Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 3, 2015

2015.05.03 “Fruit of the Vine” – John 15: 1 – 8

Central United Methodist Church
Fruit of the Vine
Pastor David L. Haley
Fruit of the Vine
John 15: 1 – 8
5th Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2015

: "Christ the Living Vine." Detail of mosaic on the apse of the Lady chapel in Westminster Cathedral, London. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

: “Christ the Living Vine.” Detail of mosaic on the apse of the Lady chapel in Westminster Cathedral, London. Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15: 1 – 8, New Revised Standard Version)

 

Since we were last together, I have been on a thousand-mile journey, down to West Kentucky for my mother’s 85th birthday.

On Tuesday, she and I went for a two-mile hike around a nearby lake. Spring is a little further along down there, and it was so nice to walk through the woods and observe nature resurrecting after a long winter. Tiny spring flowers, branching tendrils, and green leaves of all kinds were springing back to life; although the dogwood blossoms – so beautiful in the spring – have already come and gone. The older I get, the more I appreciate the beauty and wonder of it.

If Jesus had walked around that lake, as he once walked around the Sea of Galilee, I’m sure he would not only have shared my wonder but emerged with some valuable lessons for us. He was so good at using the ordinary things of life to teach us about spiritual things. And so throughout the Gospels and especially in the Gospel of John, he uses as metaphors such things as bread, light, doors, shepherds (last Sunday), and today, vines and grapes:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, God takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit God prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15: 1 – 2)

Personally, I’m glad Jesus didn’t give us four laws, six stages, or 10 steps to spiritual growth, but instead these wonderfully elastic, descriptive, and lush metaphors. The power of a metaphor is not that it defines a thing, but that it points to something else. And so all these metaphors point to relationships: with God, with Jesus, and with each other. We may feel you don’t know a lot about God or the spiritual life, but who hasn’t eaten grapes or tasted wine?

While last week I admitted I didn’t know much about shepherds or sheep, what I know about vines and grapes I learned in my grandfather’s back yard. It was there that he had a huge Concord grapevine. In the summer, when the grapes came in, there were few things more delicious than clusters of those luscious blue grapes picked off the vine. How many know what I’m talking about?

I suppose if we had really been smart we would have known what the rest of the human race knows, that the best use of grapes is to make wine. But, for my family, as Methodists living in a dry county, that was not an option. And that’s why there’s not a 1959 Marshall County Merlot.

So instead we ate the grapes. There was, of course, some skill involved in the technique, which consisted of a rapid sequence plucking of the grape, shooting the fruit down your throat, and throwing away (or spitting out) the skin, which – as a side benefit – helped us perfect our spitting. And, of course, it could be turned into a game, by spitting them at each other.  Not that we ever did that, of course.

Therefore, what we know about vines and grapes – however we know it – makes Jesus’ saying about the True Vine into a wonderfully descriptive metaphor that invites us to think about our rootedness, our interconnectedness, and our fruitfulness.

Such an image speaks to us, first of our rootedness in God.  “I am the Vine, you are the branches.” In our roots is where we find identity and meaning, an enduring source of strength. Like grapevines, the further we get from our roots, the less rooted we are, and also less likely we are to produce fruit. And that’s why the vines must be pruned. (But we’ll get to that in a minute.)

Early in our lives, we find rootedness almost exclusively in family. As we grow older, we may find our rootedness in our people: our friends, our ethnicity (Scots-Irish), even our country (USA). Over time, while these roots never ever go away, many of them erode, or at least no longer provide us with the sense of rootedness they used to. The old homestead is gone and our families and friends are scattered all over the country.

As we go through life and even let go all the things we once considered our roots, where then are we to find them?

Jesus’ metaphor of the vine suggests that we find them in God, our Ground of Being. By cultivating our rootedness in God, we go through life like a turtle, carrying our house on our back, always at home wherever we are, ready to gain all things or lose all things, to let anything and everything go, as hard as that may be.

Perhaps this is why Jesus tells his troubled disciples to abide in him, as he abides in them. In The Message, Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” When someone is having a hard time, we say, “Hang in there.” According to this, Jesus offers so much more that just hanging in there. Yes, hard times come, but living, abiding, and finding our home in God the grower and Jesus the vine helps sustain us, as we abide with him and he abides with us.

