Grace Presbyterian Church
April 29, 2018, Easter 5B
Branches of the Vine
I am no gardener. If you ever see our house and get impressed by all the lush vegetation by the front door, know that it’s all Julia’s doing. She’s the one who does all the work, choosing and digging and planting and fertilizing and watering and all that stuff and probably things I’ve forgotten. I definitely have no green thumb, and I don’t think I even rise to the level of a brown thumb – when it comes to that kind of endeavor, I basically have no thumb at all.
Now if you look at that garden space, you’ll see that there are a lot of plants that are principally pollinators or pollenizers. They’re very good plants for bees and butterflies to muck around in and pick up pollen and spread around to other plants in the garden or elsewhere in the neighborhood or even beyond, depending on the bee or butterfly. Given the difficult state of bee populations both in Florida and worldwide, this feels like something worthwhile to do. Maybe we’re doing some good, you know?
What our garden – excuse me, Julia’s garden – doesn’t contain is any food-bearing plant. Aside from one that produces a fruit that looks like an extra-large blackberry except for being purple or even mauve, the plants in the garden are not meant to “bear fruit,” at least not anything that we humans should be eating. There are a couple of vines, true, but they are pretty clearly decorative rather than fruit-bearing, so if their branches splay out all over the place, well, that’s kind of the point. It looks lovely, until the vine gets too spread out and withers and has to be trimmed back.
You see where this is going, right?
Jesus is making about as direct a metaphor as possible for both his connection to God and his connection to us, using the vine as that connecting point in both cases. First, if Jesus is the vine, then God is the vinegrower, the one charged with caring for and maintaining the vine so that it bears the most fruit possible. That means that in some cases, branches of the vine that don’t bear fruit have to be removed, in order that the good fruit-bearing vines are able to bear more fruit.
This is one of those passages that certain gatekeeper-types in the church love to jump on, apparently because they get awfully excited about shipping people off to Hell. Notice that this is not where Jesus goes with the metaphor; those branches are simply removed. Of course, to those reading or hearing John’s gospel, being cut off from the community (the more likely interpretation of being “removed”) was frightening enough. Does that actually frighten us any more?
But even the branches that do bear fruit face their own “cutting.” The Vinegrower prunes the good fruit-bearing branches, in order that they will continue to bear fruit and increase in bearing fruit. Maybe that’s an image that gives us pause. You have no problem with pruning the plants in your garden (though I’d guess that if you were able to ask those plants, they’d respond that it’s not any fun to be pruned), but the idea of “pruning” away parts of our livesin some fashion sounds rather harsh to us. But indeed, I suspect if we looked back we might be able to identify times when things we thought were important or meaningful parts of our lives turned out to be pruned away, only for our lives to become more fruitful in the end.
Then comes the use of an important word in this part of John’s gospel. Jesus instructs his followers to “abide in me as I abide in you.” The Merriam-Webster app on my phone [note: the online version gives the same] give me such meanings as “to bear patiently”, “to endure without yielding”, “to wait for”, “to accept without objection”, and “to remain stable or fixed in a state” before finally getting to a definition that comes somewhat close to what the Greek work John uses means. The dictionary speaks of a meaning “to continue in a place”, and even uses a scripture-ish sounding phrase to demonstrate the meaning. That does get at the idea somewhat (the word “remain” sometimes appears here too), but doesn’t capture the full force of the idea of not only remaining in place, but dwelling deeply in that place. If we are not abiding in Jesus, not just staying in place but dwelling deeply, taking our spiritual sustenance and strength and growth in nothing other than Jesus, then we are gonna end up as one of those branches that gets trimmed away. Branches can’t bear fruit by themselves, after all; they have to be connected to the vine.
Of course, the next part of this passage makes the metaphor even clearer. Those branches Jesus keeps talking about? That’s us. And like those vine branches, if we get ourselves separated from the Lord, we bear no fruit; we wither, we dry up and are tossed away, good for nothing but to be burned off. If we abide in Jesus, we bear much fruit.
We bear much fruit, and God is glorified. That’s the kicker in the end; all of this business about vines and branches and pruning and pulling away is, in the end, how we are part of the business of bringing glory to our God. When we “bear much fruit,” that’s when we are disciples of Jesus.
The apostle Paul extends this idea in his letter to the Galatians, expounding in chapter 5 on the idea of what those fruits – “the fruit of the Spirit” as he puts it – might be; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. When these are the qualities most prominently displayed in our lives, when this is what people see in us – not just individuals, but usas the body of Christ – we are being Christ’s disciples, and glorifying God above.
We bear that fruit by remaining – dwelling deeply – in Christ. We can’t bear that fruit any other way, we branches. When we abide in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us, we glorify God and bear much fruit. We live like disciples. And when the world sees that, they want to see more. Thus we bear witness. And that’s what it is to be branches of the vine.
For abiding – we in Jesus, he in us – Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #244, This Joyful Eastertide; #—, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (insert); #504, We Come as Guests Invited; #765, May the God of Hope Go With Us