Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 29, 2018

2018.04.29 “Chosen to Bear the Fruit of Heaven” – John 15: 1 – 8

Central United Methodist Church
Chosen to Bear the Fruit of Heaven
Pastor David L. Haley
John 15: 1 – 8
5th Sunday of Easter
April 29, 2018

Vine

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)

 

What a relief today to turn from something we know little about, shepherds and sheep, to something at least some of us know something about: vineyards and vines.

When I was growing up in West Kentucky, there were many kinds of vines. Kudzu, for example. Kudzu is not a native but an invasive species, which has pretty much taken over the south. Once it starts growing it covers everything. As youthful tree-climbers we discovered early on that we could climb those trees, fall into the kudzu, and not get hurt.

Then there were wild grapevines, which didn’t bear grapes, but had their usefulness in a different way. Occasionally we would find a sturdy vine over a creek and cut it loose at the bottom, to make a swing out over the creek, Tarzan style. This worked well, at least until some unlucky swinger fell into the creek when the vine finally broke from overuse.

And then of course there were real grapevines. My grandfather had a Concord grape vine in his back yard; in my memory, that was the most wonderful grapevine in the world. In the summer, when the grapes were ripe, there were few things more delicious than eating those clusters of luscious blue grapes. If we had only known what the rest of the world knows, that the best use of grapes is not to eat them, but to make wine of them, then there might have been a 1959 Marshall County Merlot. But, for us, as Methodists living in a dry county, that was not an option.

As I have traveled the world and seen real vineyards, I now know how little I know about them. What I do know I have learned through drinking the fruit of their vines, which is that each one is almost miraculous: how a grapevine can take the sun, the air, and the dirt it grows in, to create a wine that is distinctive. Think Jesus performed a miracle when he turned water into wine; grapevines do it every day. I admit I have never had a sensitive enough palate to taste all those things reviewers describe, such as, for example, the flavor of peach and currants and even a hint of asphalt? What?

Whatever we know about vines and grapevines, and however we learned it, is what makes Jesus’s words today in John, chapter 15, even more intriguing: “I am the true vine, you are the branches; whoever abides in me, and I in them, bears much fruit.”

It would have been a familiar image for Jesus’ hearers, because they lived in a country filled with vineyards. Because of this, they likely also knew that the metaphor of the vineyard was often used for Israel in the ancient Hebrew writings, either as productive and unproductive. In his parables, Jesus often drew upon vine and vineyard symbolism, such as The Workers in the Vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16), the Two Sons (Mt. 21:23-32), and the Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9).

Personally, I’m glad Jesus didn’t give us four spiritual laws, six stages of spirituality, or ten steps to spiritual growth, but rather 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. Thus, all the metaphors Jesus used – bread, light, door, shepherd, life, way, truth, and now vine – point to relationships: with God, with Jesus, and with each other. Thus, Jesus’ image of the vine speaks to us about our rootedness, our interconnectedness, and our fruitfulness.

First, our rootedness in God. 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 to produce fruit.

Early in our lives, we find our roots almost exclusively in family. As we grow older, we find it in our people: our friends, our ethnicity (Scots-Irish), even our country (USA). While such roots never go away, over time, they erode, or at least no longer provide us with the sense of rootedness they once did. The old homestead is gone, maybe beloved members of the family are gone, or are scattered all over the country. So as we go through life and grow away from all the things we once considered our roots, where then do we find them?

Jesus’ metaphor of the vine invites us to find our roots in God. Eugene Peterson renders it this way in The Message: “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” If we can do this, then 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, because – whatever happens – we abide in God.

The second thing the image of the vine speaks to us about is interconnectedness. Isn’t that 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 ends and another begins. All the branches run together as they grow out of the central vine. The image is that of interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling.

Such ideas are ancient. For example, the Hindu image of the Net of Indra. As Alan Watts once described it: “Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so on, ad infinitum . . .” (Alan Watts Podcast – Following the Middle Way #3 alanwattspodcast.com) so that any change anywhere is reflected in every part, everywhere. Now we talk about 6 degrees of separation and how the wave of a butterflies’ wing can affect climate across the world, and how all human beings, despite our superficial physical characteristics, have 99.9% the same DNA.

As Dr. King put it in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be . . . This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Reflected in the notion of the Vine is the truth that, the closer we come to God, the more we realize our mutual connection to each other. Did you hear how the 1st Letter of John put it (again, from The Message):

“If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.”

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 ornamental, taking up space, but that it should bear fruit. Is there anything more disappointing 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 Catholic, that fruit might be children, and – Catholic or not – some of us may feel that our children are the greatest fruit of our lives. But the fruit God intends us to bear means more than children: it means virtue, it means character, it means service. It means love and charity that make the world a better place. It means the care of the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, and the elderly.

Indeed – if it is God’s intent that our lives bear fruit, should we be surprised to know that God is at work in our lives to make this happen? And so, from time to time, God does a little pruning; we’ve all experienced it. Sometimes, when you’re going through painful experiences, it’s hard to tell the difference between being “pruned” and being chopped down, which often leaves us confused, hurt, and angry. But eventually, better days arrive and we grow back, and – most, if not all of the time – we are better, happier, and even wiser for what we have experienced.  Of course, it’s always hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, when we are going through it.

Consider, the early Christian community to whom John was writing. As a result of their Christian faith, many had been thrown out of synagogues, rejected by friends and family, and therefore felt alone and orphaned; like they had been cut down. But John offers for them a different perspective for them: they’ve not been cut down, just pruned. And saying, at the same time: “Even when you feel pruned or cut down, even when you feel confused, hurt, even angry, even then Jesus is with you, abiding in you, and will not let you go.”

Such sentiments are not limited to John’s audience 2,000 years ago, but likely also describe the feelings of many of us who sit in church pews today. To those, who feel like they have been cut off, or alone – Jesus says today: “I am with you, abiding in you, holding onto you, loving you, and I will not let you go.”

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 my grandparent’s house now belongs to someone else, I wonder whether that grapevine might still there, and whether I might be able to sneak into the back yard and taste those grapes again. I have even looked longingly at grapevines in the Burpee Catalog, and – who knows – now that I will have a plot of ground I can call my own – I might see if I can plant a grapevine of my own, where my kids and grandkids might come and taste those grapes and spit grape skins at each other, as I did.

And yet, whether that happens or not, thanks to metaphors like this one, through them we cultivate a 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 – we might continue to bear the fruit pleasing to God.

In the words of a hymn, “I Am the Vine,” songwriters John Bell and Graham Maule put it 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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