Sermon: Connected In The Vine
Scripture: John 15:5-6
Date: October 18, 2015
And so we come to the fourth of the I Am statements. “I Am the vine, you are the branches” Jesus says. We have said that these I Am statements are spoken in the midst of one of the great feast or festivals of the Jewish people. John tells us that this statement was made during the Last Supper, which was, of course, the Passover meal, or the Seder. Two things that we need to know about the Seder to set the context for this statement. First, the center of the meal is sharing four cups of the fruit of the vine, which are spread out through the meal. Each cup represents one of the promises that God made to the Hebrews as He was delivering them from captivity in Egypt. And so as the first cup is shared, the words (in Hebrew of course) of the first promise would be spoken which is in English: “I will bring you out.” It is the promise that God has not abandoned His people in the captivity of Egypt and the remembrance that the God, I Am, of the burning bush sent Moses to rescue them. Then the second promise is: “I will deliver you.” This is God’s promise of protection on the journey to the promised land. God’s work was just beginning with Moses leading them out of Egypt. The Wilderness lay between Egypt and the promised land. The third promise was the promise of salvation. “I will redeem you.” As concerned as God was for the physical well being of the Jewish people, His ultimate concern has alway been for their souls. And then the fourth cup represents the promise of the Covenant. “I will be your God, and you will be My people.” It is the promise of community. Jesus was the fulfillment of the promises of Passover. He has come to rescue, deliver, redeem and live in covenant.
And then the Seder meal was a meal that is intended to be celebrated in community. It is not intended to celebrate outside the context of community. It is a celebration of the people – those who bonded in the midst of the hardship of Egypt and then wilderness and also those who make up the community of faith today. And so the Gospel writers tell us that as the Disciples sat down to celebrate the Seder with Jesus, the first thing that Jesus says is: “How I have longed to celebrate this meal with you.” Jesus longed for community. In their three years together, the Disciples had become His family. As I was studying for this message, I was surprised by how many scholars focus only on Jesus’s words that He is the vine, and never really deal with the continuation phrase, “you are the branches.” You see, I think doing that takes the element of community out of the Jesus’s imagery. I believe that what Jesus wanted the Disciples to see was that we cannot be all that God intends for us, unless we are connected with one another. Just as a grape branch can not thrive apart from the vine, neither can the vine really exist without the branch. Because it is the vine that taps into the water and nutrients that are needed for the plant to survive and, even thrive. But it is the branch that produces the fruit. Now experts tell us that there are a lot of people who believe that they can follow Christ apart from the church. But with this statement Jesus is saying that branches that are severed that are out there on their own, not attached to the vine, and trying to bear fruit, will not survive. Jesus is talking about discipleship lived out in the context of community. And He is using the familiar image of the vineyard to illustrate what He has in mind when He talks about God’s community.
So the first thing that the Disciples would have understood is that in the community we are to be connected to one another, just as the grape vine is connected to the branches. In fact, in Jesus day the Vine and Branches was a symbol for the unity of the Jewish people. In the first Century B.C., King Herod began the reconstruction of the Temple. It was a time of relative peace and independence, a momentary lull in nearly seven centuries of foreign domination and oppression when the Hebrew people had been scattered all over the world. And so, in recognition of their renewed independence and nationalism, and to call the community to reunite, Herod began to rebuild the Temple. And above the main gate of the Temple was carved in stone the symbol of the vine and the branches.
As I was studying this passage, I came across an interesting fact about trees that grow in forests that illustrates this concept of community. The article said:
Scientists have discovered that when the roots of trees touch, there is a substance present that reduces competition between them. In fact this fungus helps link the roots of different trees, even different species of trees. A whole forest can be linked together underground. And so one tree has access to water, another to the nutrients and a third to sunlight, and all the trees share the essential elements of life with each other. It is one trees responsibility to send roots deep into the ground, while it is another trees responsibility to grow tall and soak in as much of the sun as possible. And it is another trees responsibility to produce the shoots that develop into new trees so the forest renews itself. Even when a tree dies, it has an important purpose. Eventually it will fall making room for the new trees but also through the process of decomposition, it returns vital nutrients into the soil. In a community of trees, every plant has it’s role, and the forest fails to thrive if each plant does not do it’s part. I believe this is the picture of the vineyard that Jesus has in mind when He tells the Disciples that His community, His church, is like the grape vine and branches, connected to one another in order to survive and thrive and produce great fruit.
The Disciples would have known then that the branches of the grape plant can not survive if they are detached from the vine. And that can happen in two ways. The first way is intentional. Something or someone forcibly separates the branch from the vine. Through actions or inaction we are cut away from the vine. Sometimes it’s others that seek to separate the branch from the vine, or sometimes we get hurt or angry and we do it to ourselves. In this book Churchless, the authors talk about the large segment of our population that are de-churched, who were once attached to the vine but for some reason have become detached.
