We are family
Jesus said: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” –John 15:1-2
Although I’ve driven by vineyards in the lake country of western New York and near the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, I know almost nothing about growing grapes. So I went to Google and found the Iowa Extension Service. I’m still not quite ready to start a vineyard, but I did discover a few interesting facts.
First, grapevine branches that are more than two years old don’t produce fruit. They just add excess weight and contribute nothing. So they must be pruned away.
And second, before pruning, an average grapevine may have 200 to 300 buds, which are capable of producing fruit. If the vines are left un-pruned, the number of grape clusters would exceed the capacity of the vine to support them. The vine would be unable to ripen the large crop and the weight would damage the vine. Since most vines can handle only 40 to 50 buds, they must be pruned back a lot in order to be fruitful.
The point of the metaphor of the vine is that its purpose is to be fruitful. The Father is the vinegrower, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. When we stop producing, we’re like old, dead branches that might as well be pruned away and thrown into the fire.
Of course, every parable and metaphor can be carried too far. This isn’t a condemnation of older Christians who’ve been around for two years or more. And neither is it a teaching about the fires of hell. It’s an affirmation that the Church exits to produce the fruit of the reign of God by abiding in Jesus.
And what is this fruit of the vine? It is love. The author of the First Epistle of John affirmed that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16) And St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, proclaimed: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
This isn’t the Hollywood kind of love where people “hook up” for a night or a season. It is, in the Greek of the New Testament, agape: self-giving, other-concerned, other-focused love. It doesn’t condemn or exclude or draw boundaries. It’s the love embodied, incarnated in Jesus as he emptied himself on the cross. Agape is Divine love, love of God, love of neighbor, love of enemy.
This is the kind of love that an exhausted mother exhibits when she nurses her baby at 3 a.m., changes dirty diapers, cleans up after a child with stomach flu, or responds to the grown child’s relationship crisis. It’s the love of an adult child who carefully and patiently tends to the needs of an elderly parent who can no longer remember his or her child’s name. It’s the love that drives people out of the comfort of their homes to care for their next-door neighbor or the neighbor across the city, or even across the globe in places like Nepal.
This agape isn’t found exclusively among Christians. It’s a part of the Divine breath that God breathed into humanity. It’s found among people of various faith traditions and no traditions. But it is stark and jarring when it’s absent . . . as the epistle writer observed:
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. –1 John 4:20-21
Recent studies indicate that many youth and young adults do not believe that Christians are very loving . . . in fact, some say “hateful.” Christianity, as practiced by some, can indeed be quite negative—defined by what or whom they’re against—rather than what they’re for.
But at the end of the day, people are watching us to see if our faith makes a difference. They ask, “Is there love?”
There are powerful images for the church in the New Testament. In addition to the vine and branches, there are the metaphors of the Body of Christ and the ecclesia or assembly of disciples. But what they all have in common is that they’re defined by what holds us together—not by who we keep out. All are welcome—whether born into the faith or grafted in—we’re held together by our bonds and connections to Jesus—by Christ’s embracing love.
One of the things that keeps me connected and inspired is to see these bonds being acted out on a regular basis.
- The deep love with which people say goodbye to and bury their loved ones.
- The agape that welcomes young children as they are grafted into a family of their own by adoption.
- The abiding love that inspires an older couple to try once again as they enter into marriage.
- The commitment to volunteer regularly to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger.
Walk in love, abide in love, be love.