Grape Vines and Jesus — Fifth Sunday of Easter

Grape Vines and Jesus

Jesus said: “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.”         –John 15:1-2

I’ve driven by vineyards in the lake country of Ohio, Pennsylvania, western New York and near the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Perhaps some of you are familiar with wine country in California, France, or elsewhere.

But did you know that grapevine branches that are more than two years old don’t produce fruit? They just add excess weight and contribute nothing. So they have to be pruned away.

Another fact is that before pruning, an average grapevine may have 200 to 300 buds, which are capable of producing fruit. If the vines are left un-pruned, the number of grape clusters would exceed the capacity of the vine to support them. The vine would be unable to ripen the large crop and the weight would damage the vine. Since most vines can handle only 40 to 50 buds, they must be pruned back a lot in order to be fruitful.

The point of the metaphor of the vine is that its purpose is to be fruitful. The Father is the vinegrower, Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. When we stop producing, we’re like old, dead branches that might as well be pruned away and thrown into the fire.

Of course, every parable and metaphor can be carried too far. This isn’t a condemnation of older Christians who’ve been around for a couple of years or more. And neither is it a teaching about the fires of hell. It’s an affirmation that the Church exists to produce the fruit of the reign of God by abiding in Jesus.

And what is this fruit of the vine? It is love. The author of the First Epistle of John affirmed that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16) And St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, proclaimed: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

This isn’t the Hollywood kind of love where people “hook up” for a night or a season. It is, the Greek of the New Testament, agape: self-giving, other-concerned, other-focused love. It doesn’t condemn or exclude or draw boundaries. It’s the love embodied, incarnated in Jesus as he emptied himself on the cross. Agape is Divine love, love of God, love of neighbor, love of self, and even love of our enemies.

This is the kind of love that an exhausted mother exhibits when she nurses her baby at 3 a.m., changes dirty diapers, cleans up after a child with stomach flu, or responds to the gown child’s relationship crises. It’s the love of an adult child who carefully and patiently tends to the needs of an elderly parent who can no longer remember his child’s name. It’s the love that drives people out of the comfort of their homes to care for their next-door neighbor or the neighbor across the city, or even across the globe.

This agape isn’t found exclusively among Christians. It’s a part of the Divine breath that god breathed into humanity. It’s found among people of various faith traditions and no traditions. But it is stark and jarring when it’s absent…as the epistle writer observed:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.   –1 John 4:20-21

Recent studies indicate that many youth and young adults do not believe that Christians are very loving…in fact, some day “hateful.” Christianity, as practiced by some, can indeed by quite negative–defined by what or whom they’re against–who they would exclude, who they would condemn to lives of poverty and even death.

At the end of the day, people are watching us to see if our faith makes a difference for the good. They ask, “Is there love?”

There are powerful images for the church in the New Testament. In addition to the vine and branches, there are metaphors of the Body of Christ and the ecclesia or assembly of disciples. But what they all have in common is a focus on what holds us together. All are welcome–whether born into the faith or grafted in–we’re held together by our bonds and connections to Jesus–by Christ’s embracing love.

One of the things that keeps me connected and inspired is to see these bonds being acted out on a regular basis

  • The deep love with which people say goodbye to and bury their loved ones–in the confidence that they are always connected within the larger life of God.
  • The agape that welcomes young children as they are grafted into a family of their own by adoption.
  • The commitment to regularly feed the hungry and welcome the stranger–in the faith that we are all children of the one God–brothers and sisters all.
  • The audacity of a chaplain to pray that legislators adopt a bill that treats everyone fairly. In the secular world that may be reason for dismissal. But in the church it should be cause for celebration–for loyalty to the holy vine.

When we come to holy table to take into ourselves the bread and the fruit of the vine, it’s an outward and visible sign that we are part of Christ and Christ is part of us. May you walk in that love, abide in that love, and be that love for others.

Amen.