During a fierce windstorm late last year, half of a tree in our back yard fell into our house. We had some damage to our home, but it was relatively straightforward to fix, and we paid a fair bit of money to bring our house back to normal. Several months later, we had another windstorm that knocked the other half of the tree into our house, hitting the same spot we’d repaired a few months earlier.
We cut down the remains of the tree that had twice attacked our home, and chopped it into sections. As we pulled back the bark, we discovered that – the tree remained relatively good-looking on the outside – the layers just below the bark had been infected by emerald ash borers, which killed the tree from within while still leaving it a reasonable-looking shell.
As far as my research has told me, this process took several years. It wasn’t an instant plague where a once-healthy tree was transformed over a day or two into a house-attacking death-stump.
I was reminded of this as I reflected on today’s readings. The Gospel of John selection begins with Jesus saying, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” Arguably the heart of the Gospel message today is to be found in today’s Alleluia proclamation (Jn 15:4A, 5B): “Remain in me, as I remain in you, says the Lord; whoever remains in me will bear much fruit.”
These words were so familiar to me that it was hard to think of anything particularly fresh or inspiring to say. But as I reflected upon them and really tried to put myself in the position of one of Christ’s disciples hearing these words for the first time, I realized something I hadn’t fully considered before.
Growing fruit takes time.
When I think of God and miracles, I often think in terms of the instant. The Jews are being chased by the Pharaoh’s armies, and God parts the Red Sea so they can escape. The followers of Jesus are hungry, and he instantly creates bountiful fish and loaves for all to eat. Saint Peter touches someone crippled from birth, “and immediately his feet and ankles grew strong.”
But today’s selection from the Gospel of John revolves around agricultural language: growing vines, bearing fruit, withering and being discarded like branches. And as I considered what these words mean, I realized that most things agricultural take time. Vines don’t grow healthy and sturdy in a day. Fruit isn’t ripe and delicious instantly. Trees don’t wither and die, ready to fall on my house, overnight.
While Christ can – and has – worked instantaneous miracles, most often God’s miracles are more subtle and take more time to manifest. And sometimes that’s a problem for us if we don’t realize that. An addict who wants to quit her vices and joins a 12-step program may be fully sincere in her desire to turn her life over to Jesus, yet she grows frustrated as temptations keep calling; her belief didn’t bear the instant fruit of freedom from addiction. Someone who strives to be a better person and sincerely opens his heart to Christ may yet continue to hurt those around him. Working through the stubbornness of our own problems can take time, even with God’s help.
Conversely, the cost of our sins is not so immediately obvious as to be like a bolt from the blue. The weight of Judas’ sin was so grave to him that he took his own life rather than seek redemption, but for most of us, the straying path is long and subtle. Forgetting to tell your spouse “I love you” probably isn’t a grave sin. Nor is neglecting her birthday. And yet, in aggregate, such missteps can lead to consumption of pornography, a broken marriage, adultery, and other acts that can mortally wound a relationship with God and place a soul in dire jeopardy. In short, by failing to earnestly accept Christ as the true vine, our soul may wither, slated to be thrown into a fire and burned.
We can – and absolutely should – repair our relationship with God when it strays so far. The Sacraments of Reconciliation and, afterward, Eucharist are designed to heal and nourish. Yet, for many, the degradation of that relationship with God is so gradual that they may not realize how far they have fallen, or how much they must atone. The tree in my yard continued to look relatively healthy, until it seemed less than healthy, and – before I knew it – it was dead; now it’s in pieces in a pile on our yard, destined to be thrown into a fire and burned.
Let us, then, recognize that God’s timetable is not our own, and the time God needs for us to bear fruit may not be the timetable that we desire. Our faith that those who remain in Christ will bear great fruit should see us through the times when we may not feel as strongly connected as we would desire. Similarly, let us be ever careful of the dangers of withering; a distance from God can begin with a single misstep, and enough justifiable missteps can make us very lost and endangered.
Christ always chose his words with infinite care, and the nature of our relationship with God was utmost on his mind. We can wither, or we can remain in Christ and bear great fruit. Either possibility may take seasons in our hearts.