The Bible, both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, is a work that attempts to reveal who God is, God’s identity. From the very beginning, God has made every possible effort at self-revelation. Everything contained in the Law, the Histories, the Prophets, the Wisdom Literature, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Book of Revelation, and the Letters of Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude have this in common. These works are attempts to reveal who God is.
The most frequent method used in the Scriptures to describe God is the figure of speech we call metaphor. Thus, we have come to call God the light in darkness, the path beneath my feet, our rock, a rampart, a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire at night, the king of the universe, and so many other descriptive titles and comparisons. None of these titles is big enough to describe the reality of God. Consequently, we have to continue to find new ways to describe God and the relationship between God and the human family.
In the Gospel of St. John, most of the metaphors that the evangelist uses to describe our relationship with Jesus begin with the words “I AM.” This was the name that was revealed to Moses as he lay prostrate before the burning bush. Jesus and various characters in St. John’s Gospel use this phrase “I AM” no fewer than ninety-four times. Several of those statements have become very familiar to us; the metaphor used in the Gospel today is one of them. “I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” “I AM the vine, you are the branches.” This metaphor describes our relationship to God. Jesus becomes the conduit through which we, the branches, receive nourishment from the soil, which in this case, is God.
There is a saying among those of us who are English teachers that states: All metaphors limp. Perhaps this is why there are so many such metaphors in the Scriptures. Each of them adds a little to the picture but fails to convey the total picture. So as we look at the metaphor that we read in the Gospel today, what can we take away from it and how can we come to understand God a little more through this word picture?
One thing that I have always thought of when I read this particular Gospel passage is the utter uselessness of the wood that is a branch on a grapevine. Before various crafters came up with the idea to make artificial wreaths out of these branches, no one ever used this wood to fashion a piece of furniture or a safe and secure dwelling such as the pioneers built with logs of felled trees. It isn’t even good as fuel for a fire on which to cook a meal or to keep the room warm. It burns so quickly that it is gone in mere minutes. The ONLY thing that the branch of a grape vine is good for is to produce fruit by using the nutrients that are found in the soil in which it is planted which it receives through the vine.
No one likes to think of themselves as useless. Yet, there is truth in the statement that the branch is useless unless it is connected to the vine, that we are useless unless we are connected to God through Jesus. So the admonition that comes with this metaphor is of great importance: “Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither.” This lesson oftentimes has to be learned the hard way. As much as we like to think of ourselves as “the complete package,” eventually we come to the knowledge that we need God and we need others. In all honesty, we must admit that we cannot “do it all” by ourselves. Remaining with the vine is our only option.
The lesson we hear in the Acts of the Apostles today, is a story that bears out the notion that we cannot do it without help from others. We hear of Paul and his attempts to join with and to preach the Good News to the community of Jerusalem. He couldn’t do it by himself because the people were not convinced that he had changed. They still thought of him as the man who had persecuted them and who had been present at the death of Stephen. If Barnabas had not stood with him, he would not have been accepted. He could not accomplish his mission without help.
The First Letter of St. John speaks to the issue of remaining with Jesus as St. John explains that this means keeping the commandments, especially the commandment to love one another as we have been loved. He writes: “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.”
Jesus also called himself “the Bread of Life,” yet another metaphor that describes our relationship with him. He is the food that nourishes us and strengthens us so we can remain in him. By participating in the Eucharist and by eating his body and drinking his blood, we are closely bonded to him. Once again we are reminded of the importance of making time in our lives for this encounter with Jesus as we come together to worship God with grateful hearts.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator