The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, Church of St. Mark and St. Paul on the Mountain, Sewanee

“Abide in me, as I abide in you” (Jo. 15:4).

Easter is a season, not a day. Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead at Passover time, but the church takes a longer season afterward to reflect on the event. St. Luke’s chronology, in his Gospel and Acts, suggests a time in which the risen Lord was present with the disciples. “After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days” (Acts 1:3). Then again, Luke says “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Lk. 24:45). The Easter season models itself on this pattern, as a time of deeper reflection on the Holy Scriptures, and of deeper relationship with the risen Lord.

Our reading from John’s Gospel today invites us engage in the Eastertide activity of growing into the truth of the resurrection, by considering the nature of own relationship with Jesus Christ. “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jo. 15:5), Jesus tells the disciples in our reading, using one of the great metaphors of relationship between Jesus and the church. It’s an organic image of close identification, for who knows where the vine ends and the branches begin? The vine, however, is the source of life for the branches, as “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine” (Jo. 15:4). Distinction between vine and branch also flows from the pruning process: “Every branch that bears fruit [the vine-grower] prunes to make it bear more fruit” (Jo. 15:2). There are also branches that bear no fruit and are cut off and cast away. Vine and branches are closely linked, because the branches depend on the vine.

The image of organic incorporation, of living branches of the true vine, is native to ancient Israel. In Psalm 80, the People of God are likened to a vine, brought out of Egypt and planted in the promised land (Ps. 80:8). In prophetic speech, as in the prophet Jeremiah, a disobedient Israel is called “a wild vine” (Jer. 2:21), a weed run amok. The prophet Isaiah calls Israel “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts,” and Judah “his pleasant planting” (Is. 5:7).

Jesus is changing things up in John’s Gospel by making himself the vine. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower” (Jo. 15:1). His disciples are branches, suitable for trimming, called to bring forth fruit or to be cast away. By this variation, Jesus takes upon himself the corporate identity of the People of God, casting himself as the faithful servant whose obedience fulfills the law and the prophets.

It’s this notion of faithful obedience that makes sense of the rest of the chapter (if we read on), where Jesus identifies keeping the commandments as the key to abiding. And in our reading from the First Letter of John, abiding and keeping the commandments are linked, in turn, to love, in a compelling nexus of Christian practice. Jesus is the true vine, as he says, who fulfills the commandment perfectly. In the same way, by casting himself as the vine, Jesus makes clear the absolute dependence of the community upon the root from which it springs.

The metaphor of the vine and the branches is fleshed out for us today in another organic reality, as we celebrate the Eucharist this Eastertide. Here, in this holy sacrament, we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ, and are made (as we say in our liturgy) “living members” of Christ’s body the church; “living members” of Christ himself. These sacramental signs are a means of organic incorporation into Christ, furthering the reality of our baptism into his death and resurrection. Our partaking in this sacrament is the way in which we share in his risen life. Just as the branches are connected to the vine, so we are connected to him. These are the means of grace, by which we abide in him, as he abides in us.

Our celebration today, the making or perhaps the re-making of St. Mark and St. Paul’s Church on the Mountain, also allows us to affirm another truth of our abiding. As scandalous as it may be to say on such an occasion, congregations come and go, though the church endures forever. The Church is Catholic, with a Catholic vocation that goes beyond particularity to universality. Dedications are made and then changed; many a building placed under the patronage of a Celtic saint, in the British Isles, gave place in time to a Saxon or Continental saint. In the midst of all this, faithful folk continued to abide in Christ, as he abides in us. The church continues to gather, and remembers, in the process of gathering, that Jesus is the source of our life.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee