Jesus said, “I am the true vine…” (NRSV, John 15:1)
What really went on in the heart of Judas Iscariot must remain a mystery: what St Paul calls “…the mystery of iniquity…” (King James Bible, 2 Thessalonians 2:7). Yet, although the full depths cannot be plumbed, the general process by which Judas the Apostle became Judas the Traitor is easy to see, if hard to comprehend. He was the only one of the Twelve who ceased to love and trust Our Lord.
He had reached that state of mind a year before the Crucifixion, and Our Lord had been instantly aware of it. After his instruction on the Blessed Sacrament, recorded in the sixth chapter of St John’s Gospel, Our Lord said plainly and openly, “…there are some of you that do not believe”, and the evangelist adds, “For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him” (NRSV, John 6:64, our emphasis).
This loss of faith in Our Lord severed Judas’ union with him, and that severance in turn led him to commit the sin of embezzling from the common purse. The three went together.
At first he had been attracted by Jesus, had followed his call, and had been one of his company. But the Divine love which began by drawing him, ended by repelling him, until on Maundy Thursday, when the Twelve were all with Jesus in the Upper Room, Judas “…went out. And it was night” (NRSV, John 13:30).
It was then that Jesus said to the Eleven, “I am the vine, you are the branches…Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers…” (NRSV, John 15:5,6). Thus did the separation of Judas become final and complete. He had been with Christ, but not of Christ: he ended by being without Christ altogether.
The bond, which unites us to Our Lord is our faith and our love, a personal relationship in which we accept him with complete trust as our Lord and our God; not as a figure the past whose precepts should be followed, but as the Living Lord of the present with whom we share our being and our life.
Those who have best understood this union with him and realised it in their own lives, have endeavoured to describe it in many similes – the fire in the heated iron, the sun in the burning ray, the wax and the stamp upon it. The vine and the branches, however, have this truth which the others lack – they form a living union together.
But without that bond of faith and love on our part there can be no personal union with him at all. One may, to all appearances, be a good Church person, a regular communicant: but unless there is that inner personal relationship uniting oneself to him in trust and in love, then one is with Christ but not part of him – like a withered branch through which the sap has ceased to flow, and which, though outwardly attached to the vine, is inwardly separated from it and so bears no fruit. As Jesus said, “…apart (i.e. separated) from me you can do nothing” (NRSV, John 15:5).
But when we are drawn to Jesus because we cannot do without him, then his life flows into us and a strong and Christ-like character appears. For such a character is not something which one can create on one’s own. Just as a cluster of grapes, although it grows on the branch, is still the fruit of the vine, so a Christian character is really the character of Christ which is formed by him in the soul that is a living part of himself: “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” (NRSV, John 15:5).
If Judas is the classic example of the vine branch that withers and is cut out, Peter the Apostle is the vine branch which is pruned. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower….Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” (NRSV, John 15:2).
Peter’s confidence in Our Lord, which bound him to his Master, was firm enough for him to be the first to declare the secret of his identity. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (NRSV, Matthew 16:16). But Peter’s confidence was not so unquestioning that he was prepared unreservedly to accept Our Lord’s judgement and to follow wherever it led.
So when, immediately afterwards, Jesus went on to tell the disciples how he must go to Jerusalem and be crucified, Peter rebuked him saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (NRSV, Matthew 16:22).
At this stage he preferred Our Lord’s will to his own only in principle: his confidence was still shallow enough, for him on particular issues to insist what that will in his opinion ought to be. And just as Judas Iscariot’s lack of trust severed his union with Our Lord and led to his betrayal of his Master; so the feebleness of Peter’s trust weakened his union and led to his denial.
And Peter’s faith was given soundness and vigour only by his suffering an experience which Jesus compares to pruning by the vine-grower’s knife. “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times’. And he went out and wept bitterly” (NRSV, Luke 22:61,62).
No one will ever know or even guess the turmoil which rocked poor Peter’s soul from that moment until Easter morning when the Risen Christ gave him absolution. It was an experience which he himself, so far as we know, never referred to afterwards, but as a result of it his faith was from then onwards unquestioning and unconquerable; his union with Our Lord was immediate and unrestricted; and the fruit was seen in the heroic sanctity of his life and martyrdom.
And so a few weeks after the Resurrection, when the Risen Christ breakfasted on the shore of the Lake of Galilee with Peter and six other disciples, he solemnly restored Peter to his position as the Prince of the Apostles, and entrusted him with the threefold commission to feed Christ’s lambs and to shepherd and feed Christ’s sheep.
And Christ was able to do that with complete confidence because Peter, for all his failure and all his faults, was his loyal and devoted friend and disciple; and Christ knew that his flock would recognise Peter’s voice as his own voice, and in following the Apostle they would also follow the Good Shepherd himself whose flock they were.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower….Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” (NRSV, John 15:2).
With St Peter that pruning was his penitence and shame; with others it may be a long drawn out trial of unanswered prayer; of persistent ill-health; of unhappy circumstances, or some personal disaster; but whatever it may be, the fact remains that until our wavering faith in God is put to the test, it must be frail and uncertain and an unsuspected source of weakness in the union of ourselves with him.
But once our faith in him has been made strong through trial or suffering, then in union with Our Blessed Lord there can be formed the more abundant fruit of his strong and holy life.
No one willingly invites suffering, but when it strikes us let us not fling it in the face of God, but rather recognise that the trial of faith which it involves has its place in his plan for us, for “…all things work together for good for those who love God…” (NRSV, Romans 8:28); and once that faith has been made firm and resolute, we are the better able to serve him, by word and example, as he should be served.