In today’s gospel Jesus called himself the vine, and we the branches. This is one of the many examples of parables drawn from nature and as usual the parallels are drawn to good effect.
The vine was something familiar to those to whom he spoke. A cultivated plant. Particularly appropriate to the early church, often branches were ‘grafted’ on. The stem and roots of early Christianity were unquestionably Jewish, ‘a stem from the root of Jesse’, but many branches of the early church had been grafted from the gentiles, foretold by Simeon, pagans, Greeks and eventually ourselves. In Paul’s words in the letter to the Romans they, and we, were ‘grafted among the rest to share with them in the rich sap provided.’ in this case Paul refers to another cultivated plant, the Olive tree, but the message is the same. It must also have seemed to many Christians that a great many Jewish branches had been lost.
In the case of both the olive and vine the stem and roots provide the lifeline to the branches. Through stem and roots the branches receive the rich nutrients of the ground and that vital supply of water. Without water there can be no growth, the cells of the leaves can do no work and so the leaves wither, dry up and fall off.
Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of the water that he can provide. ‘anyone who drinks of the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again. The water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him welling up into eternal life’
We are grafted onto Christ’s stem. In Christ’s words ‘we have been pruned already’ so that we are able to benefit from this living water that that Jesus offers us.
But the stem cannot force the leaves, the branches to drink. The process by which leaves take water and nutrients from the soil is known in Natural Science as the transpiration stream. The stem of a plant has no heart to pump water into the waiting leaves. The leaves must take their water by a siphon like process. As water is used up through the work of the leaf cells, or as water evaporates into the air around the leaf, a vacuum is set up which ‘sucks’ more water in from the ‘xylem’, tubes leading from the stem and roots. The leaves actively drink. And the amount they drinl depends greatly on how much work is being done in the leaf cells.
This work, carried out in the leaf cells, is not only vital to the plant, but also to all life as we know it. Taking carbon dioxide from the air, and combining it with that water supply from the stem, the cells of the leaf harness the energy of the sun to make sugar, which forms the beginning of all food chains, and oxygen, without which life on earth as we know it would cease. The sugars are used in the growth of the plant and its fruit, and the oxygen is released into the atmosphere. Only by following their purpose and using up the water they were given by the stem can the leaves make the most of this supply of living water, keeping a healthy flow. To do this the vine points its leaves to the light, changing their angle to follow the sun as it crosses the sky. Leaves that are left in darkness soon lose their colour, lose the ability to produce food, lose the power to drink of the water of the stem and will wither and die.
Just as the leaves are given a purpose, and through that purpose drink freely from the vine, so we have a purpose given to us by God through which we can drink of the ‘living water’. Like the leaves which turn to face the sun we also must look towards the light. The light which Paul writes of in his first letter to the Corinthians, that shines in our minds to radiate the light of the knowledge of the glory of God’s glory, the glory in the face of Christ’.
Just as the leaves need the energy of the sun, we must look continually for God’s light, his messages to us in prayer, through inspiration and in the bible. Our faith is in danger if we turn away from that light, like the leaves it will lose colour, lose the ability to work for God’s purpose, drying up, withering. By following the light, and accepting that spiritual energy from the Holy Spirit and combining it with Christ’s living water we can do the work God wants us to and like the leaves, bring the essentials of life to the world around us, producing fruit fit for the kingdom of God.
Just as the leaves of the vine are threatened by the aphid, mildew and disease, Peter in today’s epistle warns us of things that threaten us as branches of the vine. The spite, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and criticism he speaks of are like blotches on our leaves. Like mould or disease they spread out over the surface of our leaves, preventing the life process within and eventually, if unchecked, causing the leaf to wither and die, preventing us from following God’s purpose for us.
Peter’s symbolism of the Keystone, without which the building would collapse, backs up the symbolism of the vine, supporting the life of the branches. As Jesus pointed out:
‘As a branch cannot bear fruit by itself but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.’
Where Peter’s analogy ‘falls down’ for me is that the stone resting on the keystone are there by virtue of their weight. Their role is passive. From Jesus’ words we are called to be more than just stones. We are called to be active, providing the sugar and oxygen needed by all God’s creation. And by actively following our role we draw in a healthy supply of Christ’s living water, giving us a share in the creative glory of God and a place to bear fruit in his Kingdom.