“I am the true vine”.
Several times in the Old Testament the image of the vine is used of Israel, God’s own people, the people of the Covenant (cf. e.g. Is 5:1, 27:2-6; Jer 2:21, 11:4; Ezk 19:10-14; Ps 80:18-19.) And several times, too, the Prophets of the Old Testament denounce this vine that is Israel as corrupt, degenerate, unfruitful, unprofitable. Now at the centre point of the Last Supper discourse according to St. John, we hear Jesus calling himself the true vine. That is, all the hopes and expectations of Israel are fulfilled at last in himself. He himself is the perfect achievement of her vocation; the goal towards which her whole history had pointed.
The tone of the passage is so serene, and the vine image has become so familiar to us, that perhaps we cease to notice the astonishing nature of its affirmation. How can this man claim to be somehow bigger and better, holier, more faithful, than the whole of Israel? And if that weren’t enough, his claim widens as he goes on. I am the whole, he says; you are the parts. I am the source: not just of your fruitfulness but of your life. Apart from me you can have no life; apart from me you can do nothing.
No one else has ever made such claims. Surely this is shocking, outrageous, nonsensical?! If you’re Jewish it sounds like blasphemy; if you’re anyone else it sounds like sheer delusion and madness. Unless, that is, Jesus really is the Son of God. In that case, his words not only make perfect sense, but they are words of life for us; the good news humanity has been waiting to hear.
So can it all be true? St. John’s Gospel bears witness that it is true. The Holy Spirit also bears witness. The Catholic Church bears witness. In its small way, this monastery too bears witness, and so does this liturgical assembly. We are here to proclaim together that Jesus is Lord. He is the Son of God, the King of Israel (Jn 1:49). Believing that, we know his words can be trusted. They are words of one who is himself the Truth. We believe that in Jesus God has revealed and communicated himself. We believe that on Good Friday Jesus died, in order that our sins might be washed away in his blood, and on Easter Day he rose from the dead, in order that we might have eternal life in him.
If we believe all that, and if it’s all true, what then?
Abide in me, he says, as I abide in you.
This is the great gift Jesus offers, or points towards, in today’s Gospel: the gift of a permanent, living and life-giving communion with him. That’s also the imperative of our baptism, of our Christian vocation. We know that it’s never enough merely to accept the truth of the Gospel mentally, and then carry on as if nothing much had changed. No: faith in Jesus has to involve also what St. Paul calls newness of life. The life of Jesus has to be truly the source of our life. And we have to live in relationship with him; we have abide in him.
This word abide appears 7 times in today’s Gospel passage, and another 4 times in the verses that immediately follow. It’s a favourite word in St. John’s Gospel, though in our version it’s variously translated as “remain” or “make your home in.”
It’s an invitation: something offered, but never imposed. If we will, we can refuse the invitation. Or if we will, we can accept it.
How then do we abide in Jesus?
In the first place we keep our life turned towards Jesus through habits of prayer: even, as St. Paul insists, through prayer without ceasing. We spend time with Jesus; we speak with him in our hearts as well as through set prayers; we accept and respond to his love for us directly, consciously, willingly. Part of that also must be a habit of regularly reading his word, as it comes to us in holy scripture.
To abide in Jesus must also involve abiding in charity. In his first letter St. John puts that the other way around. Whoever abides in love, he says, abides in God. Abiding in love means loving God, and loving one another, in a Christ-like way. Practically speaking, Christian charity is expressed through acts of generosity or selflessness, but also more generally through a morally upright life; through keeping the commandments; through living out all the virtues, even, if necessary, to a heroic degree.
Great virtue is often needed for the task of abiding in Jesus. Often the difficulties, temptations and distractions of our daily life can tend to draw us away from him. So part of the meaning of abiding in him is resolute determination to persevere in the faith, in prayer, in charity, come what may: ultimately until death.
We Catholics believe also that abiding in Jesus must involve abiding in his Church. The two are one body: they cannot be separated. So out of love for Jesus we should have love also for his Church; we should obey her, honour her, serve her to the best of our abilities. And it is from the Church, within the communion of the Church, that we receive the life-giving sacraments; the supreme means given us by Jesus to remain, abide, in him.
In the Bread of Life discourse after the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus said: Whoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, abides in me, and I in him (Jn 6:57).
So here we are, at the Holy Eucharist, in order that our abiding in Jesus might be nourished, strengthened, confirmed. The image of the vine in today’s Gospel inevitably evokes the wine of the Last Supper, which through the invocation of the Holy Spirit becomes the Eucharistic blood of Christ. The Old Testament forbids the drinking of blood, since the life is in the blood, and that belongs to God alone. In the Eucharist then we are offered Christ’s life, the divine life, poured out for us on the Cross. To drink that blood in faith then is to drink the source of our life in Christ; the source of the forgiveness of our sins; the source of our ability love as he has loved us. In sacramental terms, it’s to seal once again his abiding in us, and to declare that we desire to abide in him.
Finally: Whoever abides in me, says Jesus, with me in him bears fruit in plenty.
What is this fruit? It’s the fruit of the Eucharist: holiness of life, and union in charity. For as we are made one with Jesus, so we are made one also with each other. We are filled with the Holy Spirit; and so enabled to give glory to God the Father.