Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/x3y4idH5xNM.
Easter 5B 15 John 15
John 15: 1-8
“I am the true vine and my father is the vine grower.” This is a very familiar metaphor and not difficult to understand. Understanding it is one thing, however, but embracing it, and living it, abiding in it, is another.
“I am the vine,” Jesus says, in the last of his “I am’s”, and we should hear this along with all the other word pictures that Jesus gives us about himself. To be the vine, along with being living water and the bread of life, is to be the source of life, the source of nourishment, and more particularly, the stabilizer, the thing that unites us and holds us together as a church. And he is not just any vine, he is the true vine, he says. There is only one source of life and we must stay connected to him. This image is a corporate one, Jesus is addressing his disciples as a group and it is as a church that we are his branches, like it or not, connected to the whole plant, through the vine that is Jesus. But we are not to be a wild plant left to grow willy-nilly as we have God, the Father, who is the vine grower, or vine dresser, to tend to us.
There is some word play here in the Greek between the word ‘prune’ and the word ‘cleanse’, which is really ‘wash’. The ideas are linked by a common root in the Greek.. We will be washed in the sacrament of baptism, and delicately cut back to realize our full potential for growth. The Father is the ultimate gardener and if anyone can make us bear fruit it is he. This is precision tending. Just before Jesus says this to the disciples he has washed their feet so that, like him, they might be his servants and also serve one another. And like them we have already been cleansed, Jesus says, by the words he has spoken to us.
The thing that is easy to miss as soon as we start thinking about being cut back, cleansed and expected to bear fruit is that this is not about acts, or what we are called to do, but about relationships and who we are called to be.
We are to abide, stay, live, exist, dwell “in” Jesus. It is about our connection, our relationship, established in love, which allows us to be baptized, we are connected into Jesus life, which is the body of Christ, the church.
This intimate connection, being the outworking of Jesus himself, being the branches of his vine, isn’t optional in any sense. Jesus says, “those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing”. It is in the connectedness that you bear fruit.
But do you notice that the bearing of fruit isn’t of your volition- you don’t have a choice, except the choice to stay abiding? The fruit comes along at the Father’s pleasure. It isn’t something we do! It is the spontaneous result of being connected to Jesus and cleansed by God. We often think that we are required to bring forth fruit and so we strain to do so- we think of things we can do for God, for others. The reality is that the fruit is God’s business- he is the vine dresser and it is his work that brings forth the fruit in us.
The question is, what does that fruit look like? How do we know that we are bearing fruit? Well, if we manifest who Jesus is, if we show love and sacrifice and generosity then God has brought forth fruit from the branch. If we, as a diverse and prickly group of people can love each other and those around us, outside the church, then we are bringing forth fruit. If we can show generosity to each other and to the stranger then we are bringing forth fruit. If we are prepared to sacrifice ourselves, in care for each other and those around us, then we are like Jesus, our vine. I said before that bringing forth fruit is not something we do by volition. However, God gives us the capacity, the strength, the vitality, but we can still choose whether we act when we are called to, whether we allow the fruit of our lives to be shared by those around. This is the great paradox of the life we have in God. The fact that we have free will and we are always able to exercise it in our actions, gives us agency. God doesn’t transform us so that we become automatons. God prunes us, strengthens us and changes us inwardly which gives us the ability to act for God, to be the people he has pruned us to be, but we can always choose whether or not we will love, whether or not we will be generous.
As a way of seeing what this might look like, let us consider the passage we read from Acts about Philip, sent by God and an Ethiopian eunuch called by God.
The first thing that I notice is that an angel of the Lord instructs the pruned and cleansed Philip to go into the wilderness. Now, we have no idea whether he wanted to go, one could imagine him, rolling over in bed and saying to the angel, “send someone else”. Philip gets up and goes. Here is his choice born out of the relationship, the abiding in Jesus that he is doing. When he gets into the wilderness, that liminal space on the edge of civilisation, a frightening and wild place, which is surely significant, he finds a person. Now this person, according to the Jewish law is one who can never take his place in temple worship- can never come close to God, can never be part of the vine. Why? Because he is of the wrong race, and the wrong colour, and more than that his gender is ambiguous, he has either been mutilated by the act of castration, or stranger still, in the Jewish mind, has chosen celibacy. This man will never be part of the Jewish community. We in Australia, until recently, with our white Australia policy, would have also not accepted him. Now thanks be to God, we have our beautiful Sudanese friends, and people of many other races as part of our community.
This man is reading Isaiah, Isaiah the great prophet of justice and mercy and acceptance. He is reading a passage that speaks of sacrifice and Philip interprets it as Jesus’ sacrificial suffering and death, which has changed the world forever.
The Spirit of God moves in the heart of the hearer and he claims the promise of inclusion, the promise of God’s generosity and love. He asks Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” -the answer of course, is nothing! There is nothing that can keep this person from God’s love. God’s generosity, God’s justice and mercy as told to us in the prophet Isaiah, excludes nobody. God loves this court official in the same way he loves Philip, with the Greek name, in the same way he loves Paul the perfect Jew, in the same way he loves Mary Magdalene the outcast woman, in the same way he loves you. There is no barrier, none of the man-made exclusions exist. God welcomes all. This man, and I wish we had his name, this man is washed, and cleansed in baptism and beyond and he will be pruned, as he is now part of the vine. He will go on and bear fruit. Indeed the church in North Africa claims him as their founder, a man who could never pass muster in the exclusive world of human contrivance, and yet used by God to bear much fruit, fruit that endures.
So, we are joined in relationship with Jesus, in Jesus, to the others who are also part of the vine and we are to bear the fruit of the vine. Have you ever read the tasting notes on a bottle of wine. Some wines have blackberry notes, or a bouquet of cinnamon, or an earthy undertone, the fruit that we are bearing has the smell of love about it. In the epistle we read we are urged, over and over again to love, because love is what characterizes God. Indeed God IS love and when we abide in him, there’s that word again, we have to stick with him, his love is perfected in us. That is the fruit that we bear, love, which has its outworking in compassion and gentleness, mercy and justice, generosity and inclusion. And this love, the writer tells us, drives out fear. It is fear that stops us from giving the fruit we have produced to others. Fear of scarcity, fear of difference, fear of rejection, fear of what others will think, fear of not being loved, not being held in God’s arms, are all things that plague us. They cause us to reject others, to fail to love. Let me suggest that when any of us feels a lack of generosity, or a hardening of our hearts, we ask ourselves, ”What am I frightened of?” It’s a very interesting exercise, and the answer, if we are honest with ourselves, will often surprise us.
But God’s perfect love, the fruit that we bear, is able to cast out that fear for us, and for others. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches that bear the fruit of God’s making. We are the church of God in the world. So, “Beloved, God’s beloved, let us love one another!”