Fifth Sunday of Easter

Reflection: Explaining the vine and branches


Our Easter readings continually draw attention to our union with the Risen Christ and its implications. This week, we contemplate John’s rich metaphor of the vine and the branches, part of Jesus’ “last discourse” (John 14-17). 

Everyone at the table with Jesus knew plenty about grapevines. For those among us who haven’t wandered the vineyard, grapes grow from branches that sprout from a principal vine (trunk). The branches provide the nourishment for the bunches of grapes. Obviously, everything about the smaller vines depends on sustenance from the trunk. 

Jesus’ metaphor illustrates his desire to be the source of life and growth for those who remain in him. Something easily overlooked is that by saying his Father is the vinedresser, Jesus is describing God as a humble worker — not the master of an estate — and he portrays the Father as working continually, caring for the vine and its fruit.

To emphasize his vine image, Jesus goes on to invite the disciples, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” This describes the mutual love he and the disciples share, a love that sustains their life and creates the most intimate relationship possible among them all. 

The first letter of John interprets union with Christ with the phrase, “believe in his name.” Like what we saw with Peter last week, believing in the name of Jesus is not an intellectual affair or even predominantly emotional. Those who believe in the name of Jesus assume his faith as their own. They believe in and through him, sharing his relationship with God and all of creation.

All of that can remain theory, nice head knowledge hardly affecting our hands and feet. The Acts of the Apostles puts energy and flesh on this idea through the example of Barnabas.

When Saul became a believer, many disciples were suspicious. Knowing how dangerous he had been, why would they not suspect that his coming to them was a hoax? They had good reason to be afraid. But somehow, Barnabas saw something different. 

Might they have shared some history? Like Saul (Paul), Barnabas was not among the apostles named in the Gospels. Later, when the title “apostle” no longer symbolized a new Israel, it designated someone who had been given the mission and grace to proclaim the Gospel in deed and word. This broader understanding of apostleship included a variety of people, including at least one woman, Junia (Romans 16:7).

Luke had praised Barnabas as a member of the ideal community described in Acts 4:32-37. He explained that, although his birth name was Joseph, the community called him Barnabas, the “son of encouragement.” Skipping the kind of details we might hope for, Luke says that Barnabas, true to his name, “took charge of” Saul, vouching for him and later accompanying him on mission journeys. 

Might Barnabas have introduced Paul to his sense of Christ living in him and the limitless breadth of the Body of Christ? For Barnabas, life in Christ seemed to mean that his interior motivation sprang from his union with Christ. He needed no command; he was motivated by a natural and grace-filled impulse. 

Recently, Yoli, one of my Peruvian sisters talked about the neighborhood women who continue to organize the ollas comunes, outdoor makeshift kitchens where women prepare donated food for themselves and others who need it. I asked her if the women understood this as an expression of their faith. She said, “I don’t think they think of it as faith, it’s simply their response to a situation of shared need.” 

The women who cook for the neighborhood have imbibed their communal culture. They don’t need a rule or theory to tell them they should take care of their neighbors, they simply do it. As one woman said to me, “When you know what it is to be hungry, you don’t want that for anyone.” I saw the same thing last year in people addicted to drugs who dwelt around a park in Philadelphia. As we shared water and sandwiches with them, people who were alert enough made sure to ask for something for others who were uncommunicative inside their improvised tents. They felt their need.

The Sundays of Easter celebrate the resurrection and the union with God that Christ always offers — with or without our knowing it. Whether from faith in Christ or a natural impulse to love, people like Barnabas, the women, and the addicts I met are fruitful parts of Jesus’ vine. They instinctively appreciate the fact that they share life with others, and like our servant God, they want all to thrive as best they can. To do that naturally is a response to grace that we all need to develop to a greater degree. 

Let’s ask Barnabas to encourage us. 

Reading I

(Acts 9: 26-31)

When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples,
but they were all afraid of him,
not believing that he was a disciple.
Then Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles,
and he reported to them how he had seen the Lord,
and that he had spoken to him,
and how in Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.
He moved about freely with them in Jerusalem,
and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord.
He also spoke and debated with the Hellenists,
but they tried to kill him.
And when the brothers learned of this,
they took him down to Caesarea
and sent him on his way to Tarsus.
The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace.
It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord,
and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.

Responsorial psalm

(Psalm 22: 26-28, 30-32)

Reading II

(I John 3: 18-24)

Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.
Now this is how we shall know that we belong to the truth
and reassure our hearts before him
in whatever our hearts condemn,
for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us,
we have confidence in God
and receive from him whatever we ask,
because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
And his commandment is this:
we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ,
and love one another just as he commanded us.
Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them,
and the way we know that he remains in us
is from the Spirit he gave us.


(John 15: 1-8)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me
will be thrown out like a branch and wither;
people will gather them and throw them into a fire
and they will be burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”