Scripture: John 15:1-8
Preacher: Barbara Schweitzer
What do you get when you send your seminary intern to her first preaching festival in the nation’s capital during the week between Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday, when the theme of the festival is Preaching and Politics? You get a Holy Spirit infused, super energized preaching intern with a first hand experience in what it means to be a branch on a vine in God’s holy vineyard!
On Thursday morning, during Reverend Anthony sermon entitled “Silence and the Provocation of Song and Protest,” Reverend Baily asked us to stand and sing, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall over come some day? Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday. When we sang the second verse, everyone started joining hands and swaying to the music, “We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand someday. Oh, deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome someday.” Imagine several hundred people singing these words and the power of God through the Holy Spirit blowing through that church while we were singing. As we sang and held hands, I looked around and I realized that I was experiencing the transforming power of being a branch in God’s vineyard. As I stood there, holding the hands of people to my right and left, I realized I had the same posture of the grapevine in the picture I chosen for the front of today’s bulletin. Can you see the resemblance? If you look closely, you can see that there are several grapevines in the picture and that the branches of each grapevine extend horizontally towards the branches of other grapevines on either side, as if they are trying to hold hands. I’m telling you, the experience was providential for this sermon and the topic of abiding in the vine in God’s vineyard.
My time at the preaching festival ended with a prayer walk and vigil at the White House on Thursday night around 10 p.m. But Friday morning, when I woke up, the experience of the festival was still on my mind as I began to pray and to think about editing this sermon. As I listened for God, I was hit with the revolutionary thought that I wasn’t a grape in God’s vineyard, I was a branch. And, I wasn’t just a branch on one, single, solitary grape vine. I was a branch abiding in the vine of Christ in the middle of God Almighty’s vineyard, among approximately 2.3 billion Christian grapevines planted by the Vine Growing God. And, as a grapevine, my destiny is to produce lush, globular, bold tasting fruit. And then, I realized, that you all aren’t grapes either. You are all branches, just like me. We are all branches, organically joined to the stabilizing, nurturing, life-giving vine, which is Christ. We are all branches in God’s vineyard and we are all tended by the Almighty Vine Growing God. And the Holy Spirit infuses all of us with the same breath, energy, and life that is shared among the three persons of the trinity; The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We were never meant to be grapes. Talk about God healing self-esteem issues. You see, if you and I were grapes, we would easily be consumed by the people, powers, and principalities of this world who are determined to use God’s creation and the blessings therein for themselves. But we are not consumable grapes. We are branches, organically joined to the vine, which is Christ, and we are destined to produce grapes, not to be grapes. And our grapes will nourish all people on this earth, rather than only ourselves. And, this is the Gospel I preach, and it is political.
Did you know that from the earliest memory, vineyards were essential to the well-being of the people of Israel? The earliest memory of vineyards in the Bible goes back to the time of Noah after the flood. Genesis 9:20 tells us that Noah planted a vineyard after the flood subsided. Grapevines were an integral part of Israel’s livelihood. Grapes could be dried and stored for later consumption. They were a source of energy, and they could be pressed into wine. Vineyards also provided food for the poor, widows, orphans, the migrant, and the immigrant, who were allowed to pick the grapes behind the harvesters. The vineyard was so important for the community, that in Deuteronomy 20, we are told that people who had new vines were excused from military service, so that they could tend to their new vines and ensure that they grew. The vineyard was so central to Israel’s subsistence that scholars think the vineyard might have been a national symbol for the Israelites.
In our text, the vine imagery represents a new community, united in Jesus and it emphasizes our organic and intimate union with Jesus, where Jesus is the vine and his followers are the branches that bear fruit. As branches, we abide in the vine. Let’s listen to Jesus’s words again:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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.
I have to be honest, the word abide does not help me understand Jesus’ meaning in this passage. Do you understand what abide means here? In the Greek, abide can mean “to be one in,” “to be kept in,” “to remain in,” “to be held in,” and “to live in.” As Christians, we frequently say the words “in Christ” and we pray “in Jesus name.” When we use these words, we are saying that we are one in Christ or that we are abiding in Christ. But what does that really mean?
I found a more helpful translation of our text in The Message Bible and have provided the NRSV and The Message Bible texts side by side for your comparison in the white insert in your bulletin. Please look at the differences as I read from the The Message Bible, starting at verse 4: 4 “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. 5-8 “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation is intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered-up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.
Don’t you find these words more meaningful than the word abide? So, what does it mean to make your home in Jesus, or to make yourselves at home with Jesus?
I have had to make a new home, several times, wherever the Army sent me and later, my family. Are you familiar with the saying, that “Home is where the Army sends you?” As a military nurse and then wife and mother, I recognized how transient and uprooted our military lives were, and how important it was to provide my family with a sense of home, no matter where we lived. We all need a stable, safe, and nurturing environment to counter the instability of our increasingly transient lifestyles. So, when we arrived someplace new, I intentionally placed the furniture–the tables, chairs, and lamps where I thought they would be most useful and where they best fit in the space available. I would put away the dishes and kitchen things in the kitchen and the clothes in the closets. You get the idea. After everything was organized, and my family had lived in that place a few weeks, I got around to decorating. The decorations I chose were ones that I thought would create a sense of home, warmth, comfort, safety, and peace. Have you done something like this? Have you had a chance to move into the space in which you planned to live and felt compelled, no matter what the situation was, to try to make the space your home?
