SJF • Easter 6a • Tobias S Haller BSGOver the last few weeks we’ve been hearing portions of the First Letter of Peter, as he counseled and encouraged the church to whom he wrote, in a time of trial and difficulty. He wrote to them as the church, encouraging them and teaching them how to be the church. For this was early days yet — the time in which the church was beginning to emerge and understand itself as somehow different from both the Jews and the Gentiles among whom they lived. They were coming to see themselves not just as a group of individuals, but as a congregation, a church, a people “called out” or “called together” — which is the root meaning of the word ekklesia: church. We have heard Peter describe them as a flock of sheep being led by a shepherd, and last week as living stones being built into a spiritual temple, and as a holy people, a royal priesthood.
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.”
In the same way, week by week in our gospel readings, we have been hearing a succession of images that Jesus used to describe himself, using those words which to any Jewish ears carry special weight: I AM. For I AM is God-language of the first order; in Hebrew it represents God’s identity, the name God used when speaking from the burning bush, when Moses asked what name he should give the people, to know who this God is. And you recall, God answered, IAM who I AM.
Jesus uses this divine language to offer a succession of images for himself: the Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the Gate of the Sheepfold. Thisweek he takes up an image from agriculture, a thing everyone who lived on the shores of the Mediterranean would immediately recognize, for just about family had its vine and fig tree.
Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.... I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers.”
John the evangelist included this passage in his gospel in part because at the time he wrote the church was in danger of falling apart. The pressures that Peter refers to in his Letter were having their effect. The evil and deceitful were assaulting the church; lying tongues were spreading slanderous rumors and false accusations; fearmongers were stirring things up, and the envious were intimidating and threatening the believers. And for some of those believers, the pressure was getting to be too much, and they were falling away, forsaking the church and separating from it out of fear.
So John the evangelist recalls the people to the stern words of Jesus: stern yet comforting — Abide in me, for apart from me you can do nothing. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. This is more than a pep talk — let’s work together for the good of all. This is an alert and alarm, a warning call to stay together to face the storm, like mountaineers tied together with ropes so that they don’t get separated in the snowstorm. Stay together, folks! For if a branch is cut off from the vine, that’s the end of the story: the cut-off branches wither, are gathered up, thrown in the fire and burned. There are no options here, Jesus says: we abide with him or we perish.
So both Peter and John are counseling the virtue of fortitude — a kind of patient endurance to put up with the pressures from within and without, not to pay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; not to give in to insecurities and doubts; to hold fast and abstain from evil; to seek peace and pursue it. This is what the church is called to do and be, and by doing and being so, by remaining connected to the vine, the branches can and will bear much fruit.
Now, this was the message to believers, to the people already within God’s covenant, already incorporated into him: a call for patience and perseverance. But what about those outside? What about those who have not heard the message? What is to happen to them?
Well, in our reading from Acts we have Paul’s sermon to the Gentiles, right there in the heart of Athens, the intellectual center of the Greek world, a city full of religion, but not yet acquainted with the faith.
And so Paul seizes this opportunity, taking advantage of the Greeks’ intellectual curiosity and religious sensibility — a sensibility so fine they have an altar to an unknown god just to be sure they haven’t left anyone out — for in Greek mythology offending a god can mean big trouble!
And what Paul tells these rather astonished people is that God is both bigger than they ever thought, but also far more intimately connected with them than any of them ever imagined — except for their wisest poets. God is the creator of the universe and Lord of heaven and earth, so great and grand that “in him we live and move and have our being.” God is not an object to be placed under human control, an idol ofbronze or gold or stone. Rather God lives, and is the source of our life, in whom we exist and apart from whom we can do nothing, so that we can rightly call ourselves “his offspring.” We live because of God.
So it is that Paul is giving the Athenians the same message Jesus gave the apostles, the same message that Peter gave to the early church and John recalled to them in his Gospel: God is our life. Apart from God, separated from God, either by our own choice or by falling prey to the demands of others or the pressures of life, we will perish. Like mountaineers whose rope breaks, we will become separated in the storm and perish; like the branch cut off from the vine we will wither fruitlessly, and end up in the bonfire.
God does not want this. God wants each and every one of his children to grow and be nourished and bear the fruit of goodness that comes in time for all who abide in him. There are people abroad at present seeking to divide the church, to cleave the vine or lop off the branches that don’t suit them — forgetting that it is God who is the vinegrower and only God knows how and when to prune the branches — and that he does so not to remove them from the vine but so that they can bear even more fruit! There are people out there saying that the church is falling apart, spreading fear and malicious slander. But don’t you believe them; as an old saying goes: the church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. Plenty of branches have cut themselves off in the past, sects thinking they were in possession of “the truth” when they had merely obsessed a single issue out of all proportion, cults thinking they could do it all on their own, trying to drag others with them — and where are they now?
Rather let us, sisters and brothers, stand firm in our resolve to remain together in Christ: as a Christian family, a royal priesthood chosen and precious to God, branches of God’s vine. Let us pray for the strength of God’s Holy Spirit to comfort and encourage us to remain united in the one in whom we live and move and have our being, even God the Almighty, who with the Son and the same Spirit is worshiped, praised, hallowed and adored, now and for ever.