26An angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
34The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Jesus said to his disciples: 1‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’
Those who attended the Lent Course will remember gospel reading as one of the great I Am’s from John’s gospel. It’s the Parable of the True Vine. Unlike many parables or analogies, the explanation of what it means is mixed in with the narrative. We don’t have to work out for ourselves what the parable means. Jesus explains it to us as he goes along.
God is the vine grower. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. Our task is to remain in place on the vine and to bear fruit. So far, so good.
At first sight it looks a pleasant pastoral analogy. But as the first disciples who heard the story were well aware, vines can be attacked by insects, rot, lack of water, disease and all manner of other threats to its health and its very survival. So we quickly pass from the image of ourselves as the branches, producing much fruit, fed from Jesus the vine, and lovingly nurtured and cared for by God the Father, to a series of warnings about what happens if things go wrong.
We all know that vines cannot be left to their own devices or they will go to wrack and ruin. They have to be pruned. Cleansed of disease. Sprayed. Irrigated. Protected from insects. And so on. All this is not a short term task. Vines do not produce fruit at once – no, it takes years of careful tending and nurturing before they fruit at their best.
It’s no good being too kind to a poorly performing vine. Branches have to be pruned even when healthy. When they are withered or diseased, they have to be ruthlessly cut out if the whole vine is not to be affected.
John the Evangelist, writing in Greek, indulges in a little word play. He removes in the Greek is airei. He prunes is kathairei. And you have been cleansed is katharoi.
Playing with words sounds like a joke, but no. The similarity of the Greek words emphasises the process of ruthlessly removing dead wood. Pruning and disciplining the branches. Training them. Cleansing them from infection. Protecting them from frost and attack.
So the familiar task of vinedressing becomes a threat to our very survival as Christians if we do not abide in Christ and bear fruit. The Christian who falls away is likened to a branch that is trashed. It withers and is burnt. The parable does not make comfortable reading. It is of course an allusion to the Last Judgement.
Will this happen to me, we are all asking ourselves? The positive side of the parable follows, as Jesus tells his disciples about the efficacy of prayer and the glorification of the Father. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. We have of course to ask in Jesus’s name, which means our prayer must conform to his will. After all, we are a part of him. The branch is part of the vine. It has no separate existence – in fact it must remain attached for its very survival.
Why should we pray? My Father is glorified by this. And how is God glorified? …that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. Those are the two linked reasons: we glorify God by becoming disciples of Jesus, and by becoming his disciples we bear much fruit.
It’s a learning process, rather than an evangelising one. The word for disciple does not mean a kind of follower. It means a learner. We have to just stay rooted in Christ in order to learn from him. The other positive message is that tending a vine is a long term, nurturing, loving process. That is the lovely picture we have of the Father as a vinedresser. He is not in it for the short term, and whilst the process of pruning can often feel painful to us, we have the confidence in knowing that it is all for our own good and in order that we may bear fruit that we feel we are being chastened in this way.
As for cleansing, that should already have taken place. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. It says in verses 3 and 4.
So let’s learn the lesson of the True Vine. Jesus is the True Vine. God is the vine grower. We are the branches. We have already been cleansed by his word. The Father trains, nurtures and prunes the vine. All we must do is remain in Christ. Then we will bear fruit and glorify the Father.