Sunday, March 22, 2015

I AM the Vine

John 15:1-8
March 22, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

John 15:1-8
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don't produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can't produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can't produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can't do anything. If you don't remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

Have you ever met an enologist?

It’s not a medical specialty, in case you wondered. It’s a wine maker. I’m always curious about how and why people have the occupations they do. But I’ve never met an enologist, so I’ve not been able to ask about it. Sound pretty cool, though, hangin out at the vineyard, all the pretty grapes, and all the, ya know, all the wine.

I looked up job postings for the wine business. Right here is where I would suggest that certain people not listen, in case they up and quite their jobs here and go off to work in a vineyard, but Nan won’t move that far way so we are safe. This posting, for a job in California, includes a lot of requirements: operations director and managing production schedules, safety, cleanliness and production within the cellar; paperwork and accurate accounting on bonded storage and transfers; assisting marketing department with wine packaging development; tracking inventory, orders and usages of chemicals; overseeing upkeep and maintenance of equipment; managing the tasting room and giving tours of the vineyard; managing production and contracts for buying and selling grapes…

Wait…where’s the part where you get to drink the wine? Oh – here it is: “Evaluates and purchases bulk wine.” Also, you should be able to speak Spanish. Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than the tasting part. Growing grapes for wine is very involved, but it all starts with vines.

This image of the vine in John 15 is a richly layered metaphor, more complex than other agricultural imagery in the Bible. Jesus did not simply choose a random plant to discuss – he chose the vine because of the importance of that image in Israel’s history. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, when the vine and vineyard appear, they are a symbol of Israel itself, God’s chosen people. God, as planter and vinedresser, has tended the people of the covenant, guiding, feeding, watering them, shaping their life so that they could be strong and fruitful.

Once again, Jesus is daring in his choice of metaphor –how can he be the vine?
Israel is the vine!
God is the keeper of the vineyard, but the vine has always been Israel.
Now he has the temerity to say he is the vine!

Jesus has said he is the bread of life, comparing himself to manna; he has said that he is the light of the world – the world, mind you! He called himself the good shepherd, a term reserved for the king. Now, he is going too far.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper.”
Really! He can’t be all those things unless he is something more than they had imagined.

Jesus proceeds with the metaphor, with the pruning and the cutting, and the production of fruit. There have some pretty simplistic sermons on this text. I might even have preached one once. Some of those sermons come at the image with chain saws, easily chopping off branches – good Christians stay on the vine and grow fruit; bad Christians, who are really not Christians at all, get cut off and burned up in a fire, which is, you know, eternal.

Every time I run across one of these sermons or Bible studies, the kind that stride through the vineyard and bark out the meaning of each and every symbol, making every text into allegory with a tidy one-to-one correspondence with every symbol and word, every time I see something like that, I want to call the writer in for an English lesson. About metaphors. Well, actually, I want to scream. God’s relationship with us in Christ can’t be reduced to slash and burn!

Jesus uses powerful metaphors to keep us from oversimplifying everything. He’s always speaking in riddles and parables, and they are rich, layered, nuanced statements. Besides, we know he wasn’t talking about good Christians and bad Christians, because there weren’t any Christians. There were lots of vineyards, though.

So instead of trotting through the grapevines with our pruning shears, cutting off all the people who don’t measure up, instead of clipping off all the edges, making this all neat and tidy and easy to understand, let’s stand for a moment out in the vineyard in the morning sun. The vines are strong and thick as tree trunks, and the branches so lush that they arch up over our heads. Light from the rising sun filters through the leaves, dappling our shoulders. In the distance, a pair of mourning doves murmur.

As the sun heats the rich soil, a mist rises from the ground, enveloping our feet, carrying with it the fragrance of earth, of leaves, of grapes. The grapes hang heavy from the vines, rich and round, succulent. Awakening birds rustle in the branches, tuning their morning songs. The vines are well tended and neat – you can see the places where tendrils and suckers have been pruned away. And at the end of the row, an untended branch has escaped the watchful eye of the vinedresser, and puts out a bunch of stunted leaves and fruit, small and bitter.

Soon the workers will come to their toil, the sun will rise in the sky and the heat will become oppressive. We’ll leave the vineyard and seek a cool place in the shade, where we can sit for a moment and taste the grapes, taste the wine.

When you stand out there in a vineyard, even in imagination, it is easy to see the importance of trimming branches of carefully pruning a vine. The grapes are so much sweeter, and healthier, when branches are well tended and stay securely connected to the vine. The branches have no future if they go it alone; the quest for independence leaves them dried up and withering; a move for self-sufficiency means death. Submitting to the pruner’s knife may cause some pain, but it results in greater strength and health, and sweeter fruit.

And the only way the branch can live, the only hope it has for a fruitful life, is in abiding in the vine. Jesus calls us to this mutual connection – abide in me and I will abide in you. That asks something of us – something more than just a nod and the occasional drop-in to a worship service. Such connection and mutuality require time, attention, and closeness. The vinedresser comes near to us, to prune away that which drains us, approaches with affection, not anger, with devotion, not discipline.

When we let God prune away our selfishness, our ridiculous notions of self-sufficiency, our prideful certainty, our fear and our shame, we flourish. Though it may be painful, at first, to give up the layers of false self that obscure our true selves, in the end it is freeing, life-giving, invigorating. It brings joy to us and glory to God.

Back in the early 1800s, a South African preacher wrote a lovely devotional on this text. The language is dated, but the thoughts are timeless. Here is what Andrew Murray said about “abiding in Christ.”

“When a new graft is placed in a vine and it abides there, there is a twofold process that takes place. The first is in the wood. The graft shoots its little roots and fibers down into the stem, and the stem grows up into the graft, and what has been called the structural union is effected. The graft abides and becomes one with the vine, and even though the vine were to die, would still be one wood with it.

Then there is the second process, in which the sap of the vine enters the new structure, and uses it as a passage through which sap can flow up to show itself in young shoots and leaves and fruit. Here is the vital union. Into the graft which abides in the stock, the stock enters with sap to abide in it. When our Lord says: "Abide in me, and I in you," He points to something analogous to this.

"Abide in me": that refers more to that which we have to do. We have to trust and obey, to detach ourselves from all else, to reach out after Him and cling to Him, to sink ourselves into Him. As we do this, through the grace He gives, a character is formed, and a heart prepared for the fuller experience: "I in you," God strengthens us with might by the Spirit in the inner man, and Christ dwells in the heart by faith.

… The work enjoined on us: "Abide in me," will prepare us for the work undertaken by Him: "I in you." … We are in Christ. Christ is in us: our life taken up into His; His life received into ours; in a divine reality that words cannot express, we are in Him and He in us. And the words, "Abide in me and I in you," just tell us to believe it, …to make it divinely true.

No thinking or teaching or praying can grasp it; it is a divine mystery of love. …
Let us just look upon this infinite, divine, omnipotent Vine loving us, holding us, working in us. Let us in the faith of His working abide and rest in Him, ever turning heart and hope to Him alone.”[1]

For a faith that is rooted in Christ, growing in grace, and producing the fruits of loving kindness, mercy and generosity, we need to stay connected, vine and branches, joined to one another and to God, letting Christ’s power flow into us and mercy flow out of us, letting the sacrificial love of Jesus course through us and the joy of service go to our heads like new wine.


[1] The True Vine, by Rev. Andrew Murray

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