Remember this scene from last September? I certainly won’t ever forget waking up that morning to dark orange skies. Those of us who weren’t directly affected by the catastrophic wildfire season got an unnerving taste of the apocalyptic conditions not very far away. Of course those who live and work in burned over areas can tell us all about the devastation they experienced. One industry especially hard hit was winemaking. Vineyards are not only still recovering from the 2020 fires but are busy working with municipalities to put in place safeguards for the coming fire season.
Here in California we know that grapevines are precious commodities. Our hearts break at scenes like this one of burned over vineyards. We know that the loss of these vines has a profound effect on everyone – from vineyard owners, to local economies, to firefighters and first responders, hospitals, homeowners, the environment – and us, as we found out on that orange day in September when the clouds of destruction blew over us. It was a tragic time, and we pray that won’t see one like it again.
When I read the gospel text for today, I couldn’t help thinking about grapevines in a much more concrete way. Sure, “I am the vine” is a metaphor. We know Jesus wasn’t saying he was a literal vine; that would be silly. But just as the “I am the Good Shepherd” imagery resonates in a special way with a congregation called the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, our being so close to wine country gives us a special relationship to “the Vine.”
Of course, image of shepherd and vine would have been very familiar to the early followers of Jesus. We’re reminded how many of the ancient symbols of our faith are derived from nature and agriculture – and how they still work, even in our urban environment.
This is now the fifth of the seven weeks of Easter, and the second of four weeks that delve into what it means to live in intimacy with God. And I have to say that I feel some reluctance to even talk about it any further, that we should just sit quietly and actually practice getting in touch with that place within each of us that is intimately connected to the Divine. I’m reminded of a retreat I once attended on the theme of prayer. We learned about the history of prayer, about different kinds of prayer, about authors who wrote books about prayer. But we never actually prayed! Sounds ridiculous, right? So I don’t want to repeat that retreat leader’s mistake.
I would much rather create a space where something amazing could happen, something like what Thomas Merton experienced. Merton, the Trappist monk who died in 1968, wrote about a day in 1958, when he was running errands in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. He described it this way:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly over-whelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are.
And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.
As far as I am concerned, that’s a perfect description of intimacy with the Vine! But just as Merton hadn’t done anything to plan or prepare for this revelation, so it often happens with us – as a wonderful surprise. Although I will offer something that might be helpful. Here’s a guided meditation on the “I am the Vine” saying and you might find it helpful in entering into a meditative space.
For now, a few words about what was going on back then for Jesus and the disciples and what the take-away might be for us. The larger context of this passage in John is that Jesus is in the midst of what’s sometimes called his “farewell discourse” to the disciples (John 14-17). It is a passage of consolation; Jesus is assuring his dismayed disciples that he’s not abandoning them. What’s coming will not be distance but rather a radical closeness. Remember that John is writing maybe sixty years after Jesus had died. But rather than being a made-up fiction about what Jesus said and did, it is a testimony to what these followers had experienced. I imagine it to be similar to what Thomas Merton described. John wrote of what he knew – deep in his soul – to be true. So as Jesus assures the disciples that they won’t be abandoned, he’s also assuring us.
The image of the vine and the branches is a word of solace. The connection between Jesus and the disciples will not be severed, even by death. That connection would be so organic that separation would be virtually unimaginable. Their very lives would be signs of that connection, just as the life and fruit of a branch are signs of its ongoing connection to its vine.
Unfortunately, there are some Christians who hear this passage as a threat, like “If you want to live, you’d better stay connected to me, or else.” The pruning part is especially worrisome. A colleague wrote this:
As a teenager this metaphor freaked me out. In my conservative Evangelical church being fruitful meant converting others to believe like us. The pressure was on: to avoid being pruned and burned we needed to go get converts (“bear fruit”)! BTW, we were not speaking about bringing people to faith for the first time. This was mostly about persuading Anglicans and Catholics to switch across to our little Evangelical sect, renounce their infant Baptism and their sacraments, and start all over again in the Christian life with us. All that made me very uncomfortable. It seemed my spiritual status in that group was on the line, and that God was always looming with pruning shears and matches.
That’s not what this is about. Rather it is about Jesus saying: “Take heart: I will be with you, and our companionship will be even closer than it is now. Today we walk side by side — but in the days to come I will live in you, and you in me. Today, you walk in my footsteps — but in the days to come you will walk, so to speak, ‘in my feet,’ and I will walk in yours. Indeed, you will be my hands and feet for a world that needs healing and good news. Friends, I’m not abandoning you! On the contrary, I will abide in you. You will abide in me. I will not leave you alone…” https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5
That’s not a threat. Not that pruning isn’t part of our relationship with the Divine. We know that it is also a rich metaphor that can be understood by any gardener. Pruning means cutting away for the sake of new and greater growth, more fruit, more abundance, more life. Even I, with my less-than-green thumb know that! What’s harder is to recognize what needs to be pruned in ourselves and then do what is necessary for us to grow – in faith, in relationship with ourselves, with others, with the world. Thankfully, it’s clear that Jesus isn’t intent on banishment, but on helping each and every branch bear fruit. When he says, “apart from me you can do nothing,” it’s not a threat or sneering assessment of our hopelessness, it is a promise of help. “I will abide in you. You will abide in me. I will not leave you alone…”
This idea of mutual indwelling runs throughout John’s gospel, and through the Bible as a whole. Genesis depicts human life itself as possible only with the divine breath. In Galatians, Paul says, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” and in Acts, he preaches to the Athenians that God is the One “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” And here in John, because Jesus’ “I am the vine” is the seventh and last of his “I am” statements in the gospel, it’s the culmination of his teachings about how God, Jesus, and human beings are related: Jesus abides in God, and we abide in Jesus, as deeply, closely, organically related as a branch is to its vine. As John tells it, the ultimate goal is not merely to follow Jesus or obey his instruction, but to live in Jesus as he lives in us. Obeying his instruction will then be a natural effect or consequence of that intimate companionship, since our lives and his life will be one.
