“Abiding in the Vine”
Message preached on
April 29, 2018
Last week we remembered Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd.” Today we hear him say, “I am the Vine.” Our Lord used a variety of images to convey the truth of who he is and what God’s realm is like. No one image can communicate it all, nor should it, for God is so much greater than our ability to comprehend. Just when we think we’ve got the Master of the Universe nailed down, God slips out of our fingers and reminds us, as he did Moses long ago, “I am who I am.”
The commandment against creating graven images gets at our human desire to control what we cannot control, to put the Creator and source of life in a box which we then can place on a shelf and take down only when we need it. Such an image is not God. It is a toy. And though all joy, good humor, and recreating fun flow from the great “I am,” God doesn’t want us merely to “play” at religion, as if he were a wind-up toy.
“I am the vine,” Jesus said. Another image among so many for us to ponder in our heart of hearts. Another picture that paints us into the wider panorama of God’s relationship with the children of Israel. Actually, it pulls us back to the very beginning, before there was an Abraham or Jacob. In that beginning, God created a garden, an image that grows through the pages of this book, from first to last. At times God is spoken of as the gardener, at other times it is God’s people who tend the land. Take Noah, for instance. After the flood, what was the first thing he did once the doors of the ark were opened and the animals were set free? He planted a vineyard.
Now, in contrast to the “Good Shepherd” picture of God, ideal for those who wander from pasture to pasture, a “Vine” is rooted in the land. It doesn’t move so easily from place to place. Those who plant it must stick around long enough for it to grow. It takes time and patience. While the image of a “Good Shepherd” speaks to our need to follow God wherever he leads, the “Vine” addresses our need to be rooted, connected, firmly planted. Through all their wandering times, from the days of Abraham and his grandchildren heading (eventually) to Egypt, to the time of Moses escaping Pharaoh and journeying toward the promised land; from the horror of Jerusalem’s defeat and destruction, and the exile in Babylon, to the long road home to rebuild, this image of a “Vine” was an important one to God’s people.
On the positive side, it touched a dream of a world gone right, where everyone beneath their vine and fig tree could live in peace and unafraid. In a deeper sense, the children of Israel saw in it a description of themselves in relation to God. In the 80th Psalm we find these words:
Of course, that very Psalm goes on:
This vineyard image touches also the negative side of life, when we feel used and abused, uprooted and forsaken, for whatever reason.
With this image the prophet Isaiah sought to convey to the children of Israel what things looked like from God’s perspective. Listen.
When Jesus spoke of being the Vine, he was touching this larger picture. He did so, however, in a very unique way. Instead of being outside the plant, which is Israel; instead of being its planter, caretaker, and harvester, Jesus claims the Vine as his own identity. Through Christ, God steps into our experience. This is a consistent message throughout. Jesus spoke of being the “Good Shepherd,” as we recalled last week, but he also claimed the role of sheep, as in becoming the Passover lamb who was sacrificed that his blood sprinkled on the doorpost of the human heart would protect and save. He is “Immanuel,” “God with us.”
“I am the Vine,” Jesus said. He didn’t say, “I am the vinegrower.” That role is still God’s, which is to say that we still need the great “I am” to remain beyond our ability to control, and even comprehend; we still need God to be God and not us. We do not understand so much of what happens in life. We only see that part of the larger picture which is immediately around us, and even that much is often like a chaotic Picasso painting. We trust the One who said, “I am who I am” for the larger picture.
Filling out this image of a vinegrower, God prunes that which does not produce fruit, that which is not growing in ways that will lead to fruitbearing. That is, after all, the purpose of a vineyard - to bear fruit. All things were created for a purpose, all bear fruit of one sort or another. We may struggle to figure out those purposes, to understand the fruit that we were made to produce. However, the vinegrower knows. We seek to trust the hand of this vinegrower, even as we can’t see the whole garden, even as we undergo the pruning in our own lives.
“Without a vision, a sense of direction, a word from the Lord, the people perish,” the old proverb (29:18) says. Often we come to that vision, not by the direct “Go” and pointed finger of God, but by the pruning of the various directions our branches seek to take us. The vinegrower, who is always beyond our ability to fully (or even partly) comprehend, knows. We seek to trust beyond what we can see.
Within this image Jesus gives us, though, is his presence in our lives as the vine. “I am the vine,” he said, “you are the branches.” And then he continued, “those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” This word, “abide,” is not one we use every day. “To abide” has to do with persevering, continuing, lasting, staying with it. We’re not too good at abiding, are we? We’re in good company.
The following story is from the early monastic movement in Egypt. A young monk was having trouble doing his daily devotions. He told a visiting holy man that he would forget what he had read in the Bible almost as soon as he had closed the book at the end of his daily prayer discipline. The old monk told him to continue with his spiritual discipline of daily Bible reading, but to take on an additional task. The young monk had two buckets in his simple hut. One bucket he was to leave alone. The other bucket he was to fill with water each day and empty. The old monk promised to return in a few weeks.
The young monk was not sure about these strange directions, but he followed them. Sometime later, the old monk came for a visit and asked about the buckets. The young monk said the one that was left alone was dusty and had a few cobwebs in it. The other bucket was clean from daily filling with water. The old monk said, “so it is with reading of the Bible every day, we do not always understand or even remember all that we read, but it cleans our souls.”
That’s abiding. “I am the vine and you are the branches.” From Jesus we receive the life sustaining fluid that makes growth possible. But that doesn’t happen when we don’t see ourselves as connected. We want to be nourished without being rooted. But that just doesn’t happen. It’s something that is cultivated over time. It’s a long-term process. It doesn’t happen in isolation, either.
These words of Jesus were spoken in the context of a gathered community of disciples, soon after they had washed one another’s feet. In many ways, the love lived out of that act would be the fruit they would bear in the future. As we abide in Jesus and he abides in us, there is a staying power that keeps us connected to the One who planted us here and who takes care of us, pruning as necessary, until this plant grows into what it was created to be. We abide in him, and he in us together. He is the vine, we are the branches. Only in this way do we bear fruit.
About the middle of the second century a violent persecution against the Christians broke out in Asia. One victim was the Bishop of Smyrna, a man named Polycarp. Polycarp was brought before the tribunal of the proconsul who told him to have regard for his age, swear by the genius of Caesar and to say, “Away with the atheists,” referring, of course, to his fellow Christians. He would not do it. Instead he turned to the crowd in the stadium and called out, “Away with the atheists!” The proconsul sought to give the old man one more chance. “Revile Christ,” he said. Polycarp replied, “Eighty‑six years I have served him and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?...” (from The Martyrdom of Polycarp, translated by J.B. Lightfoot)
Polycarp - an interesting name. As a young man he had been a disciple of John and some believe he took his name from today's text. You see, the original words of John 15:5, “much fruit,” are in Greek: “karpos poly,” or “Polycarp.”
“My Father is glorified by this,” Jesus said,