Updated: Aug 13, 2021
I attended an ordination this past January and while at the chilly reception on the Cathedral close or patio I happened to talk with a person that I knew from the church I served in San Francisco. As we talked it came out that she wasn’t worshiping at that church any longer. I was somewhat disappointed because she had been very active there. I assume that she had joined some other congregation but when I asked her where she was now she informed me that she wasn’t a member of any congregation. She told me with a big smile she didn’t need to be part of “organized religion” for her spirit to be nourished. The conversation ended with her statement and I was left with a sinking feeling.
On the BART ride home, I kept seeing her beautiful smile and her words that she didn’t need a community to worship. I was also bothered by my lack of response to her words, but in such a short time and in a very public area it was probably best that I didn’t.
As I was praying and thinking about this incident I was reminded of an apocryphal story that I had heard in a sermon years ago. It was about a pastor of a parish who had gone to visit a parishioner who had dropped out of the community.
It was a gray winter evening and the person he was visiting had a nice fire going and had poured a couple of sherries. There was very little conversation between them, instead they just sipped their sherry and watch the warm glow and dancing flames in the fireplace. After a time, the pastor suddenly stood up and walked to the fireplace and taking a pair of tongs reached in and picked up an ember from the glowing fire and set it on the hearth. The pastor returned to his seat and the two finished their sherries while watching the glowing ember slowly dim and finally go out. The pastor went to the hearth picked up the cool ember in his hand and tossed it back into the fire. In a short time, the ember returned to the warm glow of the rest of the fire. As the pastor stood to leave his host shook his hand and exclaimed; “that was the best sermon I have ever heard.”
In the Gospel for this Sunday Jesus teaches with yet another metaphor. This is Jesus’ final “I am” saying and is part of his Farewell Discourses. His parting words that are meant to give his followers strength for the days after his death.
Throughout the Gospel of John Jesus uses seven I am metaphors each describing his relationship with God the Father, his disciples, and the whole cosmos.
“I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the good Shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way and the truth and the life.” And finally, in this last metaphor he describes himself as the True Vine.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel saw itself as the vine planted and cared for by God. But, Israel, according to the prophets, often disappointed God because it failed to be fruitful by holding things in common, being compassionate, and focusing on justice. Israel proves not to be the true vine. So, God sends his incarnate Son to be his vine.
The power of any metaphor, be it a dying ember or the vine is not that it defines a thing, but that it points to something else. Jesus self-identifies in images that are familiar to his followers and that hold theological meaning.
Our Gospel reading begins after the Last Supper where Jesus leads the eleven disciples out to the garden where he intends to pray. On the way he tells them that he is the True Vine and the Father is the vinegrower or vinedresser. He continues the metaphor by saying that the Father removes any branches that do not produce fruit and prunes back the ones that do produce fruit, so they grow even more.
Most of us in this part of Northern California are familiar with vineyards. When we drive by or visit them we notice that the vines are growing in an orderly fashion and there are no tangled branches that reduce the yield of the vine. The vines are pruned before the beginning of the growing season to remove all the tangled stray branches and the ones that produce leaves and fruit are pruned back so when they grow out they produce even more. The pruning is always done by a skilled vine dresser to ensure the greatest production of fruit.
In our reading the Greek word kathairō is translated as “prune” and “cleanse” in this text it carries the sense of cleansing, making pure, free from blemishes or shame. It has the same root as the word used in the foot-washing.
After Jesus explained that the disciples are the branches that bear fruit he tells them that they are already clean in the same manner he told Peter that he didn’t need to be washed but it’s already clean. Jesus assures them that they have already been cleansed by His Word.
The disciples and we by extension are connected to Jesus the Vine, members of the Body of Christ, cleansed by our baptism and His Word.
How are we to produce fruit? We, the branches, certainly cannot squeeze out of ourselves fruit on our own any more than the branches of a vine. Jesus tells us that when we abide in him and he in us we will bear much fruit. The Greek root for “abide” (menō) carries a range of meanings— “staying in place,” “enduring,” “holding out”—that imply the faithfulness and reliability of God’s presence in and for God’s community. Our abiding gows in two directions and as such is very intimate. Jesus gives us his life and we return ours to him. It is intimately relational.
The branches that do not produce fruit fail to live in love and are concerned only with themselves. It is all about them and not the community. Those who cut themselves off from the vine.
The evangelist did not write this metaphor to describe those who were in and who are out, but to ensure us that we through the Sacraments are continually being cleansed by the Holy Spirit of God of our tangled branches. The tangle of things that interfere with our spiritual growth and bearing of fruit.
What is the fruit that we bear? – Love. – In our Epistle lesson from 1 John we hear “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” And “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”
Christ abiding in love in us and we in Him produces the fruit of love that we share with the world. We share His love by proclaiming the Gospel in our lives by caring for one another especially for those who by whatever circumstance are unable to care for themselves adequately, working for social and economic justice for all people. By being good stewards of God’s creation and working to leave to our future generations a beautiful and inhabitable world, and for our love and care of the very least of God’s children.
May our love and prayers also work to bring back those who for whatever reason have cut themselves off from the true Vine our risen Lord. Amen
David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Location 15937). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.