by Metropolitan Mor Eustathius Matta Roham
Archbishop of Jazirah & Euphrates Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese
(Delivered on Tuesday 27 September 2011 at the Assembly Planning Committee meeting in Bexco, Busan, Korea)
The creation of God is amazing. When we look around and see all the living things in the world, plants and animals alike, we are filled with amazement at the God who created them.
As a child I grew up in Mesopotamia. When I was a little boy my family had a grapevine in our garden. It produced a small number of grapes, but we still had to purchase some from the market. The largest grape cluster I ever saw was less than one kilo. And because I never saw a bigger one, I thought that this must be as large as they get.
About fifteen years ago, when I was traveling through the Christian Valley in Syria with one of my priests, I had the opportunity to help two farmers, a husband and wife, who were in need. Their tractor had broken down beside the road as they were returning home. As we pulled up beside them we asked if there was anything we could do to help. The husband chose to stay with the tractor until someone could come to help him fix it. But he wanted to make sure his wife was back home before dark, so he asked us to take her home. We gave the woman a lift to her house, which was in a village called Kfar Ram. In fact, as it turned out, she happened to live next door to the priest of Kfar Ram, whom we were going to see. We dropped her off and entered the priest's house.
After we had sat with the priest for about five minutes, the woman came knocking at his door with a gift to thank us for helping her. To show her thankfulness she had brought over the largest cluster of grapes I had ever seen in my life. She asked us to share these grapes with her. Of course we wanted to!
I asked the priest how much the grape cluster weighed, and he replied that it weighed more than 7 kilos. Can you imagine? He later told me that this was not the largest he had ever seen. In fact, the grape clusters in this part of Syria are well known to grow to more than 10 kilos.
When I think back to this cluster of grapes, the Arabic phrase that comes to mind is MASHALLH.
In English this means 'this is what God has willed.' It is an expression about the greatness of God. When we see something like this giant grape cluster we think about the greatness of God's creation�He is the giver of life. And He gives it with abundance.
Each one of us may read John 15:1-17 and focus on a different part. There are many commentaries available that provide wonderful insights into this passage. Yet the text itself uses a very simple image that Jesus liked. The people to whom he was speaking knew about vines; they were familiar with them. They knew the relationship between the vinedresser, the vine and the branches.
Jesus wanted to reveal that the relationship He has with the Father and His followers is very similar to the relationship between the vinedresser, the vine and the branches. This is a very real and powerful image for Jesus to use in addressing these people. Those listening to Him could immediately start to develop an intimate understanding of what he is talking about.
And he is talking about a relationship of harmony, a relationship of taking and giving, that is based on cooperation between the vinedresser and the vine, as well as between the vine and the branches. You see, the vinedresser must first plant the vine; then he must take good care of the vine throughout the season. To do so, he must give the vine good soil and the proper amount of water. But he must also prune away the dead parts of the vine when necessary.
And then there is the cooperation between the vine and the branches. The stem of the vine takes from the soil all the nutrients and water it needs to grow and spreads these resources out to the branches. The branches in turn become healthy and later yield bounteous grapes for the vinedresser. These processes work together, in relation to one another. If these relationships were not based on a deep level of cooperation, the whole growth process would be stopped.
When we talk about the fruits of the vine, most people might think only about
the grapes and what we can make from them. Certainly much can be made from the
grapes: red and white wines, grape juice and raisins, and we can even cook the
raisins with rice. But we must also remember that the vine has leaves. Have you
ever had YALANJI? This is a dish of grape leaves stuffed with rice but without
meat. It is a very healthy dish for those who are fasting. And have you ever had
YAPRAKH? This is another dish of grape leaves, but this one is stuffed with rice
and meat. But I hope you don�t expect me to continue talking about Middle
Eastern food! I will confine myself now just to spiritual
Indeed there are some branches on the vine that have leaves for only a period of time. They have yet to produce grapes, but they are still useful; they need only time to start bearing fruit. So we must remember that the fruits of the vine are different. Just as God gives different gifts to different people, so His blessings are not all the same. There are always a multiplicity.
When I was asked to prepare this Bible study a couple of weeks ago, I started to think about where can I find justice in the parable of the vine. At first, I thought to myself, I can find peace here, but how can I find justice in the passage? And how can I relate the parable to the theme of our 10th General Assembly, which we are planning to hold here in Bussan in 2013, God of life: Lead us to Justice and Peace?
When we look at the image of the vine, there is peace because there is harmony. But we can find justice there too, because God has given a variety of gifts to the branches according to his wisdom.
All the branches that remain steadfast in the stem of the vine remain strong. The older ones remain healthy. The newer ones grow in strength and health. The longer they stay with the vine, the more able they are to produce grapes. As we stay with Jesus, who is our vine, the same will be true for us. As we abide in Christ, we are able to produce the fruits of Christ. Christ says, the more you grow and abide in me, the more you will be able to grow and become stronger.