The second thing the image of the vine speaks to us about is interconnectedness. Isn’t it one of the unique things about a grapevine? When you look at the branches of a vine, they are indistinguishable; it’s hard to tell where one branch stops and another starts. All the branches run together as they grow out of the central vine. The image is that of interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling.

So powerful was the image, that even now, in almost every congregation, somewhere in the architecture or stained glass, there are vines. In congregation of Christians like the ones that John wrote his Gospel for, the image of a Vine and its branches provided the perfect analogy. Struggling to get along in the world, decades after Jesus lived, Christian congregations needed to know that they were still linked to Christ, still linked to other Christian congregations, still linked with other Christians.

As in those early Christian congregations, still today – in our congregation – we are linked to each other. We may not know every detail about each other, we may not even always get along with each other, but your good is my good, and your hurt is my hurt, because we are inextricably connected with each other through Jesus, the Vine.

Really, the closer we come to God, the more we realize our mutual connection and interrelation not only to other Christians, but to all people.  Now we talk about six degrees of separation and how the wave of a butterfly’s wing can affect climate around the world and how all human beings, despite our superficial physical characteristics, have 99.9% the same DNA. We are all interconnected, whether we know or like it. And because of this, the welfare of each and every one of us is interconnected; what happens to a child in Africa or Afghanistan or Baltimore or Iraq or Kathmandu has an effect on us here.

For this reason, I appreciated President Obama’s remarks this week, made while in Japan, in response to a reporter’s question about the death of Freddy Gray and subsequent events in Baltimore.  He said:
“If we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant – and that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. We’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids, and we think they’re important. And they shouldn’t be living in poverty and violence.” (Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan in Joint Press Conference, The White House, April 28, 2015)

Because, as Jesus’ metaphor of the vine suggests, we are all interconnected.

The third and final thing the image of the grapevine teaches us is that the ultimate value of the grapevine is not that it should just be decorative, taking up space, but that it should bear fruit. Is there anything peskier in the plant world (except maybe briars, stinging plants, or cockleburs) than grapevines that bear no grapes?

But, someone might say, “What kind of fruit are we supposed to bear?” If we were old-style Catholic, that fruit might be kids. And – indeed, Catholic or not – some of us may feel that our children are the greatest fruit of our lives. But the fruit of our lives means more than kids: it means virtue, it means character, it means accomplishment. It means love and charity that make the world a better place. It might mean the care of the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the orphan, the widow, or the elderly? It might even mean bringing others closer to the True Vine, who is the life of all.  In some way, we all hope we have done these things; if not, it’s never too late to start.

Indeed – if it is God’s intent that our lives should bear fruit, should we be surprised to know that God is at work in our lives to make that happen?

It’s like this: 15 years ago, I came back from China not only with a new daughter, but with an interest in Bonsai Trees, miniature trees that look like they are a hundreds of years old.  Bonsai has been described as “a form of art that God helps me with.”  You plant it, you trim the roots and wire the branches, you water and feed it, and from time to time you prune it.

Couldn’t we extend that definition to our lives: “A work of art God helps me with?” And so, from time to time, maybe even day by day, God does a little shaping of the branches, a little watering and feeding, and even occasionally, a little pruning. I’ve been “pruned” more than a few times in my life, haven’t you?  Sometimes, when you’re going through it, it’s hard to tell the difference between being “pruned” and being chopped down. Sometimes it even feels as though we are also being cut off from God, leaving us confused, hurt, and angry. Eventually better days come and we grow back, and – most of the time, if not all the time – we are better, happier, and more fruitful for what we have experienced.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

To this day, I miss my grandfather’s grapevine, though not as much as I miss my grandfather and grandmother.  Even now, when I visit my Mom, though the house belongs to someone else, I’ve often wondered whether that grapevine is still there, and whether I could sneak in the back yard and taste those grapes again. I have even looked longingly at Concord grapevines in the Burpee Catalog, and wondered if I could recreate my grandfather’s grapevine in my own backyard. But I never do. Because as good as those grapes were, thanks to metaphors like this one of Jesus, I have gained an understanding and appreciation and taste for something greater than grapes: our rootedness in God, the rich interrelationship of our lives, and the desire that as long as we live, our lives might bear abundant fruit.

Songwriters John Bell and Graham Maule have put it in the words of a hymn, “I Am the Vine,” this way:

“I am the Vine and you are the branches,

Pruned and prepared for all to see;

Chosen to bear the fruit of heaven

If you remain and trust in me.”

Amen.

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