1 John 3:18-24
It has been a wild week. Another one. A major earthquake devastated Nepal, a huge volcano erupted in Chile, another royal baby appeared in England, we had the NFL draft in Chicago, American Pharaoh won the Kentucky Derby, and Floyd Mayweather won the welterweight fight in Las Vegas, the biggest cash cow in boxing history. There were more street shootings everywhere. Everything was given about the same degree of rapid-fire attention by the media. But what especially captured the attention of the nation and even the world were the riots in Baltimore in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray. The nights of riot and mayhem especially pointed to the serious and tragic fragmentation of society along racial and economic fault lines. Today’s readings have something to tell us about that.
The gospel shifts our Easter focus from sheep and shepherds to the image of a grapevine. We’re familiar with the image, because we have heard it all our lives. But it is odd. There is a point to be made, of course. 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, we learn something important about our relationship to Jesus and each other.
If we are lucky enough to live in the right part of town, we see real grapes, not just jam or juice, in the produce section – big, juicy, and sweet. But my first experience with growing grapes was in Rogers Park, of all places. Stretching along a wire-link fence in the backyard of the two-flat near Loyola University where my community lived was an old grape vine. But I never saw any grapes on it, just lots of leaves and overgrown dead branches underneath. 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, and the following autumn, 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 bitter. I think that the grape vine is still there, and if it has any grapes on it, they are probably small, tough, and bitter. Some vines are like that. Maybe it was just my ignorance. Someone even said it might have been a wild grape vine and would never produce anything but bitter little grapes, purple or otherwise.
In the bible, beginning way back with the prophets, Israel was compared to a grapevine in many respects like the one I had tried to cultivate. Even down to producing small, bitter fruit if any. From Genesis on, many parables developed, some about the vine, some about the gardeners, always about Israel and her relationship to God. Jesus continued that tradition with several of his own parables, including the story of the workers in the vineyard. But here, there is a difference. Now, Jesus himself is the main vine, and we are his branches.
At this point in John’s gospel, where unity is such an important theme, our life-giving union with Christ is certainly the main point. 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 vines 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.
Like the image of the grain of wheat that Jesus also uses in the gospel of John, a single grape, left to itself, is pretty insignificant. Even a lot of grapes are just a lot of grapes. But like grains of wheat, grapes really get interesting when they pool their resources. The wheat grains become bread, and the grapes become wine. Not by themselves, but by submitting to the transforming power of a higher agent. They don’t have much choice, actually. But we do, and there lies the difference. We can choose whether or not to join together as a community, a communion in Christ, and so multiply our effectiveness immeasurably.
As with his image of the good shepherd, the true 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 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 the prophets 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.
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 had ever seen. So let us pray that our community, too, will continue to work together, that we will overcome whatever divisions threaten that unity, and continue to become a body of true friends, animated by the Spirit of Christ, the divine love living within us and among us.