May 3, 2015
During Lent this year, our ecumenical noontime worship centered on the “I AM” statements of Jesus, that we find in the Gospel of John. The final week’s text was the gospel lesson we are going to hear today, from John 15. “I am the true vine,” Jesus told his disciples. As we gathered for lunch and worship, I shared some thoughts on this passage that came out of my first attempt to make grape jelly several years ago.
Some of you told me afterward that I had left you hanging – I never told you how the jelly turned out! Well, today, you get to hear the end of the story. But first, for those of you who weren’t there, I probably should give you the background.
Our neighbor’s grapevine straddled the fence between our yards. One year, I decided it was time to put those grapes on our side of the fence to good use. I read the complete article on jelly making from Joy of Cooking, and decided to try the “old-fashioned natural” method that didn’t require a thermometer or commercial pectin. I knew the jelly probably would be less stiff, but the cookbook promised “a far superior product, depending on the quality of the fruit.”
So, I mashed the grapes, covered them with water, and waited for them to cook. Then I strained the grapes and juice through a jelly bag, just as I had seen my mother do when I was a little girl. While the grape juice was draining out of the bag, I kept thinking about that “quality of the fruit” phrase. I had time to sit down with John 15 again, and think about Jesus’ vine metaphor…
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 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.” – John 15:1-8
As soon as Jesus identifies himself as the vine, he names the Father as the vine grower, the one who owns and tends the vineyard. Last week, we heard Jesus call himself the Good Shepherd, the one who cares for the sheep, but now he calls his Father the caregiver. And grapevines take a lot of care. They are a labor-intensive crop.
The first task in growing healthy grapevines is pruning. Dead wood must be cut away, and a good deal of new growth must be trimmed away early in the growing season, so that the branches bearing the fruit will receive plenty of nutrients and sunshine. In verse three, Jesus says that we have been “cleansed” by the word he has spoken to us. Cleansing, in this case, is pruning. God removes our dead wood, and trims away the areas of our lives that do not bear fruit, when we pay attention to his word.
In this vine metaphor, it’s important to remember that we are the branches, not the fruit. Our job, as branches, isn’t to focus on the fruit. Our job is to stay connected to the Vine. God will take care of the fruit. We may be cut off from Christ, the vine, if we produce no fruit at all. But we can only produce fruit if we abide in the vine.
That word, “abide,” isn’t one we use very often any more. I think the last time I heard it was at the end of the movie, The Big Lebowski. When The Dude is commended for taking it easy, he replies, “Well, you know, The Dude abides.” But taking it easy isn’t exactly what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples, “abide in me.” He knew he would be crucified the next day, for the sins of the world.
David Lose writes:
“If the cross means anything, I think it means that God chose not to sit back in heaven, removed from the pain and paucity of our mortal, free, and difficult life in this world, but rather came in Christ to be joined to it – the ups and downs, the hopes and disappointments, the frailties and faults of our life in this world – so that we would know of God’s unending commitment to us. The cross was not the instrument that made it possible for God to love us, the cross is evidence and testimony to just how much God already loved us and God’s promise to be with us through all things. Just so, the resurrection is the promise that no matter how much tragedy we endure, these hardships will not have the last word.”
Abiding doesn’t mean taking it easy. It’s more than “resting in the Lord.” When Jesus says, “abide in me,” he’s saying, “Remain in me. Continue in me. Keep on keeping on in me. Live in me.” This kind of abiding is an active engagement with the person of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And it is ongoing, continually being renewed and refreshed. Just as Jesus is rooted in God the Father, he is also our life source. He is the true Vine, and we are the branches that bear fruit.
Because, if we don’t bear fruit, or the quality of our fruit isn’t good, we lose our connection to Christ. We become separated from him, and that way leads to death and destruction. Jesus is pretty clear on this. By remaining in him, abiding in him, we are fed and nourished, and we bear abundant good fruit. But if we pull away from him and try to grow fruit on our own, without any connection to the true Vine, we will wither and die. And dead branches are only good for burning.
