A tribe in Africa has what we may consider an unusual way of punishing offenders. The one who commits an offence is simply banished from the tribe and is forbidden to have any contact with anyone from it. Research into the lives and workings of these tribes has shown that the one who is so banished has always died within a few days. The reason for the death, researchers point, out is not that the person was not able to fend for him/herself, but the fact that the banished person realizes that such a life is not worth living and simply gives up on life.
The Discourse of Jesus on the Vine and the branches seems to make this very point. It also gives us a beautiful image of Church and in doing so, states emphatically that Christian existence and life is never merely an individual life, but always a life lived in and through community.
The verses of today’s Gospel contain the last of the “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John. Jesus uses a common symbol of the world at that time: Vine. While in 15:1, the relationship with Jesus and the Father is stressed, in 15:5, when the metaphor is used again, Jesus does so in the context of his relationship with his disciples. Thus, the focus of the metaphor is interrelationship. If God is the vine dresser, Jesus is the vine and the disciples are the branches.
While it is easy for most of us to understand God as the vine dresser and Jesus as the vine, it is important for us to understand our role as branches. The first step to this understanding is to note is that on a vine all branches look similar though they are not the same. This similarity suggests cohesiveness and deep inner unity. This unity of the branches is possible only because they grow out of the same vine and it is shown in the fact that all produce the same fruit. This fruit which originates in the vine itself, which is Jesus, is the fruit of unconditional and magnanimous love. Since all produce the same fruit, there is no superior or inferior branch. Each is as precious as the other and is needed to complete the vine. If one branch cuts itself off from the vine not only will that branch wither and die and not be able to produce any fruit, but it will also result in the incompleteness of the vine. This means then that all positions in the Church are only functional and not to be used to dominate or oppress. It also means that each of us is responsible for the welfare of the other.
All too often Christianity has been understood as a religion that has only the individual dimension. The communitarian dimension has been neglected. This is seen in so many of the Sacraments (which are both individual and communitarian) being treated and regarded as private devotions. The approach of many Christians has often been: My God and I. This approach is to misunderstand Christianity and all that Jesus stood for. The metaphor of today makes explicit that mutual indwelling is at the heart of the preaching of Jesus, and that Christianity, while it surely has an individual dimension, just as surely has a communitarian dimension. I am, as a Christian my brother’s and sister’s keeper. Their joys and sorrow, their trials and tribulations, their successes and failures, have to be as real to me as my own if I am to be a Christian in the true sense of the word. The Christian does make an individual commitment and choice to follow Jesus but he/she makes it in and through a community.
This is seen clearly in the first reading of today, in which Saul who became Paul made such a choice. While Paul did have a personal experience of the Lord and was called by him directly, he also had to be accepted by the community who though they were initially afraid because of his past, dared to accept him as one of the branches of the vine. They not only did this, but also made his trial and tribulations their own, protecting him when his life was in danger. In doing so, the community showed in practice what it meant to be part of the vine.
The community lived out the exhortation made by John in the second reading of today in which he asks Christians to love not in word or speech but in action and in truth. The Spirit of Jesus is what sustains the community and constantly reminds them of their status as branches in the same vine. The Spirit that Jesus breathed on the disciples affirms and continues his message of unconditional love. It is a love that makes no distinction, a love that reaches out of itself and a love through which the world will know that he still lives.