Fifth Sunday of Easter
6 May 2012
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
Based on St. John 15: 1-8
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
“I am the vine and you are the branches.” As I sat with this morning’s gospel text I was befuddled. As most of you know I’m a city boy at heart, and grew up closer to the concrete jungle than a vineyard. So I wondered what to do with this text since I know little about what it means to be the vine and the branches myself, although that is a metaphor that would have made sense to Jesus’ followers in 1st century Palestine. So I turned to a friend, Dr. Jon Sanford. Now Jon is even more of a Washingtonian than I, a well respected political economist. But he is also a winemaker, or more properly, a vintner. In fact, Jon made the wine for holy communion for my ordination. Jon astutely commented on this passage saying
The grapevine by itself does not produce very attractive fruit, as the branches will go all wild and set lots and lots of tiny grapes. These will be mostly seeds and not much use as fruit. So I guess we all need tending.
I think this actually gives us a lot of insight into what Jesus might mean here. Jesus tells the disciples that God is the vine grower, he is the vine, and we are the branches. As noted, all of the branches would need tending or pruning, or else they just go wild and produce little fruit. Jesus tells us that branches that do not bear fruit will be removed, and those that bear fruit will be pruned so that they can bear more fruit. The irony here is that those branches that don’t bear fruit are only cut once, but those that do, they will be pruned over and over again to continuously provide more fruit. Every time that they are pruned, though it’s not a pretty sight, there is a reminder of the source of the branch, connected to the vine. We too should continually be reminded of our source in God in Christ. UCC minister Bruce Epperley writes that, “divine pruning orients us toward growth – it is the presentation of challenging possibilities, sometimes in contrast to our narrow understandings and self-interest to open us to God’s greater vision for our lives. God prunes us with challenging possibilities intended for our growth, not diminishment or punishment.”
But just what is this fruit we are being pruned to produce anyway? Is it converts? Do we each have to produce more Christians in order to be considered worthy? I think helping to form disciples of Jesus Christ is a vital part of our Christian life, but too often I think we get caught up here. Remember, St. Paul tells us in scripture that there are a variety of spiritual gifts for different uses. Essentially I believe we show our fruit when we use our God-given gifts to the glory of God who gave them. Whether that is teaching Sunday school, offering a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on for someone in need, giving someone food who has none, protesting injustice and standing up for those on the margins, sharing your faith with someone who longs for hope in their life, or helping a kid go to camp who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity – in all these situations, I believe we both use our gifts and show fruit. As the saying goes, God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts.
My friend Jon also told about vineyards saying:
Ironically, the best wine is often produced in difficult circumstances. High heat, limited water, and rocky or stony ground puts great strain on the vines and causes them to produce superlative fruit. The number of grapes may be intentionally limited but the flavor in each is maximized. Some of the very best wine is produced in poor soil with a limestone underlay, a situation which limits water saturation in the soil. Your farmers will know more about this than I do. Some vintners avoid planting vines in this situation, as they are looking for the maximum production of what will probably be rather ordinary wine. The ambitious vintner goes to special lengths to plant vines in trying situations, expecting the highest quality fruit will result. Of course, from the point of view of the vine, this is probably not much fun and I suspect the grapevine lobby is perpetually complaining about poor working conditions. However, despite the stress which is put on them, vines with good character and stamina can produce some of the best and richest grapes under these adverse circumstances.
I don’t know about you, but I find that fascinating. I wonder if God as the vine grower “goes to special lengths to plant vines in trying situations, expecting the highest quality fruit will result.” Some of most spiritually rich times for the Church have been when it has been under greatest difficulty. For the first 300 years of Christianity it lived and grew on the edges, on the margins of society – much of the time under much persecution. To proclaim Jesus as Lord in the midst of the rule of Caesar meant at times certain death. Today, the Christian church is growing the fastest in Africa, Asia, and South America. The decline of Christianity in North America and Europe is well-documented. Now some want to attribute this to an increasingly secular society and dwindling influence. But I think the opposite is true. I think we have been comfortable and in control for far too long. Have our vineyard conditions simply been too easy? Rich, comfortable soil, instead of that more difficult soil that produces the best grapes? Have we become too comfortable with lots of grapes with ordinary flavor, with lots of churches and members with little discipleship and few changed lives? If we carry out the metaphor of the vine and branches to its logical conclusion, in the midst of the most trying circumstances for the Church there may be fewer, but far more luscious and substantial fruit.
Now, that’s not entirely comforting — that the Church may be better off under more difficult circumstances. But as a wise woman once told me, “It is the times of difficulty that make us more of who we are.” And remember, Jesus doesn’t say, I am the vine and you are my one and only branch. He says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Lutheran pastor Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber says “Vines, and branches off of vines, are all tangled and messy and it’s just too hard to know what is what. If I’m going to bear fruit I want it attributed to me and my branch. If I’m too tangled up with other vines and branches I might not get credit…So not only are we dependent on Jesus, but our lives are uncomfortably tangled up together. The Christian life is a vine-y, branch-y, jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others.” You see we’re all tangled up together in the midst of this journey of faith, trying to produce fruit, walking through this world. We are intimately and intricately connected with our vine and with all the other branches around us. No, we won’t get credit for that really good grape we just produced (It came from my branch, not his!). But we are in this together. The Christian life, and life in the Church is bound up together. It’s not about us as individuals, it’s about us as community, as community grounded in the work and Word of Jesus Christ, incarnate and risen. It’s not always comfortable being tangled up together. Let’s be honest, there are some people we’d rather not be tangled up with, and some we’d like to be tangled up with, who are perfectly happy elsewhere. That’s the glory of the Church – it brings together an unlikely group of people who otherwise might not choose each other. But we don’t get to pick each other and pick who sits in our pew. We’re all caught up together, branches entwined together, each trying to produce fruit. The comfort in that jumble is that we don’t do it alone in the midst of that difficult ground – but we commit to grow fruitful, tangled together. Through it all we are united to our one vine, and give glory to Jesus Christ.
+To God be the glory. Amen.
 Dr. Jonathan E. Sanford, via email, 30 April 2012
Rev. Bruce Epperley, “The Adventurous Lectionary: Flourishing with God,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/
 Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Vines and Branches,” The Hardest Question, http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/easter5gospe/#more-2599