Easter V, Year B
May 10, 2009
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
Let us pray. Almighty and merciful God, your Word calls us to abide in you; to so dwell in you that it is no longer we who live, but your Spirit living through us. As we abide in you, your Spirit empowers us to love, enables us to forgive, invites us to joyous worship, admonishes us to repentance, challenges us to faithfulness and obedience, and beckons us to intimacy with both Creator and creation. We bless you and praise you for loving us with an everlasting, limitless love and for entrusting to us the responsibility and joy of participating in your vineyard. Amen.
When you think of fine wine (that is, if you think of wine at all, which you may or may not depending on your tradition or which town you live in) your mind and palate might wander to a particular region of France. The French have a long history of vintage winemaking and have provided the names for most of the well-known varieties of win with which we are familiar. Champagne, Bordeaux, Chardonnay, Burgundy, just to name a few, are all regions that have given their names to certain types of French wine that, in order to be authentic, must have originated in that region. The stuff that ball players spray on each other after the World Series, for example, might be called champagne, but if the bottle indicates it came from anywhere other than a specific region in France, it’s just “sparkling wine.”
While the French might appear to be the paradigm of wine snobbery, more adventurous winemakers have lately been branching out, if you will pardon the pun. Leaving behind the conservative and highly regulated regions of their homeland, some French winemakers have moved to America’s more freewheeling wine country around Napa, California, because, as Philippe Melka puts it, “Here, you not only have a lot more options, but there is an excitement about trying new things.” Nicolas Morlet, who descends from a long line of champagne producers, agrees: “It is completely different here. We have the freedom to fully realize our passion, to push our limits with every vintage. We aren’t working under a classification made in 1855 or a constitution of grands crus (French for “great growth”).
Still, some there are some absolute truths about winemaking. One foundational principle that applies to both Old World and New World wine is that great wine is always a reflection of a particular vineyard. That statement bears repeating: Great wine is always a reflection of a particular vineyard.
If you want to pick a good wine, in other words, you have to know the source.
Jesus obviously knew more than a little bit about wine himself, since we often see him at dinner parties in the gospels and since he knew exactly what kind of wine would “wow” the guests at the Cana wedding feast (John 2:1-12). So it should really come as no surprise that he used the metaphor of a vineyard to describe his relationship to his disciples – a discussion that appears a few chapters later in John 15. Jesus knew that the best way to tell what kind of product you were getting would be to look at the label and see from what part of the world it came from. In this particular case, the source is not a place but a person – Jesus himself.
Jesus begins by saying that he is the “true vine,” the source of growth and fruit-bearing, in a vineyard that is tended by God, “Abba.” The Creator God is thus the real winemaker, the one who tends the vineyard and assures its quality.
But as it turns out, this vineyard has a long and storied history. The metaphor of the vineyard is used several times in the Old Testament to describe God’s relationship with Israel. In Isaiah 5:1-7, for example, God plants and tends a vineyard but it yields “wild grapes” or inferior fruit – a metaphor for the apostasy of kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The same vineyard imagery is used in Jeremiah 2:21, Ezekiel 19:10-14, and Hosea 10:1. In each of these cases, however, Israel is the “vine” and the ultimate source of poor “fruit.” In the Old Testament, “fruitfulness” was another way of saying “faithfulness,” thus a lack of good fruit meant that God’s people had failed to be the true, nourishing vine that would bolster God’s reputation in the world as the ultimate fine winemaker. That being the case, it was the winemaker’s job to do some pruning and replacing, which is what the prophets saw the underlying purpose of the exile as being all about. Later, God would replant the vineyard with a new stock and that new vine, the “true vine,” would be Jesus himself who embodied the new Israel, God’s Chosen One, the One through whom the whole world would be saved and blessed.
But while the vine is the source for good fruit, there’s a crucial link between the vine and its fruit. The “branches” are thus the focus of Jesus’ teaching with his disciples. “I am the vine,” says Jesus to his followers, “you are the branches” (v. 5). Notice that the disciples of Jesus aren’t the “fruit,” the end product, but the conduit for the vine’s nourishment. The quality of the fruit thus depends on the branches’ connectedness to the vine itself. What Jesus is describing here is the necessary interrelationship between himself and his disciples – a relationship characterized by mutuality and indwelling, but one that is also focused on bearing grands crus (great growth, and a specification for wine classification) for the whole world.