And then there are those who are detached through inaction, sometimes inadvertently, even unintentionally. These are the branches that just kind of meander away from the vine and seek to establish roots of their own. In a plea for unity within the Corinthian Church Community, the Apostle Paul talks about each person having their own particular gift or role assigned by God’s Spirit. So one is a hand. And one is a foot. And one is an eye He says and The body is not whole until everyone is fulfilling their role. To all of those who think it’s ok to miss church frequently because it doesn’t hurt anyone else but themselves, “I am the vine, you are the branches” says no, that’s not right. We are all connected to one another and the body can never be whole, as long as parts of the body are detached. Our absence diminishes the whole community. In recent years the church has seen a decline in both numbers and influence and now we say that you are a regular attender if you are in church at least once a month. But a branch will not survive, and certainly will not produce fruit, if it is only attached to the vine 1/4 of the time and the rest of the time is spent trying to form roots in other communities, other pursuits. Jesus spoke these words because he feared that with his death the individual disciples would wander away from the community, the church. I Am the Vine, you are the branches says that we are connected to one another through Christ, and that the only way to be fruitful is through community. I recently heard a preacher say this in reference to those who are now considered de-churched, or detached:
In spite of all the pull to privatized religion in the United States, in spite of all the stresses and strains that can sometimes develop between people, including, sometimes, in churches, we need each other. God has made us for each other. God has made us for community.
And if the community is going to thrive, the vine and branches must be connected to one another at at all times.
I Am the Vine, but you are the branches.
And then I would say that we are empowered when we are in community with one another. Now there are some things we need to know about grape plants that the Disciples would have understood about Jesus’ imagery that we may not. The first is that all the branches need to survive and to bear fruit is the vine. Life giving, life producing power flows through the vine into the branches. Grape plants for instance are not dependent on high quality soil to grow. That’s why they were able to grow and thrive in the barren, arid land of Israel when most crops could not. As long as the vine was able to sink it’s roots deep into the ground, it could find all the water and the nutrients it needed to survive. And as long as the branches remained connected to the vine then they too would survive and not just survive, but thrive. And so for the Jews the grape plant became synonymous with the power to endure even the harshest environment. And the vineyard became a symbol of hope in the most difficult times of Hebrew history. A couple of weeks ago I talked about how Isaiah was the prophet in Judah during the time of the Assyrian conquest and how he could stand on the walls of Jerusalem and watch the Assyrian Army advance towards Jerusalem, knowing that eventually Jerusalem would suffer the same fate as the towns of the north, complete destruction. Needless to say it was a time of great despair. The Jews had ever diminishing hope for their survival. And so what does Isaiah do, as a statement of his hope for the ultimate survival of the Jewish community – he purchases a vineyard outside the walls of Jerusalem and talks about God as the vinedresser and he talks about a great harvest in the future. I Am the vine, you are the branches speaks of the power that comes through the hope of the community.
And then the Disciples would have understood that there is an eternal quality in the relationship between the vine and the branches. Grape vines can live a long time. Many earthly life times in fact. I recently read that in a place called
Hampton Court near London, there is a grapevine under glass; it is about 1,000 years old and has but one root which is at least two feet thick. Some of the branches are 200 feet long. Because of skillful cutting and pruning, the vine produces several tons of grapes each year. Even though some of the smaller branches are 200 feet from the main stem, they bear much fruit because they are joined to the vine and allow the life of the vine to flow through them.
In fact, I read that it is believed that some of the grape vines that grow in Israel today might date their ancestry back to the time of Jesus and even earlier. They may be the offshoots of the very plants that Jesus had in mind when He said, “I Am the vine, you are the branches.” So many times the Jewish nation was conquered by foreign despots, many of whom carried them off into captivity into foreign lands. But wherever they were the Jewish people survived because they banded together in community and because of that, their faith endured in even the hardest of times. And so the Vine and Branches became a symbol of the Jewish nation. And so the Rabbis taught that there were three tasks of the vinedresser that were crucial to the success of a vineyard. First was pruning. The Rabbis taught that branches were selfish and that left to their own devices, they would try to establish themselves independently of the vine, and not bear fruit. And so the Vinedresser’s first task was pruning those branches that did not bear fruit and Jesus says cast them in the fire. Today we hear these words as judgmental. But the Disciples would have heard them a little differently. Because they would have understood that in a land that had been essentially stripped of all of the trees by the invading armies, even these cutoff branches would have been valuable commodities to fuel the cook fires of Israel. The Rabbis taught that last year’s pruning are this year’s kindling. Nothing is wasted. So some of the branches had to be pruned or cut off if the plant was to bear fruit.
