Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
April 29, 2018 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
Two great streams of scripture meet today. The Lord tells his disciples, “I AM the true vine.”
In these few words he affirms that he is the Promised One, the one for whom Israel has been watching and waiting since the fall of Jerusalem.
First, Jesus says, “I AM.”
Let us go back to God’s commission to Moses at the burning bush. Moses says he can’t do it. God says he can, for “I will be with you.”
Moses says nobody will believe him. When they ask me the name of the one who is sending me, what do I say? God says, “I AM WHO I AM…. Tell them I AM sent me.”
In his first letter to the Corinthians, it is Paul who defends himself against what must have been some questions about his authority to proclaim Jesus after he had built a reputation for hunting down Christians to kill them.
He writes, “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”
The fact that we are is the one thing we have to own up to before we can do anything. René Descartes, regarded by many as the father of Western philosophy,adopted the phrase when he has looking for proof that reality was what it appeared to be.
“I think, therefore I am,” he wrote in response to his own self-doubts. Even doubting the validity of our existence is an act of belief, he reasoned. And once we confess to our existence we also accept responsibility for our own lives and how we go about living it.
Jesus is speaking to the disciples on the night he is arrested where we pick up our Gospel reading this morning. It is part of a long monologue appearing at the end of the Gospel of John known as the Farewell Discourse. And his assertion here…”I AM the true vine” is one of many things that he says to the disciples in John’s gospel to explain the nature of his being.
He also told them that he is the bread of life, that he is the living bread that comes down from heaven, that he is the light of the world, the gate for the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way and the truth and the life, and here, that he is the true vine…and his Father – God – is the vine grower.
He is trying to give them as clear a picture as he can but he realizes that this concept is as much a stretch for them as Moses was for the nation of Israel in captivity, or for Descartes as he pondered the essence of the meaning of life.
I am like the bread of life. I am like good shepherd. I am like a vine in a garden, but more than that, I am the true vine that uses the life God has given to me to bear much fruit.
And the image of the vine is a familiar and ancient one for anyone who knows the Hebrew scriptures. In Sirach, Wisdom compares herself to a vine: "Like the vine I bud forth delights, and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit."
Isaiah provided an image of the vine that is not fruitful in Chapter 5. “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes…but it yielded wild grapes.”
Justice and truth are the fruits of a good vine. Oppression and deviousness betray to anyone who wants to look at the situation that the vine is no good, adds nothing to the garden for what it consumes in space and water and pruning.
This, of course, is the prophet Isaiah’s insight into the reasons Jerusalem fell, and he goes on, “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.”
Indeed, that is exactly the fate Judah, the southern Kingdom, experienced. The frontiers of its territory were compromised and the walls of Jerusalem were breached after a brutal siege.
Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea use the same image. It is a commonplace presence in the everyday lives of the people he is talking to.
They know what goes into a vineyard and how valuable one is if it bears fruit…and how pointless it is to try get a bad vine to bear good fruit.
You need to prune the vine once a year, preferably in winter because it is easier to see the outline of the vine without the leaves covering it and because there is less chance of infection if the cuts have healed before spring.
The goal is to produce as much fruit on the vine as you can without overloading it doesn’t have enough energy and nutrients to ripen the grapes. This means you want as much one-year wood on the vine as you can, then, as you see signs of exhaustion in the plant, you trim back the emerging fruit.
Without this constant attention, the vine grows to a dense mass without much one-year wood to harvest, and a tangle of growth to try to extract it from.
The same metaphor is used by the other Gospel writers, too. In Matthew 21, Jesus tells a parable about an owner of a vineyard who doesn’t receive the rent from his tenants and the servant he sends to collect it is beaten. So he sends his son, believing that the tenants will treat him better than they treated the servants, but they kill him instead.
Knowing how much work it is to maintain a vineyard, you can see how the workers in the vineyard might get an attitude, but Jesus tells them to take a deep breath. Don’t jump to conclusions. Look before you leap.
He asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” He tells the same story and makes the same point in Mark 12 and Luke 20.
And now, here he is, in John, telling the disciples that he is the True Vine…the vine that bears much fruit…and God is the vinedresser who prunes away the deadwood and praises the vine that produces much fruit.
God is the owner of the vineyard that will come and deal with the servants who rebel…and will prune each vine in the garden…kindly or harshly, depending on how much fruit they are producing and how good its grapes are.
I don’t have to tell anyone here how much work a garden is or all the things that can go wrong. You understand Jesus is telling the disciples when he says that they can be saved if they are linked to him and remain with him…abide in him …like one-year wood.
Stay with me. Remain strong. Keep the faith. Bear a true and powerful testimony about what I did and what happened because of it. Bring others to understand the truth and find the freedom that is in it.
If you produce good fruit, you will be saved. If you produce wild grapes, you will be treated by God the same way the owner of the vineyard treated the rebellious tenants.
Let my teachings become a part of you and your life will produce so much fruit that it will be a joyful harvest, no matter the difficulties that confront you.
Abide with me. Abide in me. Let me abide in you, so that your days may be filled with light and life and truth and joy.
We are not called to remember God only when we are in trouble. If we do that…if we worship God authentically with contrite hearts only when we are afraid, we will end up like the nation of Israel…victims of a cultural genocide, sent out into the world, deprived of a homeland, without a vote in the community of nations of the world.
So how can we do this? We have a good start on it. John Wesley urged us to do no harm…to do good… and to stay in love with God and God’s Word. Do all the good you can to all the people you can in all the ways you can at all the times you can in all the places you can so long as ever you can.
Fill your days with goodness. That’s why God gave you free will…not so you can wear the straight and narrow path along the edges…so you can wear a path so clear that generations upon generations will be able to follow it.
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
I got to talk to a high school government class at Huntley Project High School one Law Day and I had a little fun with them. I told them there was one secret to getting away with what they wanted to do.
If you don’t do this, you will get caught every time. If you follow this advice, it will turn out just fine every time. The secret is this: Don’t do it.
Oh, there was a groan that went up big time on that, but I hope that at least a few of them remembered it. It’s another way of saying what Brother Van liked to say: Be good and you will be happy.
Our lesson today tells us something much like it: Produce worthy fruit by submitting to the pruning of the master. You will lose your life of willfulness and gain a life of uncountable rewards. Be good and you will be happy., or as my mother used to say, “Be good and have fun.”
This might sound trite to some, but I think it’s a surprising and accurate insight. Thinking this week about the Thursday Suppers we have been putting on and hosting, it occurred to me that that with all the groups that have cooked and all the people who have come to the church to serve one, there is yet to be a single person who has said that it was not a good use of their time.
The Threads volunteers inspired this little ministry of ours, and I will tell you or anyone that I don’t know of a group of people who are more dedicated to their mission.
It is a burning cause at the center of their life and as much effort and energy as they put into it, they get more out of it. The more they give, the more they get.
Be good and you will be happy. Or as Jesus tells the disciples today, “Stay joined to me and let my teachings become part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want, and your prayer will be answered.”
And we have already talked more than once about how our opportunity to be of comfort and service to our brothers and sisters in Christ on the Blackfeet Nation this winter has revitalized more than one congregation…throughout our whole conference.
Do good and you will be good…Be good and you will do good. Stay joined to the True Vine and let his teachings become part of you. Prune away the sprouts that draw away your energy without producing joy in the world.
Then you can use the precious gifts that God sent into the world through you and your joy will become complete. You will know the answer to our common prayer: Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish through me this day? Amen.