Easter 6     10 May, 2015

Year B

It was Henry Ford (senior), automobile engineer and founder of the Ford Motor Company, who famously declared that history is ‘bunk’. I don’t think that Jesus of Nazareth would  agree. Indeed he is reported as having said that he had come ‘not to destroy the Law (which can be understood to mean that he had not come to abolish history) but to fulfil it’. Perhaps it was because that was how he saw himself in relationship to the past that he could say of himself that he was ‘the true Vine’.

It was at the beginning, with Israel poised on the border ready to move in and take possession of Canaan , that Moses sent spies to reconnoitre the land. Their mission accomplished, they returned to the camp bringing with them evidence of the land’s abundant fertility – a huge cluster of grapes, so heavy that it had to be carried on a pole between two of them (Num.13.23). From then on the Vine seems to have had some kind of special significance for Israel . ‘You brought a Vine out of Egypt ’ says the Psalmist,’….You drove out the nations and planted it. You made room for it and when it had taken root it filled the land, its branches stretching to the Sea, and its tendrils to the River’. Isaiah foretold that despite the unpredictable changes and chances and mischances in human fortunes, ‘Jacob would again take root, and Israel would blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit’ (Isaiah 27.6).  That was how Israel wanted to think of itself. To remind themselves of who they were and what they were meant to be, they placed on the façade of the Temple in Jerusalem a great spreading Vine made of gold.  

So in taking this symbol - this metaphor - and applying it to himself, Jesus is claiming to be everything that Israel had been given or promised or was meant to be - fruitfulness and the source of life and gladness for the nations. In identifying himself as the True Vine he is in effect claiming to be Israel - the new Israel . Those who are his are the branches, sharers of his life and fruitfulness, alive with his life and ready to submit, as he himself had done, to the Father’s pruning knife, in order to bear more fruit.          

Today’s Gospel reading spells out for us what are the implications of being incorporated and grafted into Jesus so that we come to be alive with his life. We are to ‘abide’ in his love, so that his love may abide in us. The word signifies much more than residing or dwelling in a particular habitation. It implies stability, continuity, remaining in a particular state or setting and so indicates fidelity, steadfastness, perseverance. However, to abide in the Vine is not a static condition. The Vine is alive, it is a living, growing, developing entity. That is how it is to be with us. Our life with Christ and in Christ is to be a life of growth and transformation. The initiative comes from Jesus. ‘You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last’…fruit that will abide.

In the human realm, those who wish to pursue the quest for Wisdom or Enlightenment choose whatever Master or Guru takes their fancy. It is not so with Jesus. He, the Teacher, the Rabbi, the Master, does the choosing. Throughout the Biblical narrative it seems that this is how God relates to us; it is he who takes the first step, approaches us, taps us on the shoulder and opens the conversation. His initiatives, his choices, are not at all what we might expect. He has a disconcerting way of choosing the improbable and unlikely ones, the powerless ones, the ones at the bottom of the pile, the ones overlooked and ignored by the world and are of little account. Barren women like Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth , who become bearers of the promises. He chooses a nobody like Abraham and makes him a somebody. He chooses Jacob, a shifty trickster, a devious cheat and he becomes the Father of the twelve Tribes. He chooses Moses, a man with a stammer, to be the spokesman before Kings for his people. He chooses David, the youngest and least experienced of his family, the one they forgot to mention when Samuel came looking for the one he was to anoint to be king. To be chosen by God is nothing to do with being worthy, or with having admirable qualities, or the right qualifications. ‘It is not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you’, Moses tells the Israelites (Deut.7.7) ‘for you were the fewest of all peoples’. That is how it is with God - that is the kind of God he is – the God with whom ‘the first will be last, and the last first’ (Mt.19.30). 

As the accounts make plain, to be chosen by God is not necessarily a comfortable or cosy experience. It brings responsibilities and it also brings disruption and the upending of one’s own expectations and personal aspirations. It is a scenario of profound irony. Jesus chooses us and calls us his friends and in doing so turns our world upside down, jolting us out of the rut of what is usual and familiar and predictable. As Teresa of Avila tartly pointed out, it is not surprising that he has so few friends in view of the way he treats them. He chooses us and calls us his friends - servants no longer but friends. In calling us and making us his friends, Jesus raises us to the dignity of equality with himself and of his relationship with the Father.   

As we know, there are degrees of friendship. In the deepest kind we are able to trust that we are accepted and understood just as we are - that there is no need for masks or pretences, no need for the half-truths and evasions with which we habitually try to protect ourselves or promote ourselves in our dealings with one another. The friendship which Jesus offers us and to which he calls us is infinitely more than a breezy and good-natured bonhomie. His is a friendship which if we respond to it will change us, setting us free from the tyranny of the false self, the imperious ego, shaping in us our true identity. To submit to that process requires of us trust and patience. The processes of purgation, of being pruned, are radical and often uncomfortable; in submitting to them we can only trust that the Vinedresser knows what he is doing with us. It is not surprising that Jesus is both the one we long for and also the one we cannot bear. His mercies are severe, his compassion probing and sharp. We are caught in a paradox. As the writer of the Book of Revelation saw, the Lamb at the heart of the worship of Heaven, with the marks of slaughter on him, is also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Like Susan in the Chronicles of Narnia, we might well ask ‘Is he quite safe?’ - she, you may remember, felt rather nervous about meeting a Lion, especially The Great Lion. ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver, ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe but he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you’.

Eric Simmons CR