Then the second task of the Vinedresser was to rescue the branches that were growing on top of the ground. Now that might seem like an odd task. But a branch that lay on the ground would begin to develop roots that would take it apart from the vine. And so once a year the Vinedresser would go through the fields and “lift up” the branches off the ground and set them on top of rocks so they would not be touching the ground and give in to the temptation to “branch out” on their own. Because The survival of the branch is dependent on it remaining connected to the vine. And so it is with disciples. I Am the Vine, You are the Branches is the promise that God will lift us up from our self destructive behaviors and allow us to be fruitful. And so, essentially, there are times in the context of community that the vinedresser must rescue us if we are going to continue to abide in the vineyard. “Abide in me” Jesus says. In other words Live in Me and I will live in you.
And then the third task of the vinedresser was actually waiting. Now we may think that growing grapes in such a harsh environment would be a pretty intense occupation, requiring hard work year round to produce a good harvest. But the reality is that a grape plant needs relatively little care most of the year. The vinedresser would work diligently in the late fall and early winter which was the rainy season, to prune and rescue the branches, and irrigate but then from February to August/September, when there is no rain in Israel, they would leave the vineyard alone. Grape plants need little care during those times. In fact, they need very little moisture. They live off the morning dew, which on the mountain slopes where they mostly grow can be the equivalent of 12 inches of rain a year. And so the vinedresser prunes and rescues the branches and then waits for the harvest. The rabbis called this period the time of “silent blessing” as the vinedresser waits for God to produce the harvest. Isaiah bought a vineyard and then proclaimed “those who wait on the Lord will rise up with wings like eagles.” There is great hope and strength in the waiting. I suspect that’s what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Roman church
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation (just as the vinedresser anticipates the grapes) for God to be revealed.
I Am the vine, you are the branches speaks of the hope and empowerment that comes in community together, in being connected with one another, and sometimes in waiting on the Lord.
For instance, one person can not make much of an impact on hunger in our community, but working together through God’s pantry, we can touch hundreds of hungry lives every week. We require each other’s help to get anything significant accomplished. I love the story of two elderly ladies who had played the piano in church all of their lives but each had suffered a stroke. One ladies stroke had left her left side paralyzed. The others stroke had damaged her right. Both had given up hope of ever playing in church again. And then they met in the nursing home where they lived and they realized that together — one woman playing the left hand part, the other woman playing the right hand part – they could make beautiful music again.
Jesus knew that if the Disciples were to survive beyond His death they would only do so together. Disciples accomplish very little in isolation.
There is power and hope in community.
And then the final thing that I think Jesus had in mind by using the imagery of the Vine and branches at that last supper was that it is through the community that we are called and used by God. When Jesus began His ministry the first thing He did was call the twelve Apostles because. He, Himself, needed to be in community to accomplish what He had been sent to accomplish. Now things were not always great in the community. At times they didn’t get it. At times they tried to prevent others from coming to Jesus because of their own fears and prejudices. At times they had a “holier than you” attitude and didn’t seem to care about the poor and downtrodden. At times they seemed to want to follow the world more than they did Jesus. At times they did the very opposite of what Jesus wanted them to do. And at times they even betrayed Jesus. Isn’t it interesting that those are the same criticisms that people level at the church today? And yet Jesus called them and needed them and never gave up on them. Even knowing that Judas was about to betray Him, separate himself from the community and set in motion the events that would lead to His death, Jesus gave him the preferred spot at the table and offered the cup of reconciliation. And I have no doubt that there are times when Jesus is so disappointed in us as a community, but He never gives up on us. It breaks His heart when we choose to separate ourselves from His community. I Am the vine, you are the branches is our call to discipleship, our call to join in community with Him forever.
And the second thing Jesus did to speak to the essential nature of community, was establish His church. Upon your faith Peter, upon this rock, I will build my church and the evil in this world will never prevail against it. And on that day every church that has ever existed had it’s ground breaking ceremony, and every steeple that has ever dotted the world’s landscape was raised, and every pew was set in place. The church is our call to be in community with one another and with Christ. Come and “abide with me” establishes the church as the house of God. The expectation of Jesus is that those who believe in Him, who claim Him as Savior, will be in community. We are called to be fruitful. The imagery here is that One branch working alone only produces a handful of grapes, but all the branches working together with the vine will produce a great harvest.
I Am the vine, but you are the branches.
I love the imagery one writer uses describing the church as individuals learning to play an instrument in a great orchestra.
It is only in God’s community that we get the support, encouragement, discipline, forgiveness, rebirth, conversion, and nurture that we need … The grace of God is not often known by isolated individuals … and the Church is best defined as a “community of practice.” A place where those who have chosen to live the life of Christ can hit flats and sharps, miss entrances, go off-beat, and even get completely lost for a while — yet still be a part of the community’ that is Christ’s church. Growing a soul is a life-long project? It brings great joy. It brings focus and direction. It brings a love of artistic perfection. But it does take continual, gradual, life-long practice.
That’s the kind of community Christ envisions for the Disciples and for us when He says: I Am the vine, you are the branches. I’m so glad to be a part of a community like that. I’ m so glad to be a part of the family of God. I’m so glad to be attached to the vine with all of you.
For Jesus is the vine, but we are the branches.