But, some of us don’t currently have homes. And others of us, might come from unstable homes –homes that were not nurturing, safe, or comfortable. Does our text in John still apply? I think it does, because Jesus is offering both himself and his heavenly home to us, both of which are more stabilizing, nurturing, and safe than our brick and mortar, earthly homes—with the added benefit that Jesus’ home is a mobile home. We can be at home in Jesus, no matter where we are and no matter what our circumstances. Let me explain . . .
In John 15, Jesus says “abide in me.” Meaning we are supposed to make ourselves at home in Jesus. This could mean his body, and by extension, the church. But in John 14, Jesus also says “in my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” So, Jesus appears to be saying, that abiding in him is, in a way, like moving into Jesus’ and his Father’s house. John also tells us that Father God abides in Jesus and Jesus abides in the Father. Later, John tells us that we also, are to abide in Christ as Christ abides in the Father. While Jesus walked this earth, he modeled this abiding with his Father. Jesus was constantly influenced by God, in communication with God, and sustained by God, in unbroken fellowship, and God was always present and continually at work in Christ’s life while Christ lived physically on this earth, which is the mystery of the trinity. The Message Bible tells us that we, who believe in Christ, share in this same intimate and organic relationship with Christ and his Father. So, our relationship or connection to the vine is something more than just living together.
So, let’s go ORGANIC for a moment. These are grape vines. What is it that sustains the life of these grapevines? Nutrients and water in the soil come up through the roots and out to the branches, where they nourish the branches, leaves, buds, blossoms, and eventually the grapes. At the same time, sunlight or light energy and carbon dioxide in the air is taken in through the leaves and mix with the water and nutrients from the soil to help the plant digest and use its food to give life to the whole plant. And, a healthy plant breaths oxygen and water into the air which is then used by animals and humans to live. A healthy grapevine will also send out feeler vines to find support structures that will hold it up, so it can grow towards the sunlight which it needs for energy. What we can’t see is the internal arteries and veins inside the vine and its branches, which transport the nutritional life-giving substance throughout the whole plant. This organic process of feeding, digesting, and breathing is how the vine lives in the branches and the branches live in the vine. And I think this is what Jesus means when he says, “abide in me as I abide in you.” This process is the mystery behind our Christian communion too, where we feed on the bread and drink the wine which is the body and blood of Christ.
This morning, as I walked outside to get the morning paper, I noticed all these branches on my lawn. They are dry and brittle, and they can be easily broken. If you break these branches and look inside, you see the marks of a dried-up vessel. There is no life-giving fluid flowing through its veins. These branches are not connected to the vine any more. They are not living, they are dead. I don’t even think of them as branches anymore. I think of it as kindling for a fire that I might want to have in my fire place. What has happened to theses dead branches happens to us when we are separated from the true vine that is Christ. This dead branch still has a purpose, but it is not the purpose God originally intended for it. Similarly, when we, as humans, become separated from Christ because of our unbelief, our doubt, our stubbornness, our pride, our selfishness, or our laziness, our lives change. We still have a purpose in life, but that purpose will be different from that which God originally intended. And if we persist in living apart from God, our spirits will eventually die.
Abiding in Christ is living an abundant life, intimately joined to the source of that life. And just like that ancient nation of Israel understood that tending to the new vines was essential for sustaining the life of its community and the individuals within the community; we also must choose to tend to the life of the vines in our orchard at Arlington temple. We need to read and study scripture together, not only on Sunday mornings, but throughout the week. Just as Jesus wanted his first disciples to make abiding in him their way of living, Jesus wants us to make abiding in Christ our way of living. Understanding the abiding life was so important to Jesus, that it is one of the last conversations he had with the disciples before he died. The ability to live intimately with Jesus and the Father is a reality, but this abiding life must be cultivated. Jesus, in the Message Bible, tells us how to cultivate this relationship, he says, “if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.”
How do we make ourselves at home with Christ and Christ’s words at home in us? The only way that I know, is through daily prayer, Bible study, meditating on scripture and listening to God in silence. But the reality of life in the vine goes beyond this. Once we’re believers, Christ’s blood flows through our veins and Jesus not only remains in us, he empowers us to live the Christian life through the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the vine that sustains us and holds us secure, both when life rains down on us and when the sun shines on us.
It’s really hard to kill a grapevine, but the master gardener at the nursery where Glenn and I bought these plants told us that feeding our grapevines on a regular basis is key to growing healthy vines that will grow and produce an abundance of fruit. What kills grapevines and whole orchards is failing to feed them. Will you take time to commune with God through daily prayers, both in your home, and in this church, which is God’s vineyard in Rosslyn? You may already be doing these abiding disciplines. If you are not, there’s no time like the present to begin. Amen.