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6th Sunday of Easter

26 April 2024

5 May, Acts 10.44-end; Psalm 98; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17

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JESUS has spoken about the true vine. Now he turns to love, friendship, and obedience. But he still keeps the vine in mind, as he speaks about his soon-to-be-apostles, and the fruit that they are to bear, specifically fruit that will last.

“Fruit that will last” is in effect an oxymoron. Of its nature, fruit does not last: think of punnets of strawberries which always have a squashy one at the bottom, or the last satsuma mouldering in the fruit bowl. What, then, is this fruit that will last? Two fruit-bearing trees were named in Eden: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve ate fruit from the latter in Genesis (2.9, 16). Revelation says of the former that its fruit is for healing the nations (22.2).

If we want to make ordinary fruit last longer, we need to employ our human ingenuity, the outcome of centuries of experimentation. We can mix fruit with sugar, or freeze it: ultra-rich Romans shipped in ice from the Alps to chill their food and drink, though it is unlikely that most first-century Palestinian people did likewise.

There is another option: turning it into alcohol. That extends the shelf-life of grapes, but also has pleasurable side-effects: Psalm 104 calls it “wine that maketh glad the heart of man” (v.15 AV). Just as olive oil was seen as miraculous — because oil from the fruit could be stored for many days — so, too, was wine, the “fruit of the vine” (Mark 14.25). It is not only the red colour that influences Jesus’s choice to use it rather than (say) water as the symbol of his life-giving blood. Even God grows vines. And, like Jesus, he expects good fruit to come from them (Isaiah 5.1-2).

Liberated, in real life, from times and seasons of food production, we have forgotten forms of living in which food came seasonally, and successful methods of preservation could be a life-or-death matter. Keeping this in mind will clarify the fullest sense of Jesus’s command in John 15.16.

In Greek, the word for “fruit” is the same as the word for “harvest”: karpos. Fruiting and planting and harvesting are all aspects of the single process, the labour of Cain. Christians do well to remain sensitive to the miracle of food by which a single fruit with its seed (Genesis 1.11) can produce a “fruit-full” harvest, making something out of almost nothing — a something that is good.

Does this miraculous quality include metaphorical fruit? For we also use the word to refer to anything that is the offspring or produce of something else. We talk of the “fruits of our labours”. In Galatians (5.22), Paul talks of “the fruit of the Spirit”, which is not merely a single virtue but a variety of goodnesses.

In Bible-speak, the most familiar example of metaphorical fruit which I can think of is the old-fashioned term “fruit of the womb”. Countless Cambridge students of Hebrew have learned from Fr Andrew Macintosh that it is a “calque”: in other words, a Hebrew metaphor translated literally, first into Greek, then Latin, and, in our time, English. Even the NRSV has kept the archaic expression. Perhaps no better term could be devised for the key Christological witness of Luke 1.42: “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

By nurturing the “fruit of the womb” we play our part, like farmers, in investing in the future. Bringing up happy, well-adjusted children is the biggest challenge that some of us will ever face. But they are not merely the fruit of loins or wombs. They are also a harvest, of love and duty. They, too, make glad our hearts, and in a better way than wine.

What stands out for me about Jesus’s “fruit that will last” is twofold. The first element is forethought: whatever we do for Christ must be done with thought for generations that come after us. Though flowers of grass, we are still part of God’s eternity, and should think about the future as much as the past.

The second is comprehensiveness: “fruit” and “love” are our goals, against which we measure everything that we do and are. “Fruit” guards against “love” becoming self-love. “Love” guards against fruit becoming confined to what is selfish, material. A lack of further specifics from Jesus means that propositional religiosity can never be the mark of a truly fruitful Christian.

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