"Living Branches on the True Vine"
A Sermon based on John 15:1-12
It was during his Last Supper with his disciples, on the night before he was arrested and crucified, that Jesus said: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit, he takes away; and every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes, so that it may bear more fruit."
(John 15, verses 1 & 2)
All through this season of Lent, we have been looking at the several metaphors Jesus used to describe himself. We call them the "I am" sayings in John’s Gospel. I am the Light of the world… I am the Door of the Sheep... I am the Bread of Life... On Good Friday at St. Paul Lutheran Church, we will consider: I am the Good Shepherd, I am Living Water, I am the Way, etc.
Tonight, we’re looking at how Jesus used the metaphor of a vine -- the winestock, rooted in the soil, its branches heavy with clusters of grapes. Inasmuch as the wine at that supper had come from crushed grapes, coming up with this particular metaphor in that specific setting made sense.
The disciples probably thought that it was going to be just another one of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus seemed to be going there at first, when he says that God (my Father) was the Vineyard Owner -- the vine-dresser, the wine-grower -- and that the goal of the whole endeavor was to produce good fruit -- specifically joy and love -- from a single, precious, original vine, the healthy core stock, which Jesus indicated was himself ("abide in me" – stay connected with me).
A branch cut off from its vine will wither. However limited my (or your) gardening experience might be, we know that to be true. Unless it is transplanted, a living branch cannot grow and thrive if it is cut away from the stem. Even cut flowers, for all their beauty, eventually wither and die because they have been cut off from the plant that nourishes them. A dried-up branch from an apple tree, for example, torn down in a storm, is not going to grow apples, even if it is lying on the ground right under its tree.
Just as every farmer (or gardener) loves to see a rich, full harvest growing in fields and orchards, God the Vinedresser, rejoices in the abundant fruit that grows in the lives of those who trust in Jesus his Son for salvation. Jesus said, "By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples."
If this metaphor is understood as an allegory -- in which each element of the story represents something else (as it appears to be in John’s telling of it) -- then, (1) God is the vinedresser, who prunes and tends the blossoming, burgeoning branches -- (2) Jesus is the core winestock, the living vine, rooted in the earth -- and (3) the disciples are the branches, who draw sap and sustenance from the vine, which in turn draws the elements of life up from the moist soil.
It seems to me that the metaphor is fairly straight-forward: Draw your nourishment from Jesus’ own life. Hang in there with him, hang onto him if you have to, do everything you can to keep connected! Because a branch that is broken off from the living vine -- even when leafy green, with sprouting tendrils & budding fruit -- will not grow to maturity. The busted-off branch will wilt and wither; the grapes will die. "Abide in me," seems to be the punchline.
"Abide in me as I abide in you." (John 15:4a) "Just 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. Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:4b-5)
The busted-off branch will wilt and waste away, returning eventually to the soil from which the nutrients had come. They’ll become mulch. From earth, to earth; from dust to dust. The barren branches become humus from which the human was first formed.
However, you’ll notice that Jesus reconsidered that remark as regards some older, more mature branches. You see, if they have several seasons behind them already, some branches will be just woody enough to have some potential as kindling! The more mature branches (when broken-off) will wither, too, of course. Without the living sap drawn from the vine-stock coursing through them, they’ll dry out. Yes; it’s part of the cycle of life. But these ones, at least, can be collected and used for fire-wood. (John 15:11) Something useful & good can come of it, even tho’ it’s not the complete joy that Jesus wants from them.
Of course, we realize that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, not literally. We church members don't really have inter- twining limbs (like a vine), and we don't expect grape clusters to pop out of our fingers... So, what does Jesus mean by this talk of bearing "fruit"?
The Apostle Paul made a list of the qualities of character that he felt demonstrated on-going connection with the Spirit of Jesus (in Galatians 5: 22):"Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control... these are the fruit of the Spirit of God."
Such things as in that list don't happen "automatically!"
Our friends & family members may help advise us on a few of these traits... but, frankly, most of us most of the time are really poor role models of that! "Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control...
Oh, we do well enough in the loving department, I suppose -- at least within our
families and friendships. And we’re tolerably good toward groups who share our values -- folks who are "like" us! Jesus was trying to stretch our circles of loving a bit wider -- to include our neighbors (Yes, them! You know which neighbors I mean -- with the cars parked in the yard, or the dog who barks all day when its owner is away... you know: that un-lovable neighbor! Maybe the one who has a yard sign for the other political party, a candidate you despise!). Love your neighbor, as you love yourself! Actually, Jesus even went so far as to ask us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us! To this day, there’s wise-spread resistance to that idea!
Anyway, as I said: if we are supposed to be producing spiritual "fruit" according to the list of virtues that St. Paul gives us in Galatians (Chapter 5), I think we do pretty well at the love business, and we enjoy the joy part. But we are really struggling with the third one: peace. Black lives matter; police lives matter.
In a world at war -- the war on terror, the war on ISIS, the war in Syria, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the threats now against North Korea, the suicide-bombs and battles in Israel and Palestine, the chaos of so many African Civil wars… not to mention places where United Nations "peacekeeping forces" are still required -- peace is an elusive word.
Even closer to home, sibling squabbles and divorcing parents -- rude relations between in-laws, and ex’es -- make it very hard to produce peace in our homes. Need I mention that we also need peace in our hearts? It’s tough all around!
As for the rest of that list of nine spiritual fruits: I think we’ve made progress in kindness, goodness, & gentleness -- except maybe in Washington DC (where coarse language and callous actions have become "the new normal" -- not to mention all the Hash-tag # MeToo abuses.) Sometimes we make excuses to shirk our responsibilities. We hurt people, instead of being kind.
It’s understandable that we "slip up" in these virtues from time to time. It’s hard to be spiritual when the world can be so ungodly! I mean, face it: it’s a rough world we’re in!
How far have we come in producing the fruit of patience...? I remember as a teenager that my Mom (Dodi) used to say: Paul Andrew, my patience is "growing thin!" (I thought, well, at least I was helping her to GROW it.) If we’re honest, we’ll admit that sometimes we're irritable and resentful, boastful and jealous, self-centered... And what’s this thing about "self-control"? Well, you’ll have to "judge for yourself" that one!
I think Jesus was right. We need to be connected to God's spiritual resource-base (through Jesus, who is the True Vine) if we are to nurture and to nourish such traits in our character. Apart from Jesus Christ, we'll probably not do it!
We flit & flicker between people and things that promise to stimulate our "happiness" with no clue to the character values that give us a foundation of joy! Jesus obviously values joy as the pay-off! "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." (John 15:11)
That is the ideal to which Jesus dedicated his life -- and for which he was willing to die: teaching people to live better lives, to bless one another, to experience joy & express love.
Jesus sets the agenda for the church. Let’s not break away from that true vine!
It's been 2,000 years since that message was incarnate in Jesus Christ and still the Church struggles to do as he did, to love as he loved, to grow the spiritual "fruit" that he expected of us. Are we not rooted in the true vine… in the life of Jesus?
Why is there such resistance to giving our lives over in full faith and trust to God's guidance -- like Jesus did -- God's leadership, Christ-like values?
We know (and Jesus knew) that God's investment in the Vineyard -- all these years of clearing the ground and doing the work to establish a successful operation here and in churches throughout the world -- will not always bring the desired return! Just think back to Isaiah's parable of the Wild Vines... (Isa. 5:1-7)
God provided a fertile hillside with adequate sunshine and ample water, cleared the land of stones, dug a wine vat, planted the very best vines…but when God looked for produce, it yielded only wild grapes, sour and shrunken. God looked for justice and saw bloodshed, sought righteousness but heard only a cry.
Jesus knew -- from first-hand experience with the religious authorities of his day -- that God's ownership of the Vineyard will be severely challenged by some of our co-workers, who are not content being merely "branches on the Vine", but who would rather run things their own way, for their own advantage! Like some of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law in Jesus’ day, they’ll use religion to garner support for their own agenda, rather than promoting the peace, joy, love, unity, and service to others that God values (according to Jesus). They’ll make up their own theology, quite apart from Jesus’ ministry, and call it "religion."
To them, and to us, Jesus says: "I am the true vine." My Father (God) is the owner, the vine dresser. You are the branches. Our task, working together, is to produce good fruit!
So, what are the basic lessons from the metaphor?
First, the purpose for which God (the Vineyard Owner) has invested time & energy in creating us -- the purpose for which Jesus Christ (the Vine) is planted, nourishing us, is so that we can bring forth much fruit just like him. Good fruit! Namely: more love. More joy. More peace. More patience. Our task as fruit-bearing branches in God's Vineyard is to help create a "kinder, gentler" better world. Where there is less greed, less violence, less vengeance... more faith & more self-control.
So, let’s be honest: what do you and I have to show for all the generous investment God has made in your life and in my life? Have we been popping out plump ripe fruit like those nine virtues on St. Paul’s list? Or has the sap dried up? Are you & I still grafted onto the vine?
Second, let me remind you that Jesus said all this at the Last Supper. Jesus is about to be taken away from them and killed. (!) In other words: the original vine -- the true vine, the one with life-giving roots deep in God’s soil -- is about to be ripped up and cast away. (!) What will happen to the branches if the vine itself is cut off? (!) Will Jesus’ movement stop? Will the collaboration among Jesus’ followers wither? Will the crop fail altogether? (It’s possible!)
So, here’s a radical insight from this "organic" metaphor: Jesus says that the disciples have already been cleansed & pruned by God (John 15:3 -- both words derive from the same Greek root) -- they are "cuttings" that God has prepared "to make it bear more fruit."
In other words, the disciples are now ready for transplanting on their own!
I think that we’ve gotten too hung up on the "allegorical" interpretation which sees the disciples simply as branches being attached to Jesus, the stem. The fact is, his metaphor is much more empowering of the disciples… because it sees them as mutually related.
The "sap" (the life force) is drawn from the roots…(yes) but once the branch is strong enough, it can be pruned and replanted on its own. This is Jesus’ hope, as he faces his execution. The question is: Has he given them enough of himself, so that He abides in them, so that they can now bear fruit in his absence?
Watered & fed -- nourished to our roots -- joined to Christ our true vine in Baptism, fed by the Word and by our Lord’s Supper, we bear fruit for the glory of God. But… are we ready to stand on our own… when Jesus has returned to the Father?
We don’t just stick to Jesus, as the traditional interpretation holds; rather, Jesus Christ courses thru our veins!
Let me put it like this: where does a vine end and its branches begin? The whole metaphor is one living entity! A vine is defined by its branches as they spread and grow. Yes, there is one place where the vine is rooted to the soil, but the branching is part of the vine. Hear how he says it: "Abide in me, as I abide in you!" (John 15:4) Do you hear the mutuality? Jesus abides in them! "I am the vine and you are branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit." (verse 5)
The language is "inner" directed -- you are in me and I am in you -- not attached from the outside. The disciples are like "cuttings" from a vine -- branches which are still alive -- able to be transplanted and rooted, so as to continue to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit even after Jesus is gone.
That which abides in them, says Jesus, is himself. It’s his words (v.7) in them; and it’s his love in them. "Abide in my love."
"As the Father [God] has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love." (vss. 9-10)
To "abide in Jesus" can happen in the absence of his body, and it can continue happening even after the cessation of Jesus’ earthly ministry. His disciples carried it forward; we carry it forward; our young people and grandchildren will carry it forward after we are gone! The True Vine lives by branching out and bearing fruit. We are the resurrection and the life of Jesus in our day so long as we carry him in our own lives.
May you do so, filled with the joy and the love of God’s Holy Spirit… for Christ’s sake, in Jesus’ name!