinci defined sculpture as “the art of removing”. The other arts consist in adding something: color to the canvas in painting, stone on stone in architecture, note after note in music. Only sculpture consists of removing, of taking away the pieces of marble that are in excess, so that the figure can emerge that one has in mind. Christian perfection is also obtained like this, by removing and making useless pieces fall off, namely, desires, ambitions, projects, carnal tendencies that disperse us and do not let us finish anything.
One day, Michelangelo, while walking through a garden in Florence saw a block of marble in a corner protruding from the earth, half covered by grass and mud. He stopped suddenly, as if he had seen someone, and turning to friends, who were with him, exclaimed: “An angel is imprisoned in that marble; I must get him out.” And, armed with a chisel, he began to work on that block until the figure of a beautiful angel emerged.
God also looks at us and sees us this way: as shapeless blocks of stone. He then says to himself: “Therein is hidden a new and beautiful creature that waits to come out to the light; more than that, the image of my own son Jesus Christ is hidden there, I want to bring it out!” We are predestined to “be conformed to the image of his son” (Rom 8:29).
Then, what does God do? He takes the chisel, which is the cross, and begins to work on us. He takes the pruning scissors, and begins to prune us. We must not worry ourselves thinking of what terrible crosses he may send us! Normally, he does not add anything to what life presents us in terms of suffering, effort, tribulations. He makes all these things serve for our purification. He helps us to not waste them.
4. SUBMIT TO GOD’S PRUNING
To prune a vine, a skillful hand is necessary. The owner must know how much to trim, and when to do so. Timing is everything. This way the pruning will not rob the branch of its nourishment. God is that skillful vine dresser. The Lord teaches us to be dependent on him and to trust his pruning in our lives. Unfortunately, (as said earlier) the pruning process is often not very pleasant. If you were to be the branch that is being pruned you would probably believe that the gardener is trying to destroy you!
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are told that we should “endure hardship as discipline” (Heb. 12:7). It is hard for us to understand that. Little children believe that parents should give them everything they want. They believe their parents should solve all their problems and cater for all their desires. Children often get mad when parents say “NO” or require that they do things that they do not want to do (like take a bath, brush their teeth, avoid too much sugar, do school assignment before bedtime, etc.) Children want immediate gratification. As parents, we want them to learn life skills that will help them to stand on their own two feet.
Likewise, we do not understand why God does not give us everything we want. We do not understand why he sometimes says, “NO” or allows difficult things into our lives. The answer however is that God desires something more for us than what we want for ourselves. He wants us to develop roots. He wants us to be fruitful. He wants us to bring him glory.
Sometimes God will prune us,
To slow us down. He keeps us from killing ourselves and those around us. How many people work too many hours and are destroying their lives and their family life? Many people bury their heads in seemingly good, but fruitless activity, with paying attention to other people’s feelings. In the face of such activism, the Lord may just slow us down in order to make us think.
To turn us in another direction. Sometimes we are involved in destructive patterns and God needs to “wake us up”. Take the example of a yam farmer who re-directs the yam shoot to a stake so that it can grow healthily. Left alone, the yam will grow in a mess of stalks and leaves.
To deepen our roots. Sometimes our lives are shallow. Sometimes pruning may cause us to see life from a different perspective. We learn to value different things. If you look back at your life, you will see that some of the most important lessons of life have been learned in tough times.
Our challenge today is to trust the hand that does the pruning. There will be times when we do not understand what is going on. These are the times when faith must have deep roots. If we submit to God’s pruning and seek to learn from life’s experiences, we will become more fruitful. If we resist, we will become just a crooked mess of weeds, like an uncontrolled yam farm.
If you have ever had an infection you were probably given antibiotics, and you were told by the doctor or pharmacist that you needed to take ALL OF THE MEDICINE. Many people, once they start feeling better, they stop taking the medicine. This is dangerous. If the bacteria have not been completely killed, they will adjust and become some stronger and more resistant bacteria. You may end up being more sick than you were in the first place.
Likewise, Jesus is telling us that if we want to make progress and bear fruit in our journey with God, we need to follow through. Satan and the sinful nature within us will not be defeated unless we stick with Jesus. Therefore, in our daily lives as Christians, we are encouraged to do the following:
Remember who is in charge (and who is not). Submit yourself to the Lord every throughout this week, and always ever after.
Instead of struggling to “produce fruit”, we should work at staying close to the Lord so that he can produce fruit that will last.
When the difficulties of life come to us, instead of fighting, let us try to listen and learn. Submit to the hand of the gardener or vine dresser—JESUS CHRIST.