May 6th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | John 15:1-8
There is a series of commercials currently airing for a hotel chain that has brought a lot of laughter to our house. The commercials take well-known sayings and depict them with literal accuracy. There is a man “selling ice to Eskimos.” Another has a fellow with his “leg up on the competition.” Our favorite has a salesman with his flock on the table, “getting his ducks in a row.”
What makes them funny, of course, is that they were never meant to be taken literally. They are sayings – adages – proverb-like messages that have found their way into our daily patterns of speech. No one really knows how they got started, but we all know what they mean.
One of the ways the Bible speaks its message of life is through the use of metaphor. These are sayings that are not meant to be taken literally, but to point us to something more. The power of a metaphor is that it is not meant to define a thing, but to point beyond it to something else. Marcus Borg is fond of using the Buddhist story about the finger pointing to the moon. That’s what metaphors are supposed to do – point us to something bigger. We tend to get stuck looking at the finger, locked into a literalism that was never intended.
Before this morning is a saying from Jesus – “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Now, obviously, Jesus did not mean that he was literally a vine, nor did he imply that we are literally branches. But, through the use of this word picture – this image – this metaphor – we can gain new understanding and truth. And that, of course, is our goal this morning and every morning we gather together.
To begin to understand what Jesus was talking about, we need to know some things about vines. Since most of us are no longer vintners, we simply assume that vines grow and eventually bear fruit. Or, we may immediately think of vines that are nothing but a nuisance and grow everywhere (think kudzu in the south). So, we’re going to need to have a little lesson in vine-keeping.
If you are to keep vines, you will need a vinedresser, or a vinegrower. When vines – grape vines – are left to themselves, they will grow everywhere, uncontrollably knotting themselves into one big tangled mess. When they are left to grow as they please, all the energy of the vine goes into producing more vine and they hardly ever bear any grapes. If they bear grapes at all, they are usually tiny and virtually worthless.
So, the vinedresser must be at work, carefully pruning the vines to insure their proper growth. The vinedresser sees to the life of the vine and its branches. That which is lifeless must be cut away so that the productive branches can receive the life-giving nourishment from the roots. The vinedresser fertilizes and cares for the vine and its branches, making sure that everything they need for proper growth and development is in place, so that the vine and its branches can produce an abundant harvest.
And that is on-going work. It’s not “once and done.” The vinegrower must constantly be about the work of pruning and caring for the vine or the vine will ultimately fail. At some point, all the branches need to be cut. Pruning is needed in every season in order for the vine to develop and grow.
And the more you investigate this business of vine-keeping, the more you get the feeling Jesus is offering us something more than a horticulture lesson.
What Jesus is pointing to – beyond the vines and branches – is relationships, with God, with Jesus, and with each other. At the heart of that lesson is the idea of “abiding.” “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (John 15:4) The Greek word for abide carries a variety of meanings - “staying in place,” “enduring,” “holding out.” All of them imply steadfastness and the ability to rely on God’s unfailing presence in and for the people of God. God’s care is constant and reliable, and whatever pain there may be that results from God’s pruning and attention is redemptive rather than arbitrary or even punishing.
When branches are cut from the vines or trees to which they belong, they are no longer alive. They wither, dry up, and are cast away. When branches are well-kept, tended to, pruned, and nurtured, they grow with strength and produce the fruit they were created to produce.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…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 15:1, 5) The Risen and Living Christ is the living and life-giving Vine, receiving from God all that is necessary to offer life to the branches that grow from him. You and I are branches of the life-giving Vine, receiving all that we need to grow and produce fruit from him. And the more we “stay in place,” “endure,” “hold on,” – abide in the Risen Christ, the more abundant and blessed the harvest will be. The more we receive our sustenance and nourishment from God through the Risen One, the more we will grow and thrive.
Jesus takes this common and everyday image from his time and passes it on to us as an image of community, mission, and love. The community that Jesus foresees – the community that for better or for worse has become the church – is to be one of interdependence, mutual respect, and where the ongoing presence of Christ is experienced as present reality. Jesus sees us as a community where the grace of God flows through the veins of the Vine into the branches and finds expression in the fruitfulness of sharing that grace with the world.
It is that connection we remember and celebrate whenever we gather at this Table. When we break the bread and share the cup, we are reminding ourselves that we are not the Vine, but only its branches. We are connected to God through Jesus Christ and we receive our life from God through him. We are each a part of the greater whole and our life together depends on that recognition. There is no sovereign individual. We are branches of the Vine, living together, working together, depending on one another.
A couple of years back, I told you about some azaleas at our old house that had become leggy and didn’t really bloom all that well. I told you that I was going to cut them down to the ground and see what happened. I drove by the old house this spring, and do you know what I saw? I saw azaleas blooming and growing with new life.
Cutting back that which does not grow, nurturing what remains, encouraging and energizing that which holds the life – Jesus was not just talking about vine-keeping. Jesus was talking about us – the community of faith – this congregation. Jesus was reminding us that as we live and grow in the grace of God, we will produce a harvest of blessings for the world around us.
May we continue to find ourselves connected to the Vine and may our branches thrive. For now and evermore. Amen.