So what does such mutual indwelling look like in practice? It would look like Jesus, and at the same time it would look like us — that is, it would look like us being the people God made us to be. In a word, it would look like love: incarnate, tangible, down-to earth, intertwining, intersecting, growing, fruitful, vibrant love.
It would look like reaching out to outsiders, the ones who are otherwise relegated to the margins of community. Take, for instance, the man in the Book of Acts known only as an Ethiopian eunuch (although in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, he is remembered as Bachos). Bachos asked Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Actually there was quite a bit to prevent him. Eunuchs were sexual outcasts in Jewish religious society. According to Womanist biblical scholar Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, in the Ancient Near East and North Africa, it was the custom for men who worked for monarchs to be surgically altered. This was to diminish the chances that they might attempt to establish a dynasty of their own. So there was a class of men who were highly educated, wealthy, and served in high-ranking positions, and who were, in an important way, different. Despite being a prestigious figure in a foreign royal court, Bachos is nonetheless an outsider.
He’s reading from Isaiah and we have to wonder if he had chosen that passage because of his own experience of rejection. He’s returning in his chariot from a visit to Jerusalem where he was worshipping at the temple, even though he could never participate fully in temple worship because of his status as a gender minority. Yet, he’s a spiritual man; he’s drawn to the texts of the Hebrew Bible. By coincidence (God’s incidents?), he meets up with Philip.
We might wonder why this powerful man in his fancy chariot would invite a perfect stranger to come up and read the scriptures with him. He must have known somehow, must have known that this was a holy moment, a divine opportunity. And after reading and discussing scripture together, he knew something else, deep in his soul. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he asked. Nothing. Nothing stood in the way between Bachos and the promise of God. And he knew it. He knew it in his bones. That even though he may not have been seen as ‘whole’ at the temple, he was whole. He was worthy. He claimed the promise that God offered him right there on the spot.
Bachos is the one God chooses to bring a message of belonging back to Ethiopia and “give birth” to the African Christian Church.
His story here reflects an expanding circle of inclusion that is all-too-often neglected in the church. In our current times, we should be asking ourselves: who are the outsiders, the disenfranchised, the excluded (whether we intend to exclude them or not) — and how can we reach out to them, build bridges with them, learn from them, create a new community with them?
It may take some pruning for us to truly answer that. However, if we live into our connectedness with the Vine, the answers will undoubtedly become clear. We may have our own experiences of ‘God incidences’ when – if our connection is strong – we’ll be able to respond to the needs of a stranger with authentic, holy love. But we shouldn’t only wait for them to come to us. The measure of our health as branches on the vine will be our willingness and ability to find ways of breaking down walls of division, of building up communities of inclusion. As the Spirit flows through the vine, into the branches, sprouting leaves, putting forth good fruit – the true Christian community will thrive. It’s not about numbers (although the more who are included, the better); it’s about the quality of life as branches on the vine.
We want to be a healthy, strong green vineyard . Jesus said, “Those who abide in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” We could turn that around and say, “Those who abide in Jesus will bear abundant fruit, for with Jesus you can do anything.”
So tend to your branches. Seek communion with the Divine Presence that abides in you. Know in your bones that in Christ you are whole and you are worthy. Claim the promise that God offers to you. And together are a community of love and inclusion – in the spirit of Bachos, and Philip, and of course Jesus, our True Vine.
An angel of God spoke to Philip saying, “Be ready to set out at noon along the road that goes to Gaza, the desert road.”
So Philip began his journey. It happened that an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury had come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage and was returning home. He was sitting in his carriage and reading the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and meet that carriage.”
When Philip ran up, he heard the eunuch reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
The eunuch replied, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?”
With that, he invited Philip to get into the carriage with him.
This was the passage of scripture being read:
“You are like a sheep being led to slaughter;
you are like a lamb that is mute in front of its shearers:
like them, you never open your mouth.
You have been humiliated and have no one to defend you.
Who will ever talk about your descendants
since your life on earth has been cut short?”
The eunuch said to Philip, “Tell me, if you will, about whom the prophet is talking – himself or someone else?”
So Philip proceeded to explain the Good News about Jesus to him. Further along, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water right there! Is there anything to keep me from being baptized?”
He ordered the carriage to stop; then Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God snatched Philip away; the eunuch did not see him any more and went on his way rejoicing. Philip found himself at Ashdod next, and he went about proclaiming the Good News in all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
John 15: 1-8
I am the true vine, and my Abba is the vine grower who cuts off every branch in me that does not bear fruit, but prunes the fruitful ones to increase their yield. You have been pruned already thanks to the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit of itself apart from the vine, neither can you bear fruit apart from me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. Those who do not abide in me are like withered, rejected branches, to be picked up and thrown on the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you want, and it will be done for you. My Abba will be glorified if you bear much fruit and thus prove to be my disciples.