All who live in me and I in them, bear much fruit (John 15:1-8)
The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD was destruction not only of a building but of a spiritual home and identity marker for the Jewish communities of the Middle East. Without the Temple, the dwelling place of God par excellence, the communities relied more and more on Synagogue worship. Local communities would meet in the Synagogue for prayer, worship and community life. By the time John’s gospel is written the first generation of Christians (the vast majority of whom were Jews) found themselves either excluded or gradually isolated from the Synagogue. They had either moved away from or had removed from them the major symbolic places and rituals of the past. The religious Christian-Jews which is how the first generation of followers of Jesus Christ can be described, were at a crossroads when John wrote his Gospel.
And so the Gospel of John gives many images and symbols for the Christian community to start building their own imagery and to assist in their own development of a ritual life. So it is in John’s Gospel that Jesus is called the Bread of Life – the living bread come down from heaven; the Living Water – the water from which those who drink will never thirst again; the Light of the world (reminiscent of the Feast of Light in the Temple with pillars of fire and light burning brightly). It is in John’s Gospel that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and will not run away when things get tough. It is in John’s gospel that we get the image of many rooms in the Father’s house. And it is in John’s gospel that the image of the vine and the branches is given to us. That is today’s gospel. “All who attach themselves to me and make their home in me will bear fruit and I will live in them and they will live in me”. Jesus himself – the one who John calls the vine – will be the source of life for the community and the impetus for action and the origin of the fruit that his followers bear.
This early community had nothing but him. They were stripped bare of traditional institution and ritual. Something new had to be reborn and that emerged out of fidelity to the one in whom they believed and through innovation in imagery and place. We know they soon gathered in the local basilicas – common and community gathering places.
What of us? In many ways, Christianity is going through another major searching moment or identity crisis. Many of the Christian markers of the recent past have faded away. The pattern of Christian life – holy days, time, season and practice that marked hundreds of years of the western world is no longer the main force behind communal identity.
The challenge for us today is similar to those early Christian communities – to find ways of dwelling in Christ and coming to know him more closely and then see what emerges.
Christ remains constant and the vine lives on. Branches die or are cut off or shrivel and new ones come along. There is great continuity but also change and newness. New taste, new colour, new bouquet. The challenge for us is to go deeper into discovering Christ, the vine, and to be open to where our branches of faith might lead us and ask of us today.
By Brendan Reed