Easter 5B

April 30, 2018

Into The Flow

John 15:1-8
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 a good sense of how scandalous it was for Jesus to say that he was the true vine. It sounds like a nice metaphor for us, and it’s not easy to understand why anyone would take offense at what sounds to me like a reasonable assertion, but there’s a revolutionary aspect to what he’s saying. What we hear is nice advice, but this isn’t how it would have sounded to 1st Century Jewish/Christian ears. These words highlight a 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 isn’t 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.


In that regard it might be helpful for us to think about the way the Rock and Roll revolution tore in to our own society. Having been born in 1957, I wasn’t fully conscious of the way in which rock and roll disrupted the lives of average Americans, but I know that it wasn’t universally welcomed. I wasn’t old enough to be on the front line of that culture war, but I was somewhat aware of the battles that were being fought, and I was happy to come along and enjoy the new territory that had been seized by men and women who were armed with amplified guitars and microphones.


I recently listened to Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born To Run. He’s one of my favorite rock and roll band leaders, and I really enjoyed hearing him tell the story of his life. Bruce is a few years older than I am, but he hadn’t become a popular artist while I was a teenager, so I only came to appreciate his music a few years after he initially produced it. His family history is much different from my own, but what I understood about his story was how influential the musicians of his day were to him.


He was much more aware of the impact that Elvis Presley had on our society than I was, but according to Bruce Springsteen, the day that Elvis performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, September 9, 1956 was the day the world shifted – at least it was the day that altered the axis of his world.


The world he had previously occupied was pretty dismal. He was harassed by the nuns at the Catholic School he attended and his home-life was somewhat bleak. His father suffered with some undiagnosed mental illness and he self-medicated with alcohol and cigarettes. His mother worked all the time and they had a hard time making ends meet, but his view of the world shifted when he saw Elvis Presley perform on television. That was the day he realized the world could be interesting and exciting.


That turn of events doesn’t exactly fit the narrative of what we would call a salvation experience, but on some level it spoke to him in a way that brought him to life. Seeing that performance by Elvis lit a fire within him that changed the course of his life and has had a powerful impact on the lives of many other people.


I’m not here to argue that rock and roll has been an unquestionably positive force in the world. There have been a lot of different messages blasted out from rock and roll speakers and those messages have led a lot people down bad roads. God has not been glorified by much of what has come out of the rock and roll revolution, but I think we all know that there’s something within a great rock and roll rhythm that can touch our soul. An amplified guitar, keyboard, bass, and drum set is a powerful set of soul-stirring tools. Add some lyrics sung by a gyrating man or woman and you’ve got something. This was powerfully clear to teenagers when Elvis hit the stage – as it was to their parents, but they didn’t share the same feelings about the situation.


And I think this is helpful to keep in mind when we think about the way Jesus was seen by the people of his day. The dividing line didn’t break down between generations in the way that it did when rock and roll broke out in Western Civilization, but there was this huge rift between those who saw Jesus as the savior they had been waiting for and those who saw him as the biggest troublemaker that had ever arrived in Israel.


We are inclined to think that the sap running through the vine that Jesus speaks of himself as being is nothing less than the source of true life, but that’s not how everyone felt about him. Jesus got everyone’s attention in a powerful way, but opinions of him were powerfully divided. You might say he was replacing some revered traditions and expectations with himself. This came as a refreshing blast of life to many and a point of blasphemy to others.


I don’t want to make too much of the comparison between the arrival of Jesus in Israel and the way that rock and roll burst on to the scene in America. The motto of peace and love that rock and roll claimed to promote turned in to some ugly excesses, but I do think the way that music influences our lives is similar to the way in which Jesus operates within us. And I don’t want to act like music didn’t arrive in the United States until 1956. I know how passionate my father was about the music of the 40’s, but he wasn’t ever touched by charm of rock and roll.


I believe whatever form of music speaks to our soul can help us understand what it is that Jesus offers – which is the opportunity to be caught up and guided by something that is greater than ourselves. In the same way that we can be carried away by the sound of music we can be swept up and guided by the spirit of the living Christ. If we are connected to the true vine that was the embodiment of the living God we can get into the flow of abundant living – of living as if we are connected to the life of Jesus Christ.


I’ve never had a productive grape-vine, so I don’t think I fully appreciate this morning’s vineyard metaphor, but I do know how it feels to get caught up in the flow of a rhythm and it’s a powerful thing. But I also know how difficult it is to get a grape-vines going, and how easy it is for grapevines to be unproductive. I’ve planted a few grapevines, and I’m always excited by the picture you see on the grapevine container, but none of them have ever survived and produced.


I guess I appreciate the flow of music more than I understand and appreciate the vineyard image, but this was not the case with the people of Jesus’ day. And they 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 vinedresser who understands what to prune. Now, it’s good for us to remember that we aren’t in charge of the vineyard, but this doesn’t mean we are to think of ourselves as passive objects in the vineyard of life. If we want to be productive branches that are connected to the true vine we aren’t to sit around and wait for God to do something. In fact, if we are sitting around waiting for God to use us in some way this is probably an indication that we’ve somehow already become disconnected from the vine. If we are connected to the source of true life, we are going to bear some good fruit of some kind.


As surely as you can’t sit still when your favorite song is playing, you can’t not somehow share the love of Christ if you are connected to the vine. What flows in is going to flow out in some way.


It’s good for us to think about the amazingly new way that Jesus revealed the love of God in to the world. It wasn’t in a way that suited everyone, but that was because those people weren’t ready for their world to be rocked. Jesus was very threatening to people who were more interested in stability than in justice and who were more interested in knowing how to be powerful than in how to be loving. Jesus didn’t come to bless the way things were – he came to reveal what life is like in the kingdom of God, and that is a far different way of living than the way this world is organized.


Things are different in the kingdom of God, and Jesus exposed those differences in ways that were very threatening. Jesus was seen as a troublemaker, and yet he pointed to himself as being the true vine. We aren’t called to be troublemakers, but we are called to be connected to the source of true life, and that can cause some trouble. It can cause us to speak up in the face of injustice and to expose ourselves when it would be safer to remain hidden. Jesus didn’t come to make sure nothing ever changed, he came to make something happen, and to see who wanted to find true life.


The world didn’t change on September 9, 1956 when Elvis hit Ed Sullivan’s stage. The entertainment bar got raised that night, but the world changed when Jesus stepped on the world’s stage and showed us what it means to be in the flow of true life. It was a truly shocking performance. There was too much love being too freely given. In fact it was so shocking the government and religious censors of the day sentenced him to death, but the Producer, the Lord God Almighty, wasn’t ready for the show to be over.


God brought Jesus back for an encore performance and the show hasn’t ended yet. In fact, Jesus has invited us to join him on the stage, and he’s wanting to see our best moves!


Thanks be to God.




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