5th Sunday of Easter
Life in the True Vine
By Emily VanBerkum
This well-known parable of Jesus as the true vine is found only in the Gospel of John. It contains the last of John’s great “I Am” statements in which Jesus reveals himself to his disciples. It is a rich metaphor that illustrates the closeness that Jesus desires for our relationship with Him.
Jesus makes the parallel that he is the vine and his disciples are like branches. This connection requires us to “abide in him and in his words”- for apart from the vine, branches “can do nothing” and will wither and die.
The metaphor of the vine would have been familiar to Jesus’ disciples as it is often evoked in Hebrew scriptures, with the Israelites- as vines or a collective vineyard called to fruitfulness. In this parable, Jesus distinguishes himself from the Israelites by positioning himself as the vine.
The prophet Isaiah recounts that Israel, as the Lord’s vineyard was called to yield grapes, but over time the vines became withered and grew too wild to be pruned or restored. Jesus’ teaching of love and sacrificial death transformed the vineyard. Jesus is the sustaining energy source that flows freely through vine and branch, bearing an eternal, abiding commitment to nurture the essential, life-giving bond- designed for optimal fruitfulness- between God and God’s people.
“Abide” is a word not commonly used in today’s vernacular. It appears eight times in this short passage, and though it may seem repetitive, it is a word that conveys so much of what Jesus asks of us in relation to Him. “Abide” is a verb that means “dwelling place” or “to remain faithful to or act in accordance with a promise.” By connecting ourselves to Jesus, and opening ourselves up to the life that flows gratuitously between vine and branch, we can bear good fruit and dwell in the faith-filled promise of new life in Christ. In other words, the branch requires the sustenance of the vine because it was created for the vine’s energy source. This parable helps illustrate just how influenced and affected we are by our relationship to Christ, and that nurturing any relationship requires care, attention, and a recognition of its sustaining energy.
The fact that the branch is made for the vine’s own life-source reminds me of St. Augustine’s popular quote from his text Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Nowadays, we may feel especially restless or directionless. We may feel isolated and cut off from that which nurtures our relationship with Jesus and others. We may even think that there is no place for Jesus in our current chaos or disillusionment. To draw from last week’s parable of the Good Shepherd, there are plenty of wolves lurking to make us, as the flock, feel isolated and scattered. Distractions, fragmented attention, and anxieties loom large today, and this build-up of fear and the emotional distancing we establish between Jesus and those around us, causes an erosion of the life force between vine and branch.
But to me, it is this very restlessness that is the key to an abiding relationship. When we start to wither, the energy shared through vine to branch calls us back to dwell in the peace of Christ. We realize that we cannot sustain a relationship with Jesus without opening ourselves up to the source of love that renews and nurtures the vine’s branches. We may have to do some
pruning in our own spiritual life to reconnect with God. Yet Jesus’ sustaining power will never abandon us- for the vine remains attached to the branch, wanting the branch to receive every nutrient that flows from it.
This Gospel reading invites us to be patient with and attentive to our spiritual life. It reminds me that our restlessness or disconnectedness from God or others does not mean a complete turning away or a withering, but rather a sort of clarion call from Jesus reminding us that he is the bridge back into the closeness that God desires for us. Jesus wants us close to him- to abide in his love- which provides us direction, purpose, and a relationship of mutuality.
Finding our way back to God is about seeking a friendship with Jesus and encountering Him in new and surprising ways. In a recent general audience, Pope Francis said that attachment to only one means of connecting with Christ is like “stopping to adore the road to Christ without traveling it.”
Perhaps when we feel restless during this time, it is a signal for our hearts and minds to find their way back to God to reconnect and rediscover the vine’s life-source and find creative ways to serve our neighbor as both Shepherd and sheep. Despite the challenges of this time, may we be open to the quiet restoration of spirit found only by abiding in Christ’s love.