The only planting and growing I’ve ever really done is by accident. When I can throw seeds on the ground, cover them with good dirt, and leave them go, I am a successful gardener. You should have caught that I left out the watering part, the weeding part, the pruning part, because I tend to leave those parts out. I have been successful at growing tomatoes and beans, some green peppers, but not in this soil. So far anything I’ve planted in the garden here has died, too hot, too dry, and not enough effort. Vines and branches, mustard seeds, wheat and grain, Jesus sure liked to use metaphors of planting and harvesting, illustrations that bear much more fruit than my planting escapades.
There are two major metaphors of Jesus’ relationship with us presented in the Gospel of John. Last week was the good shepherd who calls us by name. Today it is this metaphor of the vine. In the other Gospels, there are other images. It is important to understand that there is not one way to describe, or illustrate, or show, Jesus’ relationship with us, it takes many metaphors to begin to give us an idea of what that relationship is really about.
This metaphor presents us with a way to show us Jesus’ relationship with us. The vine may be Jesus, the branches may be us and all the disciples, the pruner may be God, and the fruit may be the outcome of our relationship with Jesus. The theme may be that of an enduring relationship with Jesus and the joyous outcome of that relationship. The root of the metaphor is the verb abide. Eugene Peterson translates the verb “to live in me.” Make your home in me, as I make my home in you. That is the call of this gospel passage.
Try to imagine what the vine and the branches look like. The branches twist and turn and are intertwined with themselves and with the main trunk of the vine. When they are fully in leaf, you can't tell one branch apart from another, and it's hard to even see the vine itself. All the branches run together and are intertwined with one another, even as they receive their sustenance from the main vine. No one vine is more important than another. What an amazing picture of our relationship with Jesus and with one another, especially in our society that values individualism and competition, this is about interdependence rather than independence. This is about community; it is about the body of Christ.
Essentially this metaphor is about love. Love is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Love is the measure of faithfulness. It is about the kind of love that is anonymous rather than self-proclaimed. It is the kind of love that puts the other over the self. It is the kind of love that Jesus shows to us, it is the kind of love that we are called to show forth. We are called to make our home in Jesus, and to live in the midst of this self-giving love. It is the very nature of this relationship that bears fruit; fruit is the joyous outcome of this relationship.
The next verses in John are these, translated by Eugene Peterson, “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends.” And a few lines later, “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. Remember the root command: Love one another. “This relationship that Jesus calls us into, this relationship that puts the other over the self, bears fruit, and the fruit is love. Remember too where this passage is in John’s gospel. Jesus has just washed the disciples feet, Jesus is teaching his followers how to carry on when he is gone, as well as trying to instruct them about what it is he is doing by going to the cross.
You and I are disciples too. We have been baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our baptismal ministry is this, to live in this community of faith, to be fed by this interdependent body of Christ, to be pruned by the God who creates us, and to bear the fruit that is loving one another. What is to keep us from being like Philip in the reading from Acts today, Philip who proclaims to the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus? As they were going along the road they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
What is to prevent you from being baptized? What is to prevent you from bearing fruit? What is to prevent us from loving the other? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Make your home in me, as I make my home in you. That is the call of this gospel passage. We have all we need to bear fruit. Since I am such a poor gardener, I am encouraged by this passage; it really isn’t up to me. We do have to respond to God’s grace and love and pruning, but we’re not the pruner. I am reminded once again that God is God and I am not. Our home is in God’s grace; God sees to the pruning, it is that nourishment, that growth, our connection to that vine that gives us what we need to love one another, to bear fruit.
I do believe this is what we need today. To take seriously our interdependence, To take seriously the anonymity of this gospel, to take seriously the call to be in this life together, and to bear the sweet fruit of love, rather than the sour grapes of bitterness or enmity, prejudice or hatred. Jesus shows us though that bearing fruit is costly. This is not a love that necessarily feels good or has a happy ending. It is a love that puts the other first; it is a love of respect and dignity.
The challenge of the vine and the branches is to practice what we preach. The challenge of bearing fruit is to remember that the work we need to do happens out in the world, the love we need to show forth begins here, but flourishes only when we bring it to the lost and the hurting, when we bring healing and reconciliation into the world. The love we need to show flourishes when we are the agents of resurrection in the world.
Alleluia. The Lord is risen indeed: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.
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