Our scripture from the Gospel of John today is the last of the “I am” statements that we find only in this Gospel. “I am what I am” is not one of them; that “I am” statement belongs to Popeye. Jesus is more concrete when he claims, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, and I am the way, the truth and the life. Finally Jesus says, I am the vine and God is the vine grower. Our morning’s scripture for reflection is from the Gospel of John, fifthteenth chapter.
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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
I’ve never had a vineyard, or even one grapevine but I do know that there are certain wise and prudent practices that must happen in order to grow healthy, delicious grapes. I’m sure that you winemakers are very aware of what makes for a really grape good. Grape plants need to be planted in soil with good drainage, they need lots of warm sun and they should be trained to grow on a trellis so that the grapes can grow freely and unencumbered and so that fungus doesn’t decide to take up residence and ruin it for everybody.
Grapevines also need to be pruned like most all flowering and fruit producing plants. In fact it is essential for the vines to be pruned. The best grapes that the vine produces are closest to the central vine, that’s where the nutrients are concentrated. You can’t let the other little shoots and branches ramble on their merry way because they will steal the energy that is needed for healthy fruit. When that happens you wind up with puny and less fruit. Sounds simple, right? Probably not so much however in application.
Vines, vineyards, branches and grapes, planting and pruning, Jesus uses plain practical illustrations in metaphorical form to introduce priorities for Christian living. The disciples were salt of the earth kind of guys. Farmers, fishermen, grape growers, boat makers, when it came to their lot in life and their stature they were plain old folk, unpretentious and unassuming, hard working and struggling.
But now, added to the daily challenges of their first century agricultural life, they are trying to define what it means to live in community with one another in a contentious land and as followers of Jesus who are bound together by his love and commands. This challenge too is not so different for us Jesus-followers today.
Like the person sitting across from you in the pews, and the ones in the balcony and the one in the pulpit, we each desire to make meaning for our lives, to engage in meaningful work, to love and to be loved, to do the ‘right’ things in life, to be accepted for who we are, and to have our soul fed and nurtured. And, we each have been given gifts for ministry. How do we negotiate our special and unique gifts alongside of and maybe even twisted around one another like branches on a vine do?
How do we live in community while utilizing our gifts in a culture that promotes individualism and self-expression? None of us are mavericks! John’s passage illustrates this and challenges our Western way of thinking. It’s not about ‘me’ it’s about us. Even in this culture of self-expression and individualism we are taught here by Jesus to remain interwoven together on the branch that God has lovingly grown for us. When we remain as branches on a vine, taken care of by God we are never alone and we will produce rich and succulent fruit.
We live in Christian community so that when tragedies happen in Wilton or her surrounding areas like they did this past week we can grieve together the loss. We can comfort and console one another through words of encouragement and acts of love. We pray together to strengthen ourselves and the people affected by tragedy. We come to church and find community in our common lot, where we can sit beside one another and know, perhaps even without using words, that we share a common bond. This is the very best of the church; branch’s twined together in Christ.
And what keeps us twined together is that we abide in Christ as he abides in us. And we know that he was all about love. Sweet love, tender love, correcting love, motivating love. Love is the motivation for all that we do and all that we say. “The mark of community is how it loves, not who are its members”, says Candler School of Theology, Dean Gail O’Day. What matters is that we love deeply and thoughtfully together.
Abide in love; Christ in us and we in him. Abide, that is to live. It’s not a word that we probably use too often, sounds a little ‘Old English’ to me. Eugene Peterson in The Message, hears it as “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” Jesus is the life giving vine in which we are to make our home. It is to be an “intimate and organic” relationship.
He is where your love is to reside. And, more important you are where Jesus resides and when Jesus resides or abides in you, you can endure anything that comes your way. When you acknowledge that he abides in you then you can bear the toll that living takes. Once he stakes claim in you, once he moves in and puts out the welcome mat, he never leaves. Knowing this enables us to overcome the adversities and distractions that are present to us each day.
Even elderly folks in a nursing home, with all varying degrees of mental illness and dementia will remarkably join in the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm or one of their favorite hymns when they seemingly are completely out of it. That’s because Christ took up residence in their hearts and never left even though their mind has. “Abide in me”, he says.
The disciples dropped their fishing nets, left their homes but they were never homeless. Live in me, abide in me was Jesus’ invitation to them and it is here they found their home. Let us also live in Jesus where countless others have made their home; twined together abiding in love.