May 3, 2015 – We are the branches

Easter 5 May 3 2015 (Ps 92, Galatians 5:22-6:2, 1 John 4:7-16) John 15:1-11

We are the branches

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Back when I was in high school, one of my best friends lived in the Grapevine Cottage, so-named because it was once the residence of Ephraim Wales Bull, hybridizer of the Concord Grape (in 1849). There’s a historical plaque outside the house, and every year a few Concord grape historians would knock on the Laire family’s door and ask if they could see the original vine (which, Wikipedia says, is still there, bearing fruit, a hundred-sixty-some-years-after-it’s-planting.)

My friend Chuck was a drummer who played with a rock band that rehearsed in Chuck’s family’s basement. Before they finally picked a name, Ephraim Wales Bull and the Concord Grapes was a semi-finalist candidate for the band’s name…

We’re talking today about the fruit of the vine. And the idea behind the Concord Grape was to get a good tasting grape that could flourish in New England’s cool climate… And the grape was a great success. It was never a contender to go up against French fine wine grapes – the Concord grape is not something you’d ever try to turn into Cabernet Sauvignon. But with a little sugar added, it became a hit. And today and every Communion Sunday, we Methodists have been drinking Concord grapes in our communion juice, ever since a Wesleyan Methodist named Welch started bottling his grape juice, initially for the temperance movement-influenced Methodist market. But backing up just a little… The Concord grape came into being through hybridization of cultivated grapes with indigenous wild grapes.

Which is a bit like what’s happening here in Jesus’ hybrid saying – “I am the true vine, you are the branches.”

Jesus combines imagery found in the psalms and prophets of Israel – holding together different strands of the bible in his own unique identity – and here’s Jesus, Son of God, in the center of his hybrid mixed-metaphor.

Jesus brings together voices from Israel’s wisdom traditions, which affirm the beauty and grace of God’s created order and the rational nature of human order – and the wild, untamed voices of Israel’s prophets, who spoke in judgement on Israel and the nations. The word of Jesus here is simultaneously blessing and judgement – with Jesus in the middle, mediating layers of meaning.

Vine and vineyard are prime biblical symbols. In Psalm 80 Israel is called God’s vine which he brought out from Egypt and planted in the land. Israel laments that God hasn’t duly protected his own vine from its enemies.

Meanwhile, in the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (ch 5) God says to Israel, ‘Yes, you’re my vineyard, Israel – I planted you and nurtured you. And I expected good grapes – but you’re giving me nothing but sour grapes.’

And according to the book of the prophet Ezekiel (ch 15) non-productive branches of the vine of Israel are heading for the fire, much like in John 15. (Jesus recycles.)

And here’s Jesus, drawing on all these parts of tradition – saying I am the true vine. You are the branches. Abide in me, as I abide in you. Bear fruit befitting the grace God gives. And bearing fruit only happens through organic connection with Christ.

Jesus gives this metaphor of the life-giving vine. As we abide in him we share in the life-blood of the divine Son of God… What more awesome gift can we imagine?

And Jesus favors earthy metaphors to bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth – stories and parables that feature plants, seeds, soil, vineyards, vineyard workers, sheep and shepherds. Israel was a farming culture, with wine grapes as one of the main crops (along with grains and olive oil)… Nearly everyone farmed, even if they had other work. Now here’s Jesus, talking theology of the vine, saying ‘Abide in me and bear fruit through me… My Father prunes every branch in me to get it to bear more fruit.’ (There’s word-play here in the original Greek, where the same word means both prunes and cleans.)

Jesus is talking about bearing fruit. And if there is no fruit, the branches become charcoal or ashes. Which can get me a bit anxious… Probably because I’m at a point in life where I wonder more than I used to – ‘Am I being fruitful? Have I been doing what I’m supposed to do with the years I’ve got left?’ Which I’m told is normal. The developmental psychologists we studied in seminary say people of a certain age tend to become occupied with questions of legacy and fruitfulness, starting often in later-mid-life years. (Not that I’m getting that old yet, but…)

Sometimes I am a bit defensive, partly probably because I’ve been a pastor thirteen years now, and the churches I’ve served haven’t grown much. We haven’t had many baptisms. We’ve had fewer still conversions (at least that I’ve heard of – we New Englanders are notoriously not overly demonstrative – we’ve been called ‘the frozen chosen.’ So there may be conversions happening I don’t know about.) But there haven’t been any major revivals yet (again, not that I’m aware of). I have seen signs of spiritual growth of course – I mention these signs often – but nothing quantifiable… (and…)

The national church we’re a part of (and virtually all the denominations are similar on this) really wants to see the numbers. We file lots and lots of statistical reports every year. And we’re always asked ‘is attendance in church growing?’ “Is participation in small groups growing?’ ‘If not, why not?’ And I sometimes feel defensive…

I am sure God will evaluate us on our fruits and our efforts. I have a harder time believing God will evaluate us according to numeric results. But it’s hard not to feel inadequate, when so many of the messages we receive are about other congregations that are growing in numbers and spiritual vitality because they’ve got their act together. These messages often not-very-subtly imply ‘if you’re not getting bigger and better, maybe it’s your fault… and maybe you should be thinking about getting out if you’re not getting bigger… ’

There is probably some wisdom in some of these warnings. Jesus makes it very clear we will be held accountable for all we do and don’t do. We do need to check ourselves often, and regularly assess whether we’re abiding in Jesus.

