Easter 5B, Sunday May 3, 2015

May 4, 2015

Abiding On The Vine
John 15:1-8

15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

I don’t think we have any idea how scandalous it was for Jesus to say he was the true vine. It sounds like a nice metaphor for us, and there’s certainly an aspect of this passage that is as helpful and benevolent as the Janet Carson gardening advice column in the Democrat Gazette, but there’s a revolutionary aspect to what he’s saying as well. What we hear is nice advice, but this isn’t how it would have sounded to 1st Century Jewish/Christian ears. These words point to the rift that had developed between the house of Israel and the followers of Jesus who had been thrown out of that house.

The nation of Israel had been thinking of itself as God’s vineyard for many centuries.

Isaiah 5:7 states: The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;

Psalm 80:8 says: You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.

You can find the image of the grape vine or vineyard throughout the Bible. I read that there are more than 200 references to grape-vines or vineyards in the Bible. But when Jesus says that he is the true vine he is not speaking for the nation of Israel. Jesus was officially and brutally rejected by the leaders of Israel, and I think it’s helpful to pay attention to the jagged-edginess of what Jesus was saying.

This knowledge doesn’t really change the meaning for us, but maybe it is a reminder of how challenging Jesus was to the religious sensibilities of his day. Sometimes I think we forget how unnatural it is to follow Jesus. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not normal behavior. In fact I’m pretty sure it requires us to defy our natural inclinations to be self-protecting and self-serving. I don’t think we are naturally bad, but I think it takes some effort for us to overcome conventional wisdom about how we can gain access to the best things in life.

We are conditioned by our surroundings to think we can have it all, and that in order to obtain what we think we need to provide us with abundant life we’ve got to make more connections with more important people, get more stuff, go more places, produce more products, look better and live longer. Of course we also need to make these endless efforts appear to be effortless and we also are to present ourselves as being completely generous. It’s not easy to obtain the good life according to the rules of the first world, but it’s even harder not to measure ourselves by these first world standards. It’s not easy for us to hear what Jesus said about finding abundant life – and it’s even harder to do what he said. Abiding on this vine is not the same thing as hanging out at Starbucks – and I hate that!

I’ve never had a productive grape-vine, so I don’t think I fully appreciate this morning’s vineyard metaphor. Perhaps what I’m most conscious of is how particular grape-vines can be and how easy it is for grapevines to be unproductive. I’ve planted a few grapevines, but none of them have ever survived and produced. What I also know is that it takes a lot of grapes to produce a box of my favorite wine, and there isn’t a shortage of wine in any store that I know of, so I know there are people out there who understand how to nurture those vines to produce good fruit.

Good wine wasn’t as easily accessible to the people of Jesus’ day, but they valued it, and they had appreciation for a good grapevine. The people of Jesus’ day weren’t just familiar with the biblical image of the vineyard, they were also familiar with the process of grape production. They understood what it took to create fruit-laden vines, and apparently this act of pruning is essential to the process.

Jesus speaks of God as the vine-dresser who understands what to prune. And I find it helpful to remember that we aren’t in charge of the vineyard, but I don’t think we are to think of ourselves as passive objects in the vineyard of life. If our primary objective is to be productive branches that are connected to the true vine I don’t think our role is to wait for God to do something. Because it seems to me that the way God acts is often in the form of revealing the emptiness of misguided agendas. Much of what Jesus did was to expose how dead the faith of Israel had become. If we wait for God to show us exactly what to do we will probably find the message from God to be pretty disturbing.

In order for us to abide on the true vine of abundant life I think we’ve got to do some pruning of our own. We’ve got to learn to recognize what those things are that we cling to that do not put us in touch with the source of true life. In what ways are we abiding in the wrong places.

I was abiding in the wrong place the other day. Sharla and I made a weekend trip to Kansas City a couple of weeks ago. We wanted to see where our daughter and son-in-law will be taking our soon-to-be-born granddaughter in August, so we made a practice run to Kansas City. We enjoyed our time there, but as we were driving home we were in the middle of some sketchy weather. This was that Sunday when some places in Arkansas were hit with some remarkable hail stones. We were pretty fortunate to be traveling sort of between the fronts that were passing through the state, but I got hungry, and we pulled off at Clarksville for some Taco Bell food.

We went inside to eat because I have tried to eat a crunchy taco supreme in the car and it just doesn’t work. As we were waiting for our food Sharla noticed these large dark clouds moving in, and she said it would be a sad ending to get blown away by a tornado inside a Taco Bell. I said it would be really sad if you hadn’t gotten your food yet. I was really hungry.

We got our food and as we started eating Sharla noticed that some really ugly clouds were moving in quickly and she thought we needed to go. I begged her to let me finish my tacos and nachos. She said, Do you not think those clouds are threatening? And I said, Yes, I do, but I’m also really hungry. I very honestly felt these two competing urgent needs and my need to finish eating was the dominant urge.

So I ate them really fast, and we got in the car right before the rain came. We had a few anxious minutes, but nothing bad happened. I was so happy about that. I would have felt horrible if my desire to finish my tacos without making a mess in the car had resulted in some sort of disaster.

It was sort of funny and scary at the same time, but I very honestly felt these conflicting needs. This isn’t exactly representative of the kinds of conflicts that we generally have to navigate in this world. This would have been a no-brainer for most people – take the tacos and go. But we often face difficult choices between our perceived needs, and it’s important that we learn to incorporate the wisdom of Christ in to our thinking – otherwise we are just going to do what we have been conditioned to do by the mass-marketed messages of the first world.

I have a peer in ministry who is very intentional about incorporating his commitment to Christ in his life and work. You may think it’s a given that a pastor would live in such a way, but United Methodist ministers are a lot like regular human beings in many ways, and we find it as hard to follow Christ as the rest of you. My friend had an opportunity this year to go to an appointment that would have put him in a more affluent place with a much higher salary than he currently makes, but he chose not to take the position because he didn’t feel that it was the right thing for him to do. I can tell you, he felt the wisdom of the first world bearing down on him, but he had this overriding sense that he needed to stay where he was.

Now this was an unusual circumstance in a number of ways. Generally speaking we get told where we are going as opposed to getting asked, but the really unusual thing was that my friend and his wife didn’t just allow the things that usually guide our decisions to make their decision. They both have a strong sense of commitment to living as disciples of Jesus Christ, and they want to serve him more than they want to obtain these rewards that the first world has to offer. I’m not saying they are perfect disciples of Jesus Christ, and they had many things to consider in regard to their work and their family, but I believe the largest factor that guided their decision was their desire to abide with Jesus.

Of course it’s not always obvious to us what we need to hold on to or what we need to let go of in order to be most connected to the source of true life, but I think it’s helpful to stay mindful of how Jesus lived and what Jesus taught. I believe we can grow in our knowledge of who he was, and there are things we can do to become more sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

As our United Methodist name indicates, we come from people who believed that we can be methodical in our pursuit of spiritual awakening, and it is our responsibility to engage in activities that nourish our souls and train our minds to recognize opportunities to grow in our relationship with God. God has chosen to be with us, but we also have choose to get to know God. The first world is doing a good job of training us to do what we need to do to compete with our peers in the marketplace of life, but it’s not instructing us on how to find true life in the kingdom of God.

It’s not natural to abide with this person we call the true vine. In some ways it’s downright scandalous to stand with him in this world, but that is where we need to be if we wish to find the best life and bear the best fruit.

The good news is that the true vine is still alive and we can be it’s branches!
Thanks be to God.


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