Acts 8.26-end; Psalm 22.25-end; 1 John 4.7-end; John 15.1-8
IN THIS Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is “the true vine”. In doing so, he “continues the whole history of biblical thought and language on the subject of the vine and discloses its ultimate depth” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration).
In the psalms and the prophets, the people of God are understood to be the vine (or the vineyard), and God is the “vine-dresser”. Jesus’s teaching both fulfils and exceeds these passages. As C. K. Barrett writes, “fragments of meaning, obscurely hinted at by other vines are gathered up and made explicit by him” (The Gospel According to St John).
Before Christ, there remained a question about how God would respond to human faithlessness and sin. He had raised up Israel as his vine, through which salvation would come to the nations. He had brought the vine out of Egypt, but seemed to have then turned his face from it in judgement (Psalm 80.8-13).
In Christ, this apparent ambivalence comes to an end. In the words of Benedict XVI, “the vine is no longer merely a creature that God looks upon with love, but that he can still uproot and reject. In the Son he has forever identified himself, his very being, with the vine.” The question is now definitively resolved, and God’s action invites a response from all who behold it. In Christ, God has identified himself with the vine. If we are to receive the new life he brings, we must abide in him.
To abide in Christ is to do more than simply believe the right things, or even perform the right actions. “Abiding” is an attitude of the whole person — an attitude of the heart. As our epistle reminds us, to abide in God is to abide in love. And the shape of that love is shown to us by the self-giving at the heart of the Triune God.
Romano Guardini powerfully develops this point. The recognition that God is love reverses our ordinary order of thinking: “God is more than ‘the loving’ one, more than the perfect fulfilment of all existing love, he is Love itself. Turned about, the logical consequence of our thought now recognizes the truth that what we call ‘love’ is only the reflection, often distorted, of an attitude, a power whose real name is God” (The Lord).
Our Gospel passage continues with a warning and a promise. Branches that do not abide in Christ will fail to be fruitful, and so will “wither” and be “thrown into the fire”. By contrast, those who abide in him are told “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
Precisely because “abiding” is an attitude of the heart, Jesus can make this promise: that those who abide in him will be granted their desires. As St Augustine explains, God does not indulge our sinful and self-serving desires. When we abide in him, those desires are transformed: “When someone abides in Christ in this way, is there anything he or she can wish for besides what will be agreeable to Christ?”
It is only when our desires have thus been purified that a loving God will grant them. “Abiding in him when his words abide in us, we shall ask what we will, and it shall be done to us.” This teaching reframes the primary purpose of prayer, which is not to bend God’s will to ours but to abide in him so that we can pray with all our heart “Thy will be done.”
Neither our life of prayer, nor our reading of scripture will be complete unless we abide in the vine. Scripture is written by, and for, communities that are rooted in the life and love of God. This is made clear in our reading from Acts, where the Ethiopian eunuch recognises that he cannot understand the scripture he is reading “unless someone guides me”.
As Jaroslav Pelikan observes, this “plaintive question” is a “persistent theme” of the book of Acts. To interpret a passage of scripture, we must put it in the “total context” of the Church’s confession of faith in Christ (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts). For he is the true vine, in whom alone the “fragments of meaning” in each text of scripture are brought to completion.