It is my usual custom to include many extracts from many Fathers in these patristic commentaries, but occasionally, one Father seems to me to demand centre stage. This is one such occasion, and so this is from St Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on the Gospel of St John.
St Cyril of Alexandria begins his commentary on this chapter by reminding us that God is love, and here Jesus wants to show us how important it is to love him, to hold fast to our love for him, and to emphasise how much we gain from that love. This is why, by way of illustration, he calls himself the ‘vine’. Those united, anchored and rooted in him, who are already partakers in him through the Spirit, are the branches. It is the Holy Spirit who unites us with Jesus, and our connection with him which anchors us firmly in him.
It is the function of the vine to nourish the branches, and of the tiller of the soil to tend them. If we think about this in the right way, we see that neither of these functions, if performed apart from the Son or the Spirit could sustain the whole. Everything proceeds from the Father, by the Son in the Holy Spirit. So it is appropriate that the Son calls the Father a vinedresser, so that no one should think that the Son is the only one who exercises care over us; providential care over us is a distinct activity of the whole Trinity.
But if our only demonstration of union in Him is through a barren confession of faith, and we do not seal that bond through the fruits which true union with him will bear, than we are dead branches, in us there is no sap, no life: as St James tells us, faith without works is dead. The vinedresser will cut off such dead wood, because, as we know, pruning the vines helps them to produce more fruit. The Word of God cleaves away the dead wood and allows the vine to flourish. Reproof, addressed to sinners, has for its aim their salvation, by calling them from their sin to work with the brethren as one.
God works with those who have chosen to live by his law and in his love, and to do the things which union with him draws forth from us; it is not possible to be in him and for there to be no works of faith; we see faith in the works. The Spirit prunes here, too: with some, it is the pleasures of the flesh that are cut away; with others, other temptations that would lead us to hell; purgation involves suffering, and if we are in Him we cannot avoid suffering: for the dead branches, this will mean they are cut away; for those which can bear fruit, it means some pain and suffering, but it will yield a better fruit. Let, therefore, the fervour that shows itself in works be combined with the confession of the orthodox faith in the true doctrine of the Trinity
Here, Jesus makes a convincing demonstration to his disciples of the art of the purifier of their souls. They are purged only by participating in his word – that is the divine guidance. No other power can do this. The Word purges us; the husbandry of our souls is attributed to God the Father. For his living Word – ‘is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’ God reaches into the innermost depths of our soul and reveals our hidden purpose; it brings its keen edge to bear on our vain pursuits by the work of the Spirit. All things work for our profit in the attainment of virtue.
Without life-giving sap from the mother-vine, no grapes can be produced; so, no fruit of virtue can come from those who have fallen away from inmost union with Christ. Just as the root of the vine distributes to all fruitful branches the benefits of its own natural qualities, so, too the only-begotten Word of God imparts to the saints, as it were, a likeness to his own nature and the nature of God the Father, by giving them the Spirit, insomuch as they have been united with him through faith and perfect holiness.
Can we really say that bare faith alone is sufficient to attain the fellowship that is from above? Even the demons believe, so belief by itself is not sufficient – else the demons would not be demons but would be saved by knowing God. No, there must be faith in God, and a repentance of sins and an amendment of life: if we do this, then we bear much fruit and through that is the Father glorified.