Taken as a whole, in my opinion, all of Sacred Scripture is a story about an invitation to a relationship. In particular, this relationship is between God and us – human beings, people, persons, individuals – you. We hear stories of encounters, friendships, betrayals, forgiveness, redemption, and renewed invitations to that same relationship. Throughout the Bible, we find imagery to portray that relationship – of powerful love, of sustaining grace, and of merciful transformation.
One of the most enduring images that we can find in Scripture is that of the vine. Viniculture was pervasive in the world of the Bible, and wine plays an important role throughout the stories of God and Israel – even to the point of becoming the Blood of Christ in this new Covenant. So, to hear Jesus say, “I am the vine, you are the branches” is certainly in line with the religious imagery of His world.
However, we should see something deeper than just a harkening back to the Old Testament prophets and the Psalms. There, this “vine” represented the nation of Israel. Here, in Christ’s teaching, that vine is much more than that. The vine is the very life of the Christian family. The vine is Jesus, the Savior Himself. More than that,weare united to that Vine as the branches; and this, friends, is what we are meant to understand about our lives as Christian disciples.
The branches need the Vine. Without it, they are just sticks – maybe good for firewood or toothpicks, but nothing more. The branches mustdraw their life force from the Vine – they must share in all the characteristics of the Vine – or else they die. This is not a difficult metaphor to see. That is why Jesus says, “Remain in me, as I remain in you.”
This idea of “remaining in Jesus” defines the life of the disciple. We have work to do as people commissioned by Christ to go out, to teach others, and to make disciples. Christ calls this “bearing fruit.” In fact, it is by virtue of that fruit that we are judged as proper disciples: “He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,” and those unfruitful branches “will be thrown out … and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.”
Scary thoughts from our Lord! It should worry us – about what kind of disciple I am. Am I fruitful, or am I just hanging out on the vine? In terms of our salvation or damnation, it does worry me as to how fruitful I am; and, hopefully, it does you too. The ability to bear fruit is the mark of a mature disciple, and God is looking for it in us.
What should console us is the fact that Jesus uses the word “bear” fruit – as opposed to “produce” fruit. To produce fruit would imply that the effort and burden is upon us to make fruit happen. However, that is not the case. Jesus asks us to “bear” fruit – and that means that the fruit that we bear does not come from our efforts (i.e., our cleverness, resourcefulness, talent, or power). Instead, that fruit is the product for God’s action in the Vine.
A 19th century Christian missionary to China said, “The branch of the vine does not worry, and toil, and rush here to seek for sunshine, and there to find rain. No; it rests in union and communion with the vine; and at the right time, and in the right way, the right fruit is found on it. Let us so abide in the Lord Jesus.” What a tremendous insight! You and I are merely branches on the full Vine that is Jesus. Our call to be Missionary Disciples means that “success” is seen as God’s life and fruit shines forth through us – even in spite of us – because we have trusted to be joined lovingly to the Vine.
Today, we are nourished by that Vine in this Eucharist. Jesus supplies all the grace that we need to be fruitful disciples. Now, we simply have to let Him work in and through us. The Christian ideal, while it is challenging, is nothing more than to be a branch – united with Jesus the Vine – so that we bear the fruit of God’s love to others. “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them." And as He remains in us, we are able to feed others with the joyful fruit of our discipleship.