A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 3, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 15:1-8 and 1 John 4:7-21
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In my sermon last week, I reminded you that, in the encounter at the burning bush, when Moses pressed for some name to use to identify God, God said, “I am … who I am.”  “I am … who I am.”  God is … who God is.

It’s not the only time God says, “I am,” in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures we learn that God is Presence and Healer and Savior and Keeper.  God is rock and refuge and protection that people seek.

In John’s gospel, Jesus used a similar device to explain who he is.  Seven times in that gospel, Jesus says, “I am …” and he follows the phrase with distinct images:  I am … bread; light; door; shepherd; resurrection and life; way, truth and life; and vine.  These are images that his audience would know and understand.  By stating, “I am,” in this way, Jesus uses tangible symbols and images to help the people understand his authority and power.  And when he utters, “I am,” he connects himself to the Great I Am, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Last week, I reflected on the fourth of these “I am” statements by Jesus in John’s gospel:  I am the good shepherd.  Today, I will look at the seventh:  “I am the true vine and my father is the vinegrower. … I am the vine, you are the branches.”

When Jesus spoke about vineyards, the people of Judea knew what he was talking about.  Everyone would have seen vineyards.  Grape farming was a crucial industry that had been carefully cultivated throughout the region for centuries.  It was crucial because grapes were a cash crop.  Grains may be been necessary for daily life – give us this day our daily bread, Jesus taught us to pray – but grain was raised purely for consumption.  Grapes were raised for sale.  For comparison, in British colonial America, the essential crop was corn, but the cash crop was tobacco.  Vineyards were, therefore, vital to the economy of the Israel of Jesus’ day.

So the people who heard Jesus would have been very familiar with vineyards.  They would have understood what it took to grow the vines – the way a person from Iowa knows about corn or someone from Wisconsin about cheese – or the way I learned about dairy farming when I lived in Carnation, Washington, the home of the contented cow.  It’s even safe to assume that some of them would have had experience working in the vineyards.

On the other hand, I have what I think can best be described as a brown thumb.  Someone once suggested it was green – just gangrene.  I plant things and they die.  I bring home a houseplant and it dies.  This is in marked contrast to my goddaughter’s mother.  She can plant tomatoes in the rainy, cloudy foothills of the Cascade Mountains and get a bountiful harvest.  She can plant a pumpkin seed a month too late and still harvest a pumpkin for jack-o-lantern carving at Halloween.

And it’s not just that she’s good in the garden.  She is spiritual in the garden.  She finds the work of gardening meditative and filled with spiritual metaphors.  I just don’t get it.  When my goddaughter’s parents were looking for a home to buy, they picked a log house – a log cabin, really – not because they liked the house (though they thought it was “cute”), but because they liked the yard!  It had been used by a previous owner as an extensive garden, complete with greenhouse.  But by the time they bought it, the garden was overgrown with wild blackberries and foxglove, the greenhouse was a collection of broken glass, and the sheds would have fallen down if you sneezed loudly.  If I had looked at that property, I would have thought, “What a mess.  Can you imagine how much work it is going to be just to get rid of the broken glass?”  They looked at this piece of property and thought, “Wow!  Just imagine the garden we could have here.”

I realize that people are different.  We have different gifts, Paul tells us.  What I’m saying is that horticulture is not one of mine.  And I tell you this just as a way of saying that there are certainly people out there who are more organically qualified to preach on this passage than I am, who understand at a cellular level this vineyard metaphor – probably some in this room today.  So bear with me, please as I try to unearth something fruitful for us today.  (Did you like that?  Unearth something fruitful?)

The image of the vine to represent the community of God’s people wasn’t new to Jesus.  We hear it in the Psalm:  “You brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and planted it” (Ps 80:8).  The Prophets use the image:  Isaiah uses it:  “For the vineyard of the God of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting …” (Isa 5:7).  Jeremiah uses it:  “Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock.…” (Jer 2:21).  And Hosea uses it:  “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.  The more Israel’s fruit increased the more altars Israel built; as the country improved, Israel improved the pillars” (Hos 10:1).

Jesus shifts the image a bit.  Here, he calls himself the vine, while the fruit-bearing branches here are the disciples.  Jesus says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”  Even I know that you don’t sit on a tree branch that you’re trying to cut off of a tree.  Even for someone who is as horticulturally challenged as I am, this is pretty much a no-brainer that the branch can’t bear fruit without remaining attached to the vine.

