Do you love Napa and Sonoma? What do those beautiful rolling hills and rows of growing grapes tell us about God and about ourselves? Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” What might we learn and hear through the grapevine this week? All are welcome! No wine-country experience necessary!
‘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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Long before we could’ve imagined living in Northern California, while I was still a seminary student in Chicago, Mike and I got engaged in Napa Valley. So that place of vine and fruit, wine and grapes holds a special place in our hearts. I know it does for many of you as well for so many reasons.
There’s no place like the California wine country; I think. It’s sunny, hilly, beautiful and filled with the fragrance of fine wine and growing grapes.
And those fires last year were so devastating, but we’re learning about the resilience and the community and the hope of that place.
This church sent financial assistance to those rebuilding up north; I am grateful for the ways in which this congregation can give so generously to support and minster to those beyond these walls. And I’ve heard one of the best ways to support those still trying to rebuild and survive following the fires is to go and visit and support these local businesses. Tell them your pastor sent you.
And go, not just to support the economy but because I truly believe that as people of faith, just by being there, we can learn more about God and our relationship to God.
You see, today’s scripture lesson was told to an agrarian society, to a people who, even if farming and grape-growing weren’t their main line of work, they probably still would have known something about it. And having that understanding about what it means to be a vine-grower or fruit on the vine would be helpful for understanding a passage like today’s.
But many of us, even if we love Napa and Sonoma don’t know a whole lot about what it means to grow grapes on the vine. In fact, in hindsight, I should’ve visited wine country this week for the sake of “sermon research.” But luckily, Jesus develops this metaphor enough, allowing us to have access to it whether we know the imagery intimately or not.
He lays it out quite clearly, “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 … apart from me you can do nothing.”
For those who’ve grown up in the church or are familiar with the church, these are probably well-known words. They are the last of Jesus’ “I am” statements in the gospel of John.
Throughout this gospel, we hear Jesus referring to himself as the Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Narrow Gate, and today he is the True Vine.
Now, all this sounds pretty straight forward, easy enough except, perhaps, for this word, “abide.”
It’s not one we use all that often anymore. It sounds archaic, perhaps outdated. And yet, this word is the very thing we are asked to do.
Often, we assume that our job is to be branches that bear fruit. We want to bear fruit; we want to see the results of our actions, the “fruits of our labor” if you will.
But, in fact, the commandment isn’t to go and bear fruit, but to abide. “Bearing fruit” simply reveals whether we are abiding or not.
So what’s this funny little word mean? Our scriptures today choose to translate this Greek word, meno, as abide. But it also means to remain in something, to live, to dwell and to persist.
There’s a connotation, that “abiding” requires some perseverance, some endurance, and even an ability to bear with one another patiently. (“One another” because this commandment isn’t addressed to the singular you, an individual, but to the communal “y’all” as we say in south, the plural- all of us together).
When you add that “persistence” piece to it, the enduring and the bearing with, along with the communal aspect, all of sudden, it doesn’t seem all that straightforward or all that easy.
Because, you see, the soil that we’ve been cultivated in, this society, this culture, the world around us, oftentimes has malnourished us. We’ve been conditioned to expect immediate results. Letters that only take a few days to travel across the entire country is called “snail mail.” We binge watch entire seasons of shows when we used to have to wait a week for the next episode. We’re not used to waiting for anything anymore.
Furthermore, this soil that we’ve been growing in has often conditioned us to be selfish and noncommittal. “Have it your way,” Burger King says, and if you can’t, go somewhere where you can. And this applies not just to our consumer-driven market, but to the way we approach even our communities of faith. We literally call it “church shopping,” don’t we?
And I’m not saying we shouldn’t look for churches that feed us spirituality and help us grow in our faith, but I am saying that doesn’t always look like comfort and familiarity.
Growth, spiritual and otherwise, requires a kind of stretching and discomfort, a church should not only comfort you but challenge you and force you to push the limits of your comfort zone.
We live, we abide, in an individualistic, consumer-driven society. And as such, we’ve subscribed to a low-commitment, low-perseverance, under-nourished kind of faith.
And to that Jesus says, “I am the true vine … abide in me.” remain in me, stay in me, live and dwell in me; persevere in me; and bear with one another in me. Forget that vineyard you’ve been hanging out it in, and come to one where God is the vine-grower, where Christ is the vine, and where branches stay a while and learn to love one another.
Things don’t happen instantly in this vineyard, we gotta learn to patient and to just remain.
It reminds me a little of the bluegrass music we’re enjoying this morning. It’s like a song that hearkens from the past, a counter-cultural challenge of the mainstream, an invitation to just sit and be and enjoy the music, to simply enjoy abiding. It almost seems anachronistic in this hurried and busy day and age.
And we don’t always get what we want in this vineyard because it’s not just about one branch, it’s about us all, the flourishing and the growing of us all. We also don’t just get to leave or demand others to leave when we disagree because we’ve committed to each other and to this vine that promises to nourish, sustain and make us whole.
The more we abide, the more likely it is that we’ll bear fruit. But it doesn’t just end the moment we become branches that bear fruit. Verse 2 says, “Every branch that bears fruit, the vine-grower prunes to make it bear more fruit.” We are constantly and continually attended to by God, always cared for.
God is our vine-grower, pruning us, stripping us of the things that harm, and providing for us the things that help us flourish. No matter how young or how old we are, God’s work in our lives is not yet done, our growing is not yet over.
Now the branches and the vine and the vine-grower are all vital, but when you go to wine country, what you usually notice are the grapes. We know that behind and underneath these fruits there must be an intricate vine and branch system that allows for those grapes to grow, but most people can’t even see those individual branches.
That’s not what we notice. Most people, especially those who do not know better, are amazed by the fruit.
And perhaps in the same way, as the Church, what’s important is showing forth the fruit, not our individual accomplishments, but our collective ability to love and be loved.
That’s what the world should see, so that others, too, are drawn to this particular vineyard.
Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love, is the fruit that we bear as well as the vine we abide in. That is what we show forth to the world and what sustains and nourishes us.
So, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”