The vine and the branches
(Readings: Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday underline the hopeful or optimistic aspect of the Christian understanding of human nature. The grace that God offers us means that we can overcome the weaknesses and the morally evil tendencies that afflict us, so that salvation and holiness of character are real possibilities.
To begin Mass let's think of the occasions when our response to God's grace hasn't been as wholehearted as it might have been and ask God for his pardon and strength.
The gospel passage we just listened to is from one of the chapters in Saint John's gospel where Jesus is speaking in figurative and rather mystical language about different aspects of our relationship with God, and about our relationship with Jesus himself: he is the vine, he says and the Father is the vinedresser.
In large sections of St. Johnís gospel Jesus' style of speaking in this passage is very different from what we find in the other gospels. Possibly what we are really reading is a meditation composed by John, based on his own prayer, his own experience of God, his own close relationship with Christ after Jesus' resurrection.
In any case, in this particular passage Saint John describes the relationship between us and God by using the image of a vine, and especially the image of the relationship that exists between the individual branches and the main body of the plant.
First of all it's a close relationship, where we allow ourselves to be changed and shaped by God. "Make your home in me, as I make mine in you". Second, on our part it's a relationship of dependence. "Cut off from me you can do nothing," Christ says.
The one-sidedness implied by that would probably irritate the sort of person who can only tolerate relationships between equal partners - and after all, that's most of us, most of the time: we don't like being treated in a subordinate way.
But the more we progress in our relationship with God, the more we realise that that relationship is an unequal one, and a dependent one. It's more like the relationship between a parent and a child than a relationship between equals - as Jesus often said.
And then, last of all, it's a relationship that, over time, has the effect of being productive, or fruitful: "Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty". Our relationship with God brings about a kind of spiritual maturity, like a plant being carefully pruned and producing a good harvest of fruit.
The second reading, which is also written by Saint John, talks more specifically about what this fruitfulness consists of: qualities such as a heightened awareness of truth, greater sensitivity of conscience and a sense of the good, deeper commitment to a way of life based on God's commandments, and a love for our fellow human beings which is real and active, Saint John says, and "not just words or mere talk".
These are all the ways that God has an impact on us, and it's all what you might call St. John's theology of grace. Because when we talk about God's grace, what we're talking about is the influence that God has on us, and the way he influences us - the particular direction he moves us in - if we're open to him.
We don't conjure up a healthy spiritual life for ourselves out of our own resources. We're only the branches, and our life comes from the main vine and from the skill of the vinedresser.
As I said already, these aren't images that suit everyone, and the picture of our relationship with God that lies behind the images maybe goes against the grain of our modern idea of ourselves, controlling and directing everything according to our own plans, with all our own intelligence, practical skills, man-made techniques and so on. People today typically prefer to feel that they're in charge, autonomous, free to choose, rather than dependent in some sense on God and Godís grace.
When people live without reference to God they tend to believe one of two things. They either believe that, as human beings, weíre capable of living a good moral life, and capable of creating a good moral society, by drawing purely on our own resources. They have an optimistic understanding of human nature: people are capable of self-sacrifice, generosity towards others and so on, and that itís possible to create the conditions in society that will bring out these qualities in everyone.
Or else they take a pessimistic - even despairing - attitude towards human nature, because they look around and all they can see is greed and violence and everyone wrapped up in their own selfish aims: the reign of sin, as we might say. Then the belief is that no matter what you do to alter social conditions - maybe make them perfect, if that were possible - but the more destructive and selfish impulses that motivate men and women will always somehow break through and spoil everything.
In an earlier period the optimistic attitude was widespread. Today thereís a more tangible feeling of foreboding and despair not far below the surface of peopleís consciousness.
St. John's conviction, which is really the classical Christian conviction, cuts across both these views. The Christian view of human nature is that on the one hand, we're not capable, by our own efforts, of advancing very far, in terms of truth and conscience and love and so on. But on the other hand, we're not irredeemably corrupt either.
When we place ourselves under God's influence, and when we recognise our need for God's grace, we start to rise to the dignity that we're meant to have. Selfish preoccupations lose their grip over us, and bit by bit, we grow in holiness and spiritual maturity.
But to produce those kinds of fruits, in St. John's language, we always need to "remain part of the vine" and not get cut off from it. It's when our relationship with God is severed that the branches just wither and then eventually, in his image, get thrown on the fire.
So the Christian view about our moral and spiritual capacities is optimistic without being sentimental, and it's realistic without falling into despair.
This is the insight, I think, that Saint John came to through his own relationship with God in those early years immediately after Jesus resurrection, and this is the insight he's inviting his readers to share by accepting that Christ is the life-giving vine and that we are the branches of the vine, nourished and kept alive only by being joined to him.