Carlos Wilton, May 3, 2012, 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B; John 15:1-8
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me
and I in them bear much fruit,
because apart from me you can do nothing.”
– John 15:5
“I am the vine, you are the branches….apart from me you can do nothing.” If you’ve been here before on a Communion Sunday, chances are you’ve heard Linda or me say those words. We very often say them as we’re getting ready to hand the trays of little cups to the elders, the cups filled with grape juice of which you, the people of God, will shortly drink.
It’s a line from the scriptures, John 15:5, a saying of Jesus. Maybe you’ve never given that line much thought. Ripped out of the context of the scriptures – and out of the context of the culture from which they came – those words have little meaning. It’s a verse about grapevines, and the grapes they bear. (How convenient – stick ‘em in the Communion liturgy!)
They mean much more than that, of course. This morning, I propose we find out what those words do mean.
John includes these words in his Gospel as part of a lengthy body of material known as The Farewell Discourses. Jesus and his disciples are already in Jerusalem. Their path is leading them ever closer to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will be arrested.
Now, John’s Gospel isn’t a straight chronological narrative. Unlike the other Gospel-writers, he arranges his material for maximum meaning – not so much as a historian might do it, but as a philosopher. It’s not likely Jesus spoke all these teachings, that go on for chapter after chapter, on one single occasion. What John has done is take a whole lot of sayings of Jesus and group them together in a single speech – much as Plato gathered the teachings of Socrates and presented them in a series of dialogues.
This saying about the vine and the branches is one John considered important enough to include. It’s more than just a throwaway illustration. It’s a rich image that teaches an awful lot about the life of faith.
To fully appreciate that meaning, though, we’ve got to get inside the illustration – which is hard for us, because we don’t live in a place where grapevines are part of everyday life.
To most of us, wine comes in a bottle that sits on a store shelf. And grapes – you can buy them in the produce section of the supermarket. And before that? Why, store employees offloaded them from trucks that pulled up at a loading dock in the back of the store.
The poet and philosopher Wendell Berry considers this “a profound failure of imagination.” “Most of us,” he writes,
“cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations.”1
Well, the people to whom Jesus is talking are not like that. These are men and women who know where their food comes from, because they’ve spent the greater part of their lives producing it. We know that, among the company of his disciples, there were some who used to fish for a living. Very likely, there were others who knew firsthand what it’s like to labor in a vineyard, tending the grapevines.
Grapevines are a remarkable sort of plant. Rooted in the ground, their tendrils reach out and travel, sometimes, for hundreds of feet. Close to the base, they’re thick and woody. Out by the bunches of grapes, they’re green, pliant and flexible.
To establish a grapevine is the work not of a single growing season, but of years. Grapevines are a perennial. If tended carefully, they’ll continue to yield grapes for year after year.
Their natural tendency is to grow close to the ground, but that’s not what the vinegrowers want to see. They want to raise the vines up, so the grape clusters will hang down for easy harvesting – and also to prevent the vines from sending tendrils snaking across the earth, to take root willy-nilly. Nowadays, vineyard owners support their vines with complex webs of steel or plastic cables, strung between posts of one kind or another. Back then, it was a matter of driving wooden stakes into the ground, and tying the grapevines to them.
Then, as now, the most productive grapevines are the ones suspended over the earth. Their leaves create a canopy overhead, drinking in the sunlight. The shady area beneath is perfect for the grapes, so they retain their moisture and sweetness.
Most grapevines won’t produce much for several years. The work of creating a vineyard is therefore something of an act of faith for the vinegrower. Those early years are devoted to carefully staking and tending the grapevines, knowing that, once they begin to bear fruit, they will yield abundantly, season after season.
Part of the work of vinegrowing is pruning. The vine’s natural tendency is to send tendrils snaking out all over the place, and grow only a few bunches of grapes. Most of the water and nutrients in an untended grapevine go to producing those woody stalks. By diligently walking up and down among the plants, and cutting off all but a few of the soft, green tendrils before they harden into wood, the vinegrower diverts the plant’s energy into bearing fruit.
Now, the image of a grapevine is a common one in the Hebrew Scriptures. Several of the prophets rely on it as a metaphor for the people of Israel. In the prophets’ imagination, God is the vinegrower, dismayed to see that the vines have been left to grow wild. The only thing to do in such a situation is to cut down the grapevines and burn them – for the wood of a grapevine is soft and gnarly, good for nothing else. Yes, cut down the shamefully neglected vines, cast them into the fire, and begin all over again, with a new planting!
