Sunday, May 2, 2021

Branches of the Vine

May 2, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

John 15:1-8[1]

There is a powerful myth in our culture. It developed in the 1860’s, parallel with the development of the real thing, and has influenced our thinking ever since. It is the myth of the cowboy, the hardworking individual who wanted nothing from the government but to be left alone to work out his own future. Responsible for herding cattle and other livestock, the work of a cowboy was hard, often lonely, and an individual had to fend for himself much of the time. The idea of the self-made man who didn’t need help from anyone was largely a fiction, cultivated by Wild West shows and stories like the Lone Ranger.

What’s missing from the image of the rugged individual cowboy is the interconnection with a wider world. The open ranchland of the West was empty only because the Army had driven off the Natives. The cowboys were hired by a few wealthy ranchers, and didn’t own the cattle themselves. The railways that brought the cattle to market in the East were subsidized by the federal government. The day-to-day life of a cowboy might seem to be a solo act, but he depended on others, even if those connections were over the horizon.

We celebrate individualism, the ability of a person to make it on their own, to rise up in the world due only to their own hard work. When we do things with others, when we act in community, we tend to see that as outside of the central focus of our lives. We might be part of the church, but that’s just once a week on Sundays. We might get together with a club or a group for an occasional activity, but that’s separate from taking care of ourselves and our families on our own.

In contrast to this imagery, this parable told by Jesus suggests a living, growing community of faith; thriving because it is connected. A branch alone, without the vine, is just a stick. It is by being connected to the vine that the branch takes part in the production of fruit. Each branch of the vine is part of the whole, and “cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine.”[2] The vine is planted and tended by the vine-grower, cleaned and pruned in order to produce good fruit. The health of the branches and the quality of the fruit depends on the providence and goodness of God, the vine-grower.

In the time when John wrote this Gospel, the community was in a precarious situation. Those who chose to follow Jesus were viewed with suspicion in the eyes of the religious authorities, and risked being cast out of society. To be excommunicated, without home, land, or family, was a shameful fate. Community was the only sure way to survive.

In this context, the metaphor of branches connected to the vine of Christ brought comfort and security to John’s community. God, the vine-grower, will tend to our needs and ensure our survival. The image of a vine planted and cared for by God came from their history as the people of Israel, yet they had failed to bear the fruit of justice, compassion, and love. Here, Jesus declares “I am the true vine,”[3] intimately connected to God, giver and sustainer of life. The true vine connects the branches and entrusts their care to the vine-grower.

Vines have to be tended, cleaned and pruned to ensure the branches bear fruit. Branches that are cut off from the vine do not grow. As long as the branches remain connected to the vine, they will grow and produce. It is the community, the interconnection that causes us to grow and flourish. So long as we trust in our relationship with God through Jesus, we are able to live and love.

The connection with one another and with God is nourished by the church, but isn’t limited to our presence in this building. The fruit that we bear can be found wherever we live as disciples, with love and justice guiding our relationships with others. The work that we do in the world, whether distributing food to hungry people, giving money to help community organizations, taking care of the elderly, the sick, and the poor, or the building of connections with others, that is the fruit that we bear.

Whatever that fruit, whatever work that we do as disciples, it starts with our relationship with Jesus. “Abide in me as I abide in you.”[4] Jesus lives in us as we live with and for each other, with love. The Christian life begins in love and is lived out in love. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.”[5] It is the love of Jesus, who first called us, that sprouts within us bringing us to live. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”[6] That is our task, the fruit that we are to bear: love that shows the world the love of God for all of us and for all creation.

In order to be a fruitful community, we must allow what is not love- and life-giving to be pruned away. As branches of the true vine, we should be known by our interdependence, our respect for the growth and goodness of others, and our concern for the flourishing of the whole vineyard. The love that began and continues to guide our lives as disciples, the love that comes from God through Christ, let it be the fruit that nourishes the world.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] John 15:4.

[3] John 15:1.

[4] John 15:4.

[5] John 15:9.

[6] John 15:12.

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