I remember an ice storm that came through eastern Massachusetts one May in the 1970s.  Spring had sprung, so the ice not only accumulated on the limbs, but also on the leaves.  The weight was just too much for the elms and maples and oaks.  Tree branches were savagely torn from the trunks, leaving gaping wounds.  It took days for power to be restored and weeks for the tree limbs to get cut up and hauled away.  As the days past, there was one very noticeable thing about the branches that lie on the ground.  They died.  You may be thinking, “Duh, Jeff.  Of course they did!”  And even I know it’s obvious, but seeing them lying there dying, fresh light-green leaves drying up and shriveling, drilled home the reality, “apart from the tree the branch cannot survive.”

Apart from Jesus, we can’t survive.

“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.”  Now, we’ve established that I don’t know much about horticulture in general, let alone viticulture in particular, so what follows is based on what I’ve read, which I assume is accurate.  Growing grapevines is tough, labor intensive work that requires patience.  Typically, a young vine is not permitted to bear fruit for the first three years, but is cut back so all its energy can go into getting itself established.  Similarly, branches that do not bear fruit are cut out to further conserve the energy of the plant, and this must be done by hand.  If this constant cutting back is not done, the result would be a crop that was not up to its full potential.

God is depicted as the one who cultivates the vineyard.  God waters and tends the soil, so that the vine is properly nourished.  God takes pride in the crop.  This also means that God prunes the vines and removes the dead wood.  I think what Jesus is saying is pretty clear.  Jesus is the true vine and if we break away from him, we will be like unproductive branches and die and bear no fruit – and so we will have to be pruned out.

The vinegrower removes the non-fruit-bearing branches, Jesus says.  The Greek verb translated “remove” is used to denote both pruning and cleansing.  The cleansing here refers to the issues of ritual uncleanness and cleanness that are delineated in Leviticus and Numbers.  In other words, the pruning that God does brings us into right relationship with God.  It’s probably worth noting that Jesus says the disciples are already cleansed by the word Jesus spoke to them.  It could well be that the primary pruning shears God uses is the word of Jesus.

So this is probably a good time to think about how God prunes you and what God cuts away.  To be honest, there are times I’d like God to be a bit more aggressive in pruning me.  There’s plenty in my life that doesn’t produce grapes that are worth pressing.  The ways I remain caught up in the empire of consumerism keeps me from bearing fruits of the empire of God.  I sometimes feel more like morning glory – all I produce is a flower that quickly fades and if you try to uproot me, I’ll just send out more shoots.

There are other times when it feels like things are being cut away left and right and I wish God would go sit in the shade and rest for a while.  People I know and love die right around here and people I’ve never met suffer a devastating earthquake on the other side of the globe and even if this isn’t part of God’s pruning, I’d like it to stop, thank you.

Of course, the metaphor isn’t just for the individual.  Our congregation is a branch of the vine and God prunes us, too.  People come and go, and some of that is simply the cycle of life.  Still, some of the coming and going may be God’s pruning.

A colleague once observed that the people who make friends at church and bring in friends to church seem to be the one who have the greatest longevity in his church.  Others seem to fall by the wayside.  And interesting observation when you start to think about what bearing fruit might look like.

More than anything else, bearing fruit means sharing love.  That is what the epistle lesson was getting at.  “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

There’s a lot of abiding going on in today’s passages.  Did you notice that in the gospel lesson, too?  “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.”  One important point that this abiding makes is that bearing fruit is a consequence of abiding.

We can bear what looks like the fruits of discipleship by willing ourselves to do something.  “I really should reach out to those people, so I’d better go do it.”  Real fruit comes as a consequence of abiding in Jesus and letting Jesus abide in us.  It is the most natural thing in the world, a natural consequence of being connected to Jesus.  It happens not as a “should” but as a “can.”  “I can reach out to those people.”

In other words, to quote Sarah Henrich, “Bearing fruit does not create disciples; bearing fruit reveals disciples.  Both of these activities are dependent on abiding in Jesus, the real vine.”[1]

We are a branch attached to and nourished by the vine Jesus even as we undergo God’s pruning.  The result is fruit-bearing discipleship.  And that’s a pretty good thing.

[1] Sarah Henrich, “Exegetical Perspective” on John 15:1-8, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 477.