The Rev. Jennifer Adams – April 29, 2018 – Easter 5, Year B: John 15:1-8, 1 John 4:17-21
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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… My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:1-8)
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love… if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit…The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (I John)
Well the gospel today gives us a very beautiful and also very challenging image for us to consider as Jesus speaks to his disciples about the vine and the branches. Last week if you’ll remember we heard about Jesus as the Good Shepherd who gathers and protects the sheep. It was a comforting image, one of the most comforting in all of Scripture, in fact. Jesus as the Good Shepherd speaks to us of the care given us by the One who came to love. It’s often chosen for funerals and it’s a favorite in children’s Sunday School classes, all for good reason.
In that parable we see sheep (us) watching the shepherd, on good days, anyway. And we also see Him watching over us. The sheep look for the Shepherd; they listen for his voice, the parable says, and the sheep are slung over the shoulder and brought home when needed, as another parable tells it. In that image of Christ, the Shepherd leads and guides, gathers and feeds. Our role as sheep is to follow – to watch, to listen, in order to follow well.
And that role is consistent with how we’ve heard Jesus talk in this gospel of John and in the other gospels too. “Come, follow me,” was the language he used in three of the gospels early in the game to call the disciples and others. And there was the phrase woven throughout the journey, “If you want to follow me, do ______.” And so the disciples did just that, they followed. And following was exactly what they were doing when Jesus told them this parable about the vine and the branches.
But in this parable, Jesus took the whole discipleship thing up a notch. He used different words and a much more challenging image for how they were and we are to be with Christ and one another too. To follow wasn’t and isn’t enough. There is more to give and more to receive than “following” can accomplish. And so, in this parable, Jesus offered them a means to more.
“I am the vine and you are the branches,” he said. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Notice, it’s not follow but abide. In other words: Dwell in me. Live in me. Heal in me. Grow in me. And not only that, Jesus also added, “I will abide and live in you too.”
Which is huge! Think about the difference, because this difference matters. More is given and more is expected of us in this parable than the other. “Following” one can do blindly, as the saying goes. To abide in, to dwell in means that you see it all, you feel it all. There is a holy and sacred interconnectedness that runs deep and is vital to this image of branches and vine.
Following, you can do from a distance. But you can’t abide in with any distance at all. And so this is an entirely different way to speak of life in Christ. It’s a different way to talk about the relationships that are Christian faith and community too. This is more intimate and differently life-giving. “Abide in me,” Jesus said. “Dwell in me. Live in me. Grow in me. And I will in you too,” He told them.
Which is absolutely beautiful. But there is a different kind of caretaking and nurturing here than what came with the Good Shepherd. This is more challenging to be sure. Because I’m just not sure that life as a sheep is all that hard, really. The sheep were called out to, they were fed, carried, led. Period. The Shepherd never spoke of pruning or producing anything.
And the branches in this image are fed through the vine, but there are expectations because via that food, there are abilities, gifts given to each branch. Each branch, we heard, is to produce good fruit, and in order for that to happen, pruning is done by the vine grower. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower,” Jesus said. “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Every branch over time gets trimmed.
And in case you want or need a little more detail on that, I read this week from a vine growing expert that: “Light pruning doesn’t promote adequate fruiting, whereas heavy pruning provides the greatest quality of grapes.” And I’m sorry to be the bearer of that news.
But I do want to say something here about that. Because some of the best and most loving work I see in this place is when someone among us is getting pruned. And we help discern if that’s actually what’s happening. I don’t want to say that every loss is the will of the vine grower by any means, but at least some of it is. Some of what happens to us is that over time we are cut back in order to grow.
Now the good news is that it doesn’t happen to us all at the same time, unless it’s a communal prune. And some of the most Christ-like presence I see among you, is when branch to branch, you say, ‘It’s OK, friend, buddy, sister, brother branch… you will live, and you will grow.” And then together you wait. And together you come to trust the vine grower.
And over time you start to feel the sun hit the newly opened place in yourself and you see the buds and the sprouts that you might not have believed would ever come. And sometimes it’s another branch that tells you the growth is there, because it can be hard to see yourself.
“Knowing how to prune grapes can make the difference between a good crop and a bad one,” this vine expert wrote. Which is why (as a gentle reminder) we should never prune each other. We can’t prune each other. The pruning is in good and holy hands. And as branches we’re in this vine together, and we have hope and presence and vision to offer each other as we learn how to live.
And so this image of faith tells us that we have been given this intimate, life-giving connection to the One who came to love, and who asks us to do the same. And through these relationships we share, we will be fed, we will grow, and we will be pruned in order to grow more. And sometimes the pruning is something we welcome, but often it’s not. It’s the dwelling we do, that we’re invited to trust and to witness that new growth comes.
One of my favorite authors who writes about leadership and community is Margaret Wheatley. She’s written several books about organizational development, and she wrote a book several years ago that focused on connection called, Turning To One Another. In it she talks about the dangers of isolation (not solitude, but isolation) and the vital role connection plays in health, life, and vital ways of being in this world. I think that’s what this parable is trying to tell us:
“As I write this,” Wheatley says, “though my window I’ve noticed a mother bird flying back and forth, worms dangling from her beak…Watching her I’m reminded of my own work [of working and growing] and suddenly, I feel connected to all other beings who are trying to keep life going. A brief moment of noticing one hard-working bird, and I feel different, more connected…I describe sacred as the feeling that I belong here.” [we might say “dwell here” or “abide here.”]
“We are suffering from living in a fragmented state,” she goes on. “Separated from each other, cut off from nature, we can’t experience sacred. And I think we know what we’re missing… We know we’re missing the richest experience of being human…We can’t experience sacred in isolation. It is always an experience of connecting. It doesn’t have to be another person. (Remember I just connected with a bird)…
“The connection moves us outside ourselves,” says Wheatley, “into something greater. Because we move out beyond ourselves, the experience of sacred is often described as liberating. Sacred experiences always offer gentle reassurance that everything is all right, just as it is. People describe this awareness as surrender, or acceptance, or grace. If only for a moment, we let down our guard and experience life undefended. Defenseless, we feel peace.. the peace that is found in experiencing ourselves as part of something bigger and wiser than our little, crazed self [our little crazed branch.] The community we belong to,” she concludes, “is all of life.
“I am the vine, and you are the branches, Jesus said. Abide in me. Dwell in me. Live in me, Grow in me. “And I will abide in you too.” Know that you will be pruned, for good. Remember that the branch next to you might be getting pruned right now and so that sister or brother branch could use your kind words, your presence, your hope. Know also that birds will visit your branches, like they did for Margaret Wheatley. We aren’t meant to be alone. Finally, know that through the vine you will be fed, nourished. Always. And that through you that love will come as good fruit. It will be grace for the world.