In the Wednesday evening Bible study, as we talked through the passage from First John that you heard earlier, the question came up, “What makes us afraid?” We fear the unknown, certainly. We fear what we can’t explain. Sometimes we fear what we do know. A spouse who suffers repeated domestic violence, a child who sees a familiar bully coming down the hallway at school – these can trigger fear that comes from experience. We fear pain, whether it’s physical or emotional. But I think what many people fear most is death itself. We don’t know what lies beyond this life, how the process of death will unfold, what our final judgment before the throne of God will be like. Knowing that we are not worthy of God’s grace or mercy, we may fear – even as Christians – that somehow our sins will overwhelm us, and we will be cast off like dead branches.
In 1 John 4:16-18, the Elder reminds us, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
Abiding in Christ means living in love, and there is no fear in love, for perfect love throws fear out on its ear. Abiding in Christ leads to fruitfulness. The fruit we bear is love. We will hear more about that from the gospel reading for next week, but even in this passage from First John, it’s clear that love is the whole point. In fourteen verses, John uses the word “love” 28 times!
And that love, shared freely with every other person, brings glory to God. This is our whole purpose for remaining in Christ. The fruit we grow is the love we show, and the love we show gives God glory.
For jelly, it’s best to harvest the grapes when they are just barely ripe, and maybe a few are even a little green. Since branches don’t like to let go of their grapes, the clusters have to be cut from the vine.
We enjoy feeling God’s love for us – it’s sweet to hold on and savor that goodness; it’s hard, sometimes, to make ourselves vulnerable to others, to give away the love God has grown in us. But Jesus encourages us to let God the vine dresser distribute the fruit according to His plan.
Sometimes it may mean that the fruit gets ripe at an inconvenient time, and the harvest pushes our plans aside. Sometimes, it means that the fruit is a little green, not so sweet. But not all the grapes are green at harvest time. Mature fruit has its own purpose, too.
By definition, fruit holds seeds. Unless the fruit ripens, it will be impossible for those seeds to develop into something worth planting. As followers of Jesus, our purpose is to make more disciples. We need to allow our own seeds of faith, surrounded by the ripe fruit of God’s love, to develop into something worth planting in the hearts of others.
I learned a couple of other things from making jelly. Straining juice through a cloth bag, to get the clearest juice possible, takes time. If you squeeze the bag to speed things up, all you accomplish is getting stuff in your jelly that belongs in the compost. Your jelly won’t be clear and beautiful. It’s important to let God refine us in His own good time, for the highest quality, for the clearest product.
And sometimes, things get messy. Love isn’t always tidy. Following Christ isn’t always neat and easy. Grape juice stains easily, and the stain is usually permanent. But, depending on the quality of the fruit, God promises a far superior product to anything the world can offer.
God’s deep desire for us is to stay connected, to care for us as intensively as a vinedresser cares for a vineyard. If we will continue our ongoing commitment to the process, living in and staying connected to Christ, God will grow good fruit in us.
That first batch of jelly was beautiful. It even set up pretty well. The flavor took me back to my childhood, to the jelly my mom used to make. It was way better than Welch’s. I took a jar of the jelly to my neighbor, who had planted the grapevine but never picked the grapes. Every summer after that, I paid “rent” on the grapevine with a jar of jelly.
Some years, there weren’t enough grapes to make even one batch. Other years, the grapes didn’t ripen at the same time, and the birds got most of them before I could gather enough for jelly making. But usually, I could count on spending Labor Day weekend in my kitchen, watching purple juice drip from a jelly bag.
Going back to John 15 each time I made jelly became part of that ritual.
As we gather at this Table today, we observe another ritual that includes the fruit of the vine. As you take the cup, remembering that Christ’s blood was poured out for your sake, may it also remind you to abide in Christ, to stay connected to the true Vine, that you may bear good fruit.
Let us allow God to take his time with us, as we share his love with others, planting seeds of faith in those around us. May God prune us and tend us, that the fruit we bear for his Kingdom might be sweet and plentiful. Amen.