If you are to look closely at a grapevine, though, one of the first things you notice about its branches is that it’s very difficult to tell them apart individually. All the branches twist and curl around one another to the point that you can’t tell where one leaves off and another begins. Jesus’ use of branch imagery is thus a way of expressing that it’s not the achievement of an individual branch or its status that matters. The quality of branches and fruit depends solely on the quality of their connectedness to the vine. When it comes to discipleship, each “branch” or individual gives up his or her desire for individual achievement in order to become one of many encircling branches – a community that is rooted and nurtured by Christ and points to his reputation and quality, not their own.
With that understanding of branches in mind, there are a couple of things that we branches must remember in order to stay effectively and fruitfully connected to Jesus, the vine. First, we have to remember that branches are fruit-bearing, not fruit-making. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (vv. 4-5). We have no doubt heard these words of Jesus many times, but we also hear the call of a culture of workaholism, achievement and success that can lure disciples of Christ into thinking that we can be fruitful as a result of our own efforts. Many are the clergy, for example, who have built large churches and famous reputations only to crash and burn as a result of moral failure, which is frequently the result of a failure to stay intimately connected to Jesus. When a branch gets the idea that it can make fruit, make wine, on its own, it dries up, withers, and is no longer useful (v. 6). The mission of a branch is not to look good or to call attention to itself, but to give all the glory to God, the one whose name is on the label (v. 8).
Second, the “fruit” that we are to bear, like the grapes of a fine winery, is full of many textures and flavors. Paul outlines some of these in Galatians 5:22-23 when he talks about the “fruit of the Spirit”. Perhaps a more general way to think about the “fruit” that we bear, though, might be in terms of “grace”. As branches, connected to and “abiding in” the source of God’s love and grace (v. 4), we are conduits and not the end product. God’s grace and love always come to us on their way to someone else; someone who will be able to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) because we have been faithful branches.
But how do we best stay connected to the “true vine”? There are many spiritual disciplines that we can use to stay connected, but there is also the concept of “pruning”. The branches that are carrying no fruit are removed, but even the most fruitful branch is pruned in order “to make it bear more fruit” (v. 2). Branches on a grapevine are prone to growing too aggressively, producing more and more leaves and shoots that can bleed nourishment away from the grapes and sometimes even hide them from the sunlight. A good winemaker knows that trimming back excess growth is the key to maximizing the branch’s effectiveness.
In the vineyards of Jesus’ day, grapevines grew naturally along the ground instead of being propped up on poles or lattices as they are today. The vinedresser would come along to lift and “clean” the vine, pruning away the excess and dead growth. Jesus uses the same image to describe the way the disciples themselves had been “cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you” (v. 3). That “word” was the teaching and commandment of Jesus and the disciples’ meditation on and obedience to that “word” would help them “remain” or stay connected to his “love” – the nourishment flow from the vine (v. 10).
Reading, meditating and praying through the Scriptures is one way in which faithful disciples can remain “pruned.” The words of Jesus about the kingdom and the story of his life, death and resurrection focus us on what’s truly important for bearing the fruit of his grace and love to the world. When we are focused on the “word,” we are able to cut out all those other offshoots and tangents of temptation and sin that can choke out great growth . When the writer of Hebrews says that Scripture is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12), he might have as easily said that Scripture was the ultimate set of pruning sheers, trimming us for the life of discipleship we were meant to live. Such pruning can be painful as God uses it to lop off old habits and cut away the growth of sin that we somehow think is attractive, but it’s absolutely necessary if we’re going to embrace our purpose as conduits and vehicles of God’s grace.
Great wine is the reflection of a particular vineyard, be it from an Old World tradition or an eclectic New World experiment. God wants to tend the finest vineyard ever, the one that takes the ultimate prize for grands crus, for “great growth”. May we, as disciples of Jesus, the true vine, embrace our role as branches – channels for God’s grace, so that when the world samples the fine vintage of God’s love and grace, they will want to know the winemaker! Amen.