Jesus tells us, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches’. He uses an example from the natural world, familiar and relevant to the people he talked to, to illustrate his message of love and salvation. In the image of the vine there is a rich source of teaching. The source of water and nutrients that each branch needs must come through the stem of the vine. To be cut off from that supply will lead to the decay and death of the branch. Attached firmly to the vine the branch can make full use of those nutrients and the water of life to support rich green leaves and produce fruit in abundance.
In talking of himself as the vine and his father the gardener, Jesus is giving a frightening message. It can appear to us surprisingly brutal and ruthless. If we fail to bear fruit, then we’re for the chop! How can it be the branch’s fault if it doesn’t bear fruit? The simple answer is that if a branch is to benefit from the nutrients and the water then it must actively use them. In a plant the work of creating material for the production of fruit occurs in the leaves. The leaves are turned towards the sun and combine carbon dioxide in the air with the water they receive from the stem to synthesise sugars; the basic food material without which nothing would survive, and of course oxygen, without which life as we know it would cease. A leaf that remains in the dark actually goes yellow and loses the power to photosynthesise. Because it does not use the water it doesn’t draw it from the stem and it will become limp and lose its structure, before finally withering and dying.
If part of a branch becomes diseased, or damaged, it can very often mean that the rest of the branch is affected. As human beings we have built in damage and disease as we have all sinned and blemished ourselves with actions or thoughts that we are not proud of. Like Adam and Eve in the garden this can lead us to take cover from God, remaining as a leaf in darkness. But Jesus tells us that any branch that bears fruit can be pruned so that it can become even more fruitful. God can help us get rid of those things that are a block to our faith, but only if we are active in our faith, making the best of what we are capable of doing, turning our leaves to the light.
One of the amazing things about vines is the ability to graft on branches. Branches from other vines can tap in to the nutrients of the stem and use them to bear fruit. Philip, led by the spirit, shows how this was achieved with the Ethiopian official. This man was searching for spiritual meaning and through active discussion of the faith of Jesus, delving into the very roots of the Hebrew faith from which it grew, became a Christian. The more branches, the more fruit is produced, and Jesus as a stem can support the life of any number of branches. Philip’s active application of the faith and his openness to the message of the spirit helped to increase the fruit bearing capacity of the whole vine. Are we as willing to discuss our own faith with those we see searching for spiritual meaning in their lives?
Of course there comes a time that metaphor needs to be broken down. It is all very well thinking about water, but we are not drenched every time we pray! So what is the parable trying to tell us? What must we draw from the stem in order to be active in faith? In the letter of John this is brought sharply into focus. Love is the spiritual water that must flow through each of us and be used to generate the fruits of the spirit and the very oxygen that the world around us needs to survive. Love is a bigger thing than we can imagine. We cannot possess or store it. The love we have for those around us does not come from us. It is channelled through us if we use it to motivate the many things we do for our loved ones. It is passed on to them through the fruit we bear, the joy, peace, kindness, gentleness we show to them. Only by bearing the fruits of God’s love can we continue to draw on that love and maintain the health of our branch. Looking around our world we know that it is in desperate need of that fruit. By turning or leaves to the light, allowing ourselves to be led by the spirit like Philip, we can be active in providing the basic food and oxygen of faith to our own community and beyond.