“The True Vine” Colchester Federated Church, May 2, 2021, Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 15:1-8)

I had a serious vine problem in Lexington.  The parsonage had a fenced in backyard and woods just beyond the fence.  Vines had attached themselves to some of the bushes and trees and crept their way through the fence.  My dog Fritz (of blessed memory) was a big fan of these vines in that they provided a perfect hiding spot.  I’d look out in the backyard and couldn’t find him.  Call him and get no response.  So I’d walk into the yard to make sure all was well only to have him rush out in triumph from underneath these vines.  Fritz loved this game of hide and seek, but clearly these vines had to go for my own sanity.

Not knowing much about vines, let alone Oriental Bittersweet (because that’s what those vines happened to be I later discovered), I got a pair of scissors and tried to cut them away from the fence.  The scissors broke.  Then I thought, well after all those years working on the farm and throwing shot put and discus in high school, I’m strong enough to yank them out at the root.  Not realizing that those particular vines have tiny thorns. 

Yanking the vines with my bare hands did not go well.  Went back into the house, washed off the blood, picked some thorns out of my hands, put on a pair of gloves, and got a kitchen knife which I proceeded to wield like a machete to hack away at those vines.  Because by then—this was personal. About a week later, I was playing with Fritz in the backyard and inspected my work.  Wouldn’t you know it, but some of the remnants already had green buds sprouting.  When talking with some members of our church’s Stewardship team about the predicament, one member (who was an avid gardener) said, “You’ll never get rid of Oriental Bittersweet.  It’s best to just manage it and even try to see its beauty.”  

Now when turning to the Gospel according to John, we read Jesus say, “I am the true vine.”[1]  To put this Biblical statement into perspective, Jesus has seven metaphorical “I Am” sayings that are unique in John’s Gospel.  These sayings are not found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  Even the words “I Am” are symbolic since God tells Moses “I Am Who I Am” in Exodus at the burning bush.[2]  John’s Gospel depicts Jesus saying “I Am” in seven metaphors to emphasize Jesus’ power and divinity.  Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”  “I am the light of the world.”  “I am the gate.”  “I am the good shepherd.”  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  “I am the vine.”[3]

Why did Jesus have to say that he’s the vine?  The good shepherd—who doesn’t love a good shepherd finding and taking care of lost sheep?  That’s what we contemplated last Sunday, thinking about God as the good shepherd and that sheep band together for support and protection.  The resurrection and the life—who doesn’t love some mystery and new life and second chances?  The bread of life—it can make us consider Communion and what it means to break bread with one another in Christian community. 

But the vine?  Ugh.  Maybe this is a metaphor that speaks deeply to you, but it’s not a personal favorite given some of the vines present in the world around us.  Vines can be an invasive species that choke the life out of other plants and trees like Oriental Bittersweet.  Vines can obnoxiously grow thorns!  Though vines can also be lovely I suppose.  Vines can gently climb buildings and twirl around garden gazebos.  One can think of an English garden and how vines can accent particular settings.  And the truth is that Jesus is specifically speaking about grapevines in this Gospel text.   

The grapevine was used as a metaphor for Israel in the Old Testament.  That God (the vineyard keeper) tends God’s people carefully, but could burn or destroy the vine if the people were unfaithful.  Harsh, but an effective metaphor given the vegetation and climate in the ancient Near East.  People understood what Jesus was saying about the vine and God possibly removing branches of the vine.  It was a vivid metaphor.  Because even here in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper.  He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit.”[4] 

Jesus speaks about God the vineyard keeper in relationship with him.  He’s speaking about God removing those dead parts of him and pruning those parts that can bear fruit like love, joy, peace, kindness, faithfulness, forgiveness, generosity, compassion, and so on.  We are finishing up Valarie Kaur’s book See No Stanger in Bible Study and when she talks about forgiveness for instance, she writes, “Forgiveness is not forgetting: Forgiveness is freedom from hate.”[5]  To use Jesus’ metaphor in conversation with Valarie Kaur—we could say that forgiveness removes hate so that we can all have more space in our hearts to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.  Forgiveness is not necessarily for the person who hurt us, it’s for us to be able to be the people that God created us to be.

Jesus is talking about God helping him to let some stuff go in order to free up space inside him to bear fruit.  And if God does that for Jesus, God can do that for us, too.  God can remove any branch that doesn’t produce fruit and trim any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit.  Because Jesus goes on to say that he, Jesus, is the vine, and we are the branches.  God is still the vineyard keeper.  Jesus is the vine.

The point of Jesus saying that he is the vine and we are the branches is that when we’re in relationship with Jesus and with each other, we can bear so much fruit.  We can do great things when we remember that we’re in this together and act like it.  “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.”[6]  We can be Jesus’ disciples out in the world making a difference.  We can love one another as God loves us.  We can shine our lights to witness to the power of God in our lives and in our congregation here at Colchester Federated Church.  The point is also that apart from each other, we can’t do a whole lot.  Together—we can help God mend the world.  It’s the perfect metaphor for Christian community.

In the end, maybe it’s a good thing to think about the tenacity of vines.  Vines have a way of growing in unexpected places.  I came to embrace what my parishioner said about managing the Oriental Bittersweet and even seeing some beauty in it, especially knowing that it wasn’t going away.  Neither is God.  The vineyard keeper is there for us no matter what we face.  Jesus is the vine and we are the branches.  If we remain in him, there’s no telling what kind of fruit we can produce together.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 15:5, Common English Bible.
[2] Exodus 3:14.
[3] As outlined by Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels, 119.
[4] John 15:1-2.
[5] Valarie Kaur, See No Stanger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, 263.
[6] John 15:5.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash.