Our reading today comes from a section of St. John’s Gospel that is often called “the Last Supper discourse.” After He washed the disciples’ feet, Jesus spoke at length with them in a most serious manner. This was straight talk; no more parables. We should be keenly interested in every word He had to say.
He begins with a dramatic statement: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinegrower.” To the Jewish ears of His apostles, these words brought to life Jesus’ unique identity as both human and divine. “I am” was God’s most holy Name, uttered only once a year by Israel’s High Priest on the Day of Atonement. God’s “vine” was Israel, the beloved people He formed for Himself through promises made to Abraham (see Ps 80:8-16; Isa 5:1-7; Jer 2:21). In this statement, so brief, Jesus helps the apostles understand that something new was about to begin in Him. The “vine” of Israel had become barren, fruitless. Recall how many parables Jesus used to describe problems in a vineyard. Now, He is taking up Israel’s true calling—bearing fruit for God—and fulfilling it. At last, the “Vinegrower” will be pleased with His harvest. In addition, Jesus’ disciples will be branches on this healthy vine. The Father will remove the dead branches; He will prune the fruitful ones to bear “more fruit.” Jesus tells the apostles that one pruning has already taken place in them “because of the word I spoke to you.” The apostles had been called out of their ordinary lives and had been given the grace of hearing and seeing God’s own Truth in Jesus. Their “yes” to Him was their first pruning, in which they left everything for His sake. During the footwashing, Jesus had told them that although He washed their feet, they did not need to bathe “all over” because they were “clean already, but not all of you.” This helps us see the change that had taken place in the apostles by their association with Jesus, as well as the departure from that change chosen by Judas.
Now, He tells them to “Remain in Me, as I remain in you.” How would that happen if He left them? The communion they had enjoyed for three years would continue when Jesus sent His Holy Spirit to them on the Day of Pentecost. That was the day the apostles began baptizing converts into the life of the Spirit. Repentance, conversion, and baptism would make it possible for the followers of Jesus to have His own life in them. Jesus makes it clear that being His disciple was not simply a matter of trying to follow the example He had set in His earthly life and His teachings. That was perhaps the way it was with other great rabbis or leaders of religions in the world. No, Jesus says bluntly, “without Me, you can do nothing.” The disciples of Jesus are first changed on the inside, by the gift of being grafted into the life of Christ in baptism, as the Church teaches. Then, in the grace of our sacramental life, we are able to choose to follow His example of love. Pope Benedict describes this well:
The Fathers expressed the difference between these two aspects, as well as their mutual relationship, using the categories of sacramentum and exemplum: by sacramentum they mean, not any particular sacrament, but rather the entire mystery of Christ—His life and death—in which He draws close to us, enters us through His Spirit, and transforms us. But precisely because this sacramentum truly “cleanses” us, renewing us from within, it also unleashes a dynamic of new life. The command to do as Jesus did is no mere moral appendix to the mystery, let alone an antithesis to it. It follows from the inner dynamic of gift with which the Lord renews us and draws us into what is His. (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, pg 62)