Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015 (May 3)
In John’s Gospel Jesus often speaks with “I” messages – I am such and such, usually as a metaphor. We saw last week that he metaphorically described himself as the Good Shepherd, a metaphor that would be part of the every day life of the people he was dealing with. They would have run across shepherds all the time, but in our culture we have probably not run across too many shepherds of late, although most of us know who they were and what they did.
Today, Jesus gives another “I” message, and also uses something very familiar to the Galileans of that time, and even two centuries later, which might be more applicable to you and me since we are very much in a wine cultivating county here. Jesus says he is the true vine, an interesting metaphor.
But if Jesus is the true vine, what is an untrue vine? If a person were an untrue vine, it would seem to me that they would lead lives that looked righteous and good, but were really not good. If Israel was the untrue vine because it gave all the outward signs of following God and believing in the Scripture, but in the end would not acknowledge Jesus or see Jesus as the Messiah, this might be what Jesus was talking about here. Or not.
Let’s look at the extended metaphor a little more closely. Jesus first says that he is a vine, a true vine. He also states that the grower of the vine, the cultivator of the vineyard is God. The vine grows and has to be pruned. God prunes away branches that bear no fruit. What immediately this suggests to me is that if I am bearing no fruit, God will hack away at me to remove those things that are stopping me from bearing fruit. This is a really positive message of love and care. It is God tenderly taking care of us and lifting us up and helping us realize what we need to do to get rid of the distractions in our life that cause us not to bear fruit. Even if we are bearing fruit, we will still have to be pruned in order to make us bear more fruit. We cannot reach perfection in this life, though we can and must try.
What does all this pruning and cutting away mean in our lives? How does God prune us? In order to interpret this we need to make sure that we do this in the context of Jesus’ entire message of unconditional love and faithfulness, and knowing his mercy and grace.
Jesus says that “Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Does this mean he helps us to see the sins in our life, or God forces us to repent for the sins in our life, or just feel more sorry for what we have done? The word “pruning” in Greek is also the same word as for “cleansing”. And if you notice in the very next line, Jesus told us that “You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you.” Was Jesus contradicting himself?
I am going to prune you, clean you, but then he says, you are already pruned or clean!
Perhaps this is because it is a steady process – we have been made clean by our baptism. We are clean, innocent, sinless, but as life goes on, we do commit transgressions, things that are unworthy of God or Jesus, things that stop us from growing, and so we have to be pruned, made clean again and forgiven. And we know that Jesus is a model of forgiveness, so it should give us great comfort and hope.
The extended metaphor continues and we need to see ourselves as part of the vine of Jesus, getting sustenance from the vine in order to bear fruit. Those who become dead to the vine, who turn away from Jesus and his words will be cut away from the vine and left to wither and be burned. This is not literal, but indicates that apart from Jesus, their lives will not be fruitful and they will be on their own and godless.
I want to say a few words now about “fruit”. What does it mean to bear fruit? Does it mean the eternal goal of being with God after we die? Is being with God the grape, which is rich and ready to be picked? Perhaps. Does it mean learning and applying the Word of God in our lives. Possibly. Does it mean living the kingdom on earth right now – with the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor. Probably.
However, to make it simpler and to be able to apply it to our own lives today St. Paul offers us a definition of fruits of the Spirit in Galatians. He says: …the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness [and] self control. (5:22-23) That list is the list of fruits that we should be developing, growing, producing in our own lives, and Jesus says he is there to help us do just that, pruning away what isn’t that, always with the realization that if we are part of the vine of Jesus, if we are in Jesus, that we are already cleansed and have been pruned, helping us to succeed and bear even more fruit.
And I started today with the word “true” when Jesus said “I am the true vine. John’s letter today picks up on the word truth. We can be great fruit and can accomplish what John begins his Epistle with today: …let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. We can’t just talk about love… we really have to take action and show it. If we do this we will truly abide in Christ through the Spirit that continually prunes and cleanses us, just as the early apostles in Acts today built up peace by living in awe of God and being comforted by the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray today that we can accept the pruning of God in our lives, recognize that we are already cleansed by God and on our way to bearing the fruits that Paul names, thus bringing about the kingdom of God right here and now.
And this is the God News of the allegory of Jesus as the vine!
Bishop Ron Stephens
Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA
The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)
[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]