Everyone who is in Christ will in fact always bear good fruit. We won’t be able to not bear good fruit if we’re in Christ. We may not always be able to see our fruit – but others will see we belong to Jesus, if we’re really connected with him and living in him…

But – as a former participant in farm communities organizing, I remember how often the conventional wisdom has been wrong. And I notice some parallels…

Since at least the second world war, agribusiness and academic leaders have been telling farmers “get bigger or get out.” Buy all the labor-saving equipment, become more efficient, more business-like – or go into another line of work. Many did. Now instead of more than 11,000 family dairy farms milking an average of fifty cows each in Vermont in the ‘40’s, and even the 3500 dairies in the early ‘90s when I was working with Rural Vermont, now we have less than a thousand dairy farms remaining, with a high and rising percentage of the milk coming from a few huge consolidated farms milking thousands of cows each. Following the same logic as school consolidation and big box stores… With subsequent loss of local businesses and local communities inevitably following…

Now I’m sorry to say it looks like some church growth strategists are taking us down much the same route. Telling us unless we adapt the latest programs and do everything more efficiently, we’re soon to be history. The Methodist Bishop’s ‘Quest for Quality’ initiative back in the early ‘90s was, not coincidentally, modeled closely on the corporate strategies of GE and MacDonald’s – strategies designed not to promote spiritual formation and making of disciples, but to produce light bulbs and hamburgers in plentiful quantity, of identical quality, whether in Boston, Boise, Bismark and Bourne… (I remember cringing while hearing one of our bishops give the pep talk on mimicking this approach in our local churches… And I remember the social, economic and environmental wreckage left behind GE and it’s Quest for Quality in towns in New England and New York GE used and abandoned. I remember rivers downstream from GE left filled with GE’s PCB pollutants, killing fish and leaving all the clean up and all the bills that go with the cleanup for the communities GE used and left behind…)

Not to romanticize a theology of ‘small is beautiful.’ Small churches, like small businesses and small farms, all have their issues. Human scale is a good thing, but small is not a magic bullet. Nor is everything big bad. Some mega-churches reach people not otherwise reached.

But the choice of secular corporate business models has been a contributing factor in the loss of small farms, small businesses, smaller churches, and other vital parts of smaller communities.

Which is yet another reason why I love to hear Jesus say – he’s not our corporate CEO, and he’s not here to give us a pink slip…

He’s our true Vine. We’re his branches. In the garden, in the beginning, the tree of life was in the middle of the garden. Now again, God is our Gardener and God the Son is our true vine. And being fruitful is all about living connected with Jesus.

Flowers of the field know how to bloom. Fruit trees know how to bear fruit… without instruction…depending only on sunshine, rain, good soil… And the gentle care of The Gardener…

So too, we bear the Spirit’s fruit – simply by abiding in Jesus.

God our Gardener will, of course, keep pruning our problem behaviors – trimming-back whatever distracts us from life abundant in Christ….

For fruitfulness is our biblical mandate, from all the way back in the garden and that first commandment to be fruitful and multiply.

But Jesus’ definition of fruitfulness is always very different from the world’s definitions.

And if we’re believing in Jesus (even a little) – we’re already used to being pruned and cleaned. If we’ve been believing in Jesus, he’s been teaching us all along – that bearing fruit is a gift from God that comes to us only by abiding and residing in Jesus. When we live in him, fruit happens. When we don’t it doesn’t.

The love of Jesus that abides in us as we abide in him…is more than sufficient… to bring us through whatever life brings… and…

We’ll be growing in God’s love all the way to heaven…

Where we’ll keep learning all the lessons of love in Jesus Christ God has for us to keep learning..

(So–) Let’s love one another always.

Let’s abide in Jesus always.

Let’s sing the new song of God’s great and perfect love for us all…

Let’s eat of the bread of life….drink the cup of Christ’s love and salvation…

Let’s keep love’s bonds unbroken.

Let’s give our thanks and praise to God always.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Galatians 5:22-6:2

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

1 John 4:7-16

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

John 15:1-11

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.