The Rector’s sermon for April 29, 2018    


Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8


“I am the vine, you are the branches. ... apart from me you can do nothing.”  For those who discount Jesus as just a great teacher, not necessarily connected to God, these words probably don’t mean very much.  But to those of us who have been baptized into the life of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, these words means everything!

John includes these words in his gospel as part of what is called the “Farewell Discourse,” almost four chapters of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper.  Jesus knows that his time is almost through and he wants to leave his disciples with words and instructions that they will recall after he is gone.


Last Sunday Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd and he gave us great detail about the shepherd’s job and what it means to handle sheep.   The illustration of sheep and shepherds could have been lost in our modern day, but Jesus’ explanation made it very relevant for us.  And the same is true for today’s words:  I am the vine, you are the branches…apart from me you can do nothing.   Not many of us grow grapes, but let’s not dismiss the analogy just yet; usually Jesus gives us precious nuggets of wisdom that while they applied directly to his people two thousand years ago, he knew that we would still be able to draw a connection even today.


To most of us, wine comes in a bottle that sits on a store shelf.  And grapes—you buy them in the produce section of the supermarket.  And before that?  Well, store employees offloaded them from trucks that pulled up at a loading dock in the back of the store.  The poet and philosopher Wendell Berry had this to say about such a “profound failure of imagination.”  He writes:


Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations.


That’s probably a very good description of most people today.  But the people in Jesus’ time, were not like that. These men and women knew where their food came from, because they’d spent the greater part of their lives producing it.  Among his disciples, there were some who used to fish for a living. And very likely, there were others who knew firsthand what it’s like to labor in a vineyard, tending grapevines.


Grapevines are a remarkable sort of plant. Rooted in the ground, their tendrils reach out and travel, sometimes for hundreds of feet. Close to the base, they’re brown, thick and woody. Out by the bunches of grapes, they’re green and flexible.  To establish a grapevine is the work not of a single growing season, but of years of growth.  Grapevines are perennials. If tended carefully, they’ll continue to yield grapes for many, many years.  The natural tendency of the vine, however, is to grow close to the ground, but that’s not what the vine-growers wanted to see. They wanted to raise the vines up so the clusters of grapes would hang down for easy harvesting.  Thinking of those clusters of grapes, I remember back in grammar school I had a girlfriend whose grandfather had a grape arbor in the backyard, and we never gave any thought to how it came to be, how old it was, or what he was going to do with the grapes.  Maybe she knew, but I never asked!  We just pulled off and ate as many grapes as we could…before we got caught!  


Getting back to the vine-growers, they went to great lengths to prevent the vines from sending tendrils snaking across the ground, to take root all over the place.  Nowadays, vineyard owners support their vines with complex webs of steel or plastic cables, strung between posts. Back then, it was a matter of driving wooden stakes into the ground and tying the grapevines to them.  Then, as now, the most productive grapevines are the ones suspended overhead as in an arbor. Their leaves create a canopy which allows the sunlight in.  The shady area beneath the leaves is perfect for the grapes, so they retain their moisture and sweetness.  Most grapevines won’t produce much fruit for several years.  So, for the vine-grower, that means the work of creating a vineyard is an act of faith.  Those early years are devoted to carefully staking and tending the vines, knowing that once they begin to bear fruit, they will yield abundantly, year after year, season after season.


Now part of the work of vine-growing is pruning.  As I said earlier, the vine’s natural tendency is to send out tendrils snaking out all over the place and to grow only a few bunches of grapes. Most of the water and nutrients in an untended grapevine go to producing those woody stalks.  If the vine-grower walks diligently up and down among the plants and cuts off all but a few of the soft, green tendrils before they harden into wood, the vine-grower will divert the plant’s energy into bearing fruit.


Do you see it?  Do you see how absolutely perfect this image is for the one who knows Jesus?  “I am the vine; you are the branches.  Apart from me, you can do nothing!”   And Jesus isn’t the first to use that image.   The grapevine is also found all over the Hebrew scriptures.  Several of the prophets used it as a metaphor for the people of Israel.  In the prophets’ imagination, God is the vine-grower, displeased to see that the vines have been abandoned to grow wild.  And the only thing to do in those desperate circumstances is to cut down the grapevines and burn them.  The prophet says to cut down the shamefully neglected vines, cast them into the fire and begin all over again, with a new planting!  Surely, Jesus knew these Hebrew prophecies, as did his listeners.  But, when he reaches for the image of a grapevine, he has a very different intention.  As Jesus did with so many laws and examples, he turns the image into something of hope, of promise...not one of punishment.


 “I am the vine,” he says. What an unbelievably radical thing to say!  Each of the ancient prophets taught that the vine is Israel, with God standing off to one side as the vinedresser.  But, Jesus is different from Isaiah or Elijah or Ezekiel.  Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made flesh.  Jesus is saying He is the vine.  His spiritual essence is the root of the vine itself and all God’s people are branches attached to Him.  And the one and only purpose of those branches is to bear abundant fruit.  Those branches don’t live for themselves.  They channel love and service—the living essence of Jesus, to whom they’re connected—fulfilling God’s purpose for an abundant harvest.


Now having heard about grape-farming methods, you may be starting to get a little nervous.  Remember what vine-growers do: they prune.  They walk up and down among the vines, examining them for dead wood, seeking out any stray tendrils headed down toward the ground, where they could take root.  And these dead or useless parts of the vine are cut off and often burned.  The trick is to transform the grapevine into an abundant, fruit-producing biological machine.  And woe to any stray branches that stand in the way!  Simply being connected to the vine is not enough. You’ve got to bear fruit!


Now take this image and apply it to our church…and it was an awakening for me!  On any given Sunday, lots of people come to worship. They may not think of it like this, but they are celebrating their connection to the larger vine.  Yet, the really tough question Jesus poses is this: Are any of them bearing fruit?  Apply that question to your own spiritual life—if you dare! Is your spiritual life all about seeking nourishment for yourself?  It’s easy, nowadays, to hear people describing church life—quite unapologetically—that way.  Sometimes folks move from one church to another, and what do they so often give as the reason?  “I was not being fed.”  I myself have used that when talking to people about whether they should stay or go from any given community of faith.  But perhaps I was wrong.


Jesus—the one who says, “I am the vine, you are the branches” would repeat the second part of John 15:5: “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  It’s not just about being connected…it’s about producing more fruit.  And the rest of what he says has dire implications:  “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”


So, what fruit are you bearing in your Christian life?  Is your spiritual life all about seeking inspiration for yourself—and when the call comes to step forward and do something along the fruit-bearing line, you reply, “Sorry, I’ve done my part; I’ll sit this one out?”  Something to think about!  We do have to have our own spirituality—absolutely—but once our cup is full, do we hoard it, or do we pray for a one who needs the nourishment of Jesus?


The final image of the vine is the connectedness of the vineyard.  When you see a vineyard, you won’t see a whole lot of tiny, individual plants, spaced out, growing up by themselves.  No, a grapevine is a vastly complex organism.  It extends not only across an expanse of space—because it’s a perennial—but is expands across time.  All of it…is inter-dependent.  Not a bad image for the church, is it?  But this is truly counter-cultural in a society that idolizes individual achievement!  Not that individual achievement is bad, but what our Lord is telling us, here in this passage, is that he’s far more interested in seeing the ripe, juicy bunches of grapes we can produce by working together than what we can put forth on our own.


Like it or not, we are entwined…entangled: joined together as in a single vine.  It’s the way God made us.  Take time to think about this and ask yourself, “Since I am a branch of that vine I call Jesus, what is the fruit I am called to bear?”

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