Grace and Judgment

Fifth Sunday of Easter Scripture Readings

I see two themes in today’s Scripture readings. One is “grace,” and the other is “judgment.” The image of the vineyard is prominent in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the teachings of the prophets. Israel is presented as the vineyard of the Lord Yahweh, and Yahweh is shown as the vintner. Jesus makes use of this image in several parables, particularly with reference to the vineyard bearing fruit … or not. Here, in this passage from Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus identifies himself as the vine the Father has planted. Because this gospel has been chosen for this particular Sunday in the Easter season, we have to ask what its relationship to the resurrection might be.

Jesus begins this discourse by saying, “I am the vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” Just like in last week’s gospel passage, it begins with an “ἐγω ἐιμι” (ego eimi) or “I AM” statement, expressing Christ’s oneness with the Father, Yahweh God. The limitless life of the Father is the sap that enlivens and empowers the Son. It’s that life force—the Spirit—that empowers Jesus in his mission and raises him from death to life. It’s that very divine life force that we identify as the Holy Spirit of God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. The point of the figure of the grapevine is that the divine life of the Holy Spirit that enlivens Jesus, the vine, flows also through us, the branches. Just as the life of the Father is wholly present in the living Son—there is neither difference nor degradation—so, that same life of the Father, enlivening the Son, flows through us without difference nor degradation.

What do we know about this divine life of the Father that flows through the Son and thus through us? In today’s second reading from the First Letter of John, he explains, saying, “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them ….” These commandments are not like the commandments of the Torah. They’re not the “Ten Commandments.” John tells us, “… his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.” The essence of sharing the divine life is remaining anchored in the love of Christ and sharing our love unreservedly with one another. The living, resurrected Christ lives in us, and we in him as love incarnate. John explains what he means when he says, “… the way that we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.” It’s that Spirit of life and of love that we share which we call “grace.”

The gift of divine life and love that flows from the Father through the Son and into us is given not for our own benefit or wellbeing alone. Just as it was incarnate in Jesus for our sakes and not for his alone, so grace has become incarnate in us for the sake of others, and not for us alone. The gift of the Spirit of love that enlivens and empowers us is given for the sake of others. That is the fruit of the vine of which we’re the branches. We know that we’re connected to him if we’re compelled to love others. We may think that God’s grace falls mystically from heaven like the dew onto those he chooses to receive it. But that’s not the reality that’s been shown us in Christ. John writes at the conclusion of the prologue to his gospel, “From his abundance, we have all received one gracious blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ.” [John 1:16-17] If that’s true, and the same sap that runs through him, the vine, runs through us, his branches, then God’s grace takes flesh in our world through our love.

I said that the themes of today’s readings were grace and judgment. What about judgment? We so misunderstand the concept of judgment. We think of it as punishment and condemnation, and we ourselves use it that way with one another, to our own detriment. Let me tell you a story. When I was a youngster, there was a telephone pole across the street from our house. Early one summer, we heard the loud cawing of crows building a nest up on the pole. It annoyed my mother. “Those darn crows,” she said. “They kill the baby birds and chase the other birds away.” But the nest was barely out of our reach, so my brother and I, along with a couple of neighborhood kids, started throwing things at the nest and poking at it to chase them away.

Before long, a police car drove up, and the officer tried to shoo us away, telling us to leave the birds alone. My mother came out to talk to him. He told her that a neighbor had complained that we kids were bothering the birds. Mom told him we weren’t bothering the birds, we were saving them from the crows. He drove away.

What’s wrong with that picture? Let me tell you. Starting with my mother, we’d all convinced ourselves that, because of the way they behaved, crows weren’t birds. And that’s how we humans justify our judgments of condemnation of one another. We start from the premise that one person or group of people for some reason have relinquished their humanity and so they don’t deserve to be treated like us. That, dear friends, is not the way God operates. On the contrary. No matter what, God does not withdraw his love. Look at the gospel reading. God “takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit ….” When we fail to transmit to our world the grace of God that we have received, our own life force dries up. We wither on the vine. We become useless. God doesn’t so much lop us off from our connection to him, but, as lifeless twigs, we fall away on our own.

That’s a lesson I think we can take away from today’s readings. God doesn’t abandon us for making mistakes or for our bad decisions. That’s just the pruning Jesus is talking about. We wither and die spiritually only when we fail to bring God’s love into the world. We’re called to be sacraments of the living God—outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace. When we bring life and love into the world, we live. When we fail to do so, we wither for then we’re no longer conduits of God’s grace. The Lord says to us as he said to his disciples, “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

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