Surely, Jesus knows these Hebrew prophecies, as do his listeners. Yet, when he reaches into his bag of metaphors and pulls out the image of a grapevine, he has a very different intent.
“I am the vine,” he says. That’s an unbelievably radical thing to say! Each of the ancient prophets had taught that the vine is Israel, with God standing off to one side as the vinedresser. Yet, Jesus is different from Isaiah, or Elijah, or Ezekiel, or any of the other great prophets. Jesus is the son of God: God incarnate, the word made flesh. Jesus is saying his spiritual essence is the roots and trunk of the vine itself, and all of God’s people are the branches coming off from it. Their one and only purpose is to bear abundant fruit. Those branches don’t live for themselves. They channel love – the living essence of Jesus Christ, to whom they’re connected – to fulfill God’s purpose of an abundant harvest.
Now, if you heard what I said earlier about the method employed to create an abundant yield of grapes, you may well be starting to get a little nervous right about now. Remember what the vinegrowers do. They prune. They walk up and down amongst the vines, examining them for any dead wood, or for any stray tendrils headed down to the ground, where they might take root. These dead or deviant parts of the vine can only be cut off and burned.
The trick is to transform the grapevine into an abundant, fruit-producing biological machine. And woe to any stray branches that stand in the way!
Simply being connected to the vine, belonging to it, is not enough. You’ve got to bear fruit!
Now, take this image, if you will, and apply it to a particular church – ours, or any other. On any given Sunday, lots of people come to worship. They claim and celebrate their connectedness to the larger vine. Yet, the real question, Jesus is saying, is this: Are they bearing any fruit?
Apply that question to your own spiritual life – if you dare! Is your spiritual life all about seeking nourishment for yourself, so the branch that is your life can grow firm and strong?
Sometimes I hear people using that sort of language – quite unapologetically – to refer to their church life. Sometimes folks change from one church to another, you know, and this is what they give as the reason: “I was not being fed.”
I expect Jesus, the one who says, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” would have something to say in response to that. He might just repeat the second part of John 15:5: “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” You’d better hope, then, he would not continue on to the next verse, with all its chilling implications: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
So, what fruit are you bearing, in your Christian life? Is your spiritual life all about seeking inspiration for yourself, and when the call comes to step forward and do something in the fruit-bearing line, you reply, time and again, “Sorry, I’d prefer to sit that one out”?
Something to think about, indeed.
Well, our time is nearly up, but there is one other thing I’d like to quickly mention, as part of this whole grapevine analogy Jesus uses. Did you notice that a grapevine is an image of connectedness?
Yes, indeed. Go to a vineyard, and what you’ll see is not a whole lot of tiny, individual plants, evenly spaced apart from one another, row upon row, that grow up in a single season and are harvested. Lots of other fruits and vegetables grow that way, but not grapes. No, a grapevine is a vastly complex organism, that extends not only over an expanse of space, but also – as a perennial – into time.
Yes, it has many individual branches, but they’re all entwined, connected to one another. “Independence…,” says the playwright George Bernard Shaw, “[is] middle-class blasphemy. We are all dependent on one another, every soul of us on earth.”
That’s the spatial part of it.
There’s a temporal dimension as well. A grapevine persists from season to season, putting forth new branches, even as some of those branches finish their fruitbearing work, grow brittle, and are ultimately snapped off by the vinedresser.
Not a bad image for the church, I think. Elsewhere, the apostle Paul calls the church “the body of Christ” – an organic image. Yet, Jesus himself predates him with this other organic image, the grapevine.
All this is pretty counter-cultural, in this society of ours that idolizes individual achievement. What our Lord is telling us, here in this passage, is that he’s far more interested in seeing the ripe, juicy bunches of grapes we can produce by working together, than the poor, scrawny variations we can put forth on our own.
Like it or not, my friends, we are entwined – joined together as in a single vine. It’s the way God has made us. Ponder the implications of that, won’t you, as you come to the table – to share bread from one loaf and the juice of the grape from a single cup? Recall the intricate and beautiful ways you are joined to your neighbors, and ask yourself , “What is the fruit I am called to bear, for the sake of my Lord, the one true vine?”
Copyright © 2012, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
1Wendell Berry, “In Distrust of Movements” http://cyberjournal.org/cj/show_archives/?id