If we are to judge by the nightly and now hourly news reports, we have just survived another week of violence and political chaos that seem to many to point to the serious fragmentation of society along racial and economic fault lines. Unless we turn off the TV, anyway, and sometimes that’s a wise thing to do. In any case, today’s readings have something urgent to tell us about solidarity and unity.
The gospel shifts our Easter focus from sheep and shepherds to the image of a grapevine. At first glance that might seem a little odd, especially because Jesus compares himself to
the main vine and his followers, ourselves included, to branches, if not grapes, mercifully enough. We’re familiar with the image, because we have heard it all our lives. But it is odd. Odder, say, than his comparing himself to a shepherd, or a light blazing in the darkness, or even a gate, or life-giving water.
But there are points to be made, first of all that just as sheep depend on the shepherd’s voice for their safety and well-being, learning to trust and follow him, so too the branches totally depend on the trunk of the vine for their life. But something else is going on here, and as we peel away the layers of meaning, like Mae West peeling away the skin of her grapes, we learn something important about our relationship to Jesus and each other.
Those of us who live in large cities likely think of grapes in terms of jelly, jam, and juice from the supermarket. My first experience with growing grapes was actually in Rogers Park. Stretching along a wire-link fence in the back yard of the two-flat where my community lived for some ten years was an old grape vine. I never saw any grapes on it, just lots of leaves and overgrown dead branches underneath. The house and property belonged to a very elderly Jewish couple who were no longer able to tend to gardening, so I asked if I could work on it. They agreed, so I began to work without knowing very much about grapevines. But I did know that in grape-growing regions, excess growth is routinely cut away. So I pruned away a lot of straggly growth, cut away the dead parts, added fertilizer, and watered. The next year, the vine produced a few little green grapes about the size of orange seeds. So I repeated my work of the previous year, and the following year, I got clusters of tough little grapes about the size of orange seeds. But they were purple. So I cut back and fertilized and watered some more. Eventually, I got quite a few clusters of grapes, purple ones, but small, tough, and pretty bitter. Then, the old couple died and the house was sold. The last I looked the grape vine was still there, but I don’t recall seeing any grapes on it. If I did, they would probably be small, tough, and bitter. Some vines are like that. Someone even said it might have been a wild grape vine and would never produce anything but little, bitter grapes, purple or otherwise.
My second experience growing grapes was even less productive. Over in Ireland, some years ago I bought a rootstock that was allegedly developed to prosper in Ireland ‘s cool, wet climate. My neighbor had one in his greenhouse and it did wonderfully well, producing clusters of huge, juicy grapes every year. But I didn’t have a greenhouse. Planted outdoors, my grapevine grew, but has never produced any grapes. So far, anyway. I still have hope.
So you might say the readings speak to me in a particular way. The point is the vine has to be the right kind, planted in the right place, and in the right way. The rest is magic. Or in today’s case, grace.
In the bible, beginning with the book of Genesis, Israel was compared to a grapevine. A number of parables were developed, some about the vineyard itself, some about the vine, some about the gardeners, but always about Israel and her relationship to God. The most striking of these is from the fifth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, which we use so much in the Lenten liturgy:
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He spaded it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” [Isaiah 5:1-2. Others: Jer. 12:10, Ps 80: 5-10 , Ezek 19:10, Prov. 30:30 and 31:16, Song of Songs 8:11, etc.]
Jesus continued that tradition with several of his own parables, especially about the workers in the vineyard. But here, there is a difference. Now, Jesus himself is the vine, and we are his branches,
At this moment in John’s gospel, when unity is such an important theme, preserving our life-giving union with Christ is certainly the main point. But there is an additional theme that goes back to the original parables, that of productivity, producing appropriate and abundant fruit, the kind of thing I was never able to get my grapevines to do. And the gospel tells us that it is because we are members of Christ, really connected to him as the life-giving source of activity, that we are able to produce anything at all. But especially anything worthwhile.
As with his image of the good shepherd, Jesus tells us that he is the true vine, the real vine, Israel itself. Nothing else will do. Only Christ is the real source of everlasting life. And anything that threatens to disrupt our unity as members of his body, threatens our unity with Christ. If we make an issue about the “old timers” and the “newcomers,” say, so-called illegal immigrants, or the rich and the poor, or between racial or ethnic groups, or anyone else, we are to that extent no longer sharing the same life and love that is the sign of the presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit. What makes us one with him, makes us one with each other.
In the second reading, John tells us that we are to love one another as Jesus commanded us, because love is what holds us together, it makes us one, it is the life flowing through all the members of the community, it is in fact the Holy Spirit at work in each of us because we are part of the whole of us. More, it is the Holy Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Christ, that makes our lives effective, that brings our good works to fruition. John says, finally, it is from the presence of the Spirit that we know Jesus remains with us. We know it because only the Spirit of Christ could produce the abundance of life and goodness that pours like vintage wine out of our communion with each other. God is doing this: as Isaiah said ages ago, it was God who planted the vineyard, God who watered it and pruned it, and in time, God who produced the abundance.
And that takes us back to the first reading, which, at the end, describes what happened when the Spirit of Christ transformed Saul of Tarsus, the enemy of the Church, into Paul, the greatest missionary the church has ever seen. The Church, Luke says, was then at peace, making steady progress in the fear of the Lord, and enjoyed the consolation of the Holy Spirit. Here, surely, we hear advance echoes of the great feast of Pentecost which is coming soon. So let us pray that our community, our nation, and the wider world too, will continue to work together, that we will overcome whatever divisions threaten that unity, and become a living vineyard of true friends, animated by the loving Spirit of Christ living within us and among us.