And what are these fruits? We must remember St. Paul's words to the Galatians. They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. As St. Paul says, "against such things there is no law." We might add that without such things there can be no life in God's vine and certainly no grapes on the branch.
The grapes that grow on this spiritual vine are the good works of the people. All humanity, all peoples of all cultures, will come to eat of the grapes, of the fruits of the branches. The grapes are not just for his followers, but should be enjoyed by all other people.
Again, when I remember the size of that grape cluster in the priest's house, I still think to myself, MASHALLAH. But not every branch can bear clusters like these. Imagine the branch that bears this much fruit. It must be a very strong branch, not like every other.
Regardless of size or how much it produces, every branch is close to the heart of Jesus. Even the new branches that do not have fruit yet still have leaves. They are still useful to Jesus and to other people. Jesus will feed them, and over time they will bear much fruit - if they continue to abide with Jesus.
If the branch does not take strength from the vine any longer it will become weak and wither. If that happens, the vinedresser will have only one choice�to cut it off. But if a branch is no longer attached to the vine the only thing it is good for is the fire. That is Gehenna�punishment.
A disciple of Jesus who is concerned only with the works of the flesh is like a branch that has abandoned the stem of the vine. Any branch that is not taking nourishment from the vine will be cut off. Such a branch is weak and can easily become ill from disease. A branch withers when it is exposed to disease.
In that same letter to the Galatians, St. Paul writes about these diseases. Such things are fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, having a party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like. When these things take the place of the fruits of the Spirit we can say that this branch is dead. When the branches are not abiding in the stem of the vine they will die. They will wither and be cut off.
Could you imagine a vine without branches? What do you think we should call a vine that did not have any branches? It would be nothing more than a stick.
When we look at this image as a whole, we learn something about the pattern of the life of the Christian. We see that one must abide in Christ, for he is the true vine of God. Just like the real branch must keep close to the vine, so too must we Christians remain with Jesus.
We might otherwise think that we should be called servants of Christ, but he does not call us servants. The relationship between Christians and Jesus is not of servant and master. Our relationship is not one of humiliation. We the followers, the believers, are not marginalized in our relationship with Jesus.
The relationship between the vine and the branches, between Jesus and his disciples, is not a shallow one. When English Bibles translate this word as "friend", they misrepresent Jesus' intended meaning. The word 'friend' is a very open, flexible word. It can be used to describe both very shallow relationships and very deep ones. When we read this passage in Syriac we find a deeper meaning than just "friend". We find the word ROHME, meaning "beloved ones." This suggests a very intimate relationship between Jesus and his disciples. It is a relationship based on love. Out of his love, Jesus gives us life. And in return, we give back to Jesus the good fruits of our humanity.
What we give to Jesus is shared by the whole of humanity: this is justice, conveyed by the giving of our gifts and of ourselves. And we must give. If the grapes are on the branches and nobody picks them they will dry up and be useless. But if they are picked from the vine they can be shared with others. The fruits we bear are for others. We do not keep these things for ourselves. The very act of sharing is an act of justice.
When I keep these things for myself, I am being selfish and not thinking about others. When I share things with another person, this is also an act of self-giving. When we present our fruits to Jesus we give ourselves to Him, as He gave Himself for us on the cross. When we give of our gifts to others, we are sharing with them the gifts of God.
In the act of sharing lies justice. Sharing the gift with others is what God wants us to do. He does not want us to be selfish. He does not want us to neglect the needs of others. So we must give of the gifts given to us. When we do, there is justice. And we must recognize the simple truth that without justice, there is no everlasting peace.
The good things God wants to share with his beloved ones are the good gifts he gives to us. He gives us these things in order that we might share them with others in need. And if we would really put this principle into practice we would find peace, and war would be no more. It is in giving, the giving of ourselves and of our gifts, that we find justice and peace.
Let us pray:
We thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, for bringing us all together to Korea, to
please our eyes and our thoughts with the vine that you have planted in Korea.
So many flourishing churches here are like the flourishing branches in the true
vine, Jesus Christ. We praise you for the fruits that these Korean churches are
sharing with all the
people of this great nation. We pray that the vine tree that you have planted here will grow larger and larger, so that all the people of this nation will come and enjoy its fruits, the fruits of joy, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, unity, justice and peace. Amen.
BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSIONS: JOHN 15:1-17
1.How does the parable of the vine and branches challenge you to make a choice between life and death?
2.Try to explore the following themes in this parable:
a) sharing the love of God with our neighbors
b) Justice for all creation
c) Harmonious relations lead to peace
For more commentaries and sermons see:
Sermons for the Pentecost Sunday
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