The Rev. Randy A. Knutson
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2015
Listen to this…Sermon 2015 05 03 Easter 5 RAK
I am that I am.
This has been the strongest, shortest way in the scriptures for God to describe God. So it is a surprise, and yet not, when Jesus, in the Gospel of John, defines himself this way seven times. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, I am the Good Shepherd and then this way, in todays Gospel, the last of these in John: I am the Vine. It is perhaps the most earthy of these, not so theoretical. It is an idea with history and a connection to nature, to growing and farming. It also has a long history as a biblical image, almost. The image of the vineyard in the Old Testament refers to Israel as the vineyard God will tend, guard and keep. God will nurture it and keep it. When God’s Chosen fall away, the vineyard also is not protected and it is over run and falls away. There are many commentaries about this vineyard image, but in this statement from John’s Gospel, Jesus claims himself to be the very vine and those that would follow him in the Way, the branches, springing from this vine. This is a new, more vital, direct connection that Jesus is talking about by saying I am the Vine.
I have to say there are many commentaries that then try to describe this connection. Perhaps the wisest says, “To say anything new or fresh about this highly popular metaphor—the vine and the branches—seems a hopeless task. What Christian has not had her or his consciousness saturated with the image…The author of the Fourth Gospel has made minute allegorical applications of each of the elements (vine, branches, vinedresser, fruit) and it would be just as well not to attempt a similar contemporary application, which would quickly become tedious.” But more importantly, living here, in Lodi, many of you know for yourself, or know someone who can see through any poorly contrived understanding of how grapevines work and the care they need. This is a place to not get your ‘vine and branches’ metaphor stretched beyond factual understanding, or you might get found out!
However, there is much to say about staying connected to the vine and then root, to that which brings us nourishment and life; mutual connection and function. This image does give us a whole world to look into; that of a complete plant, all of us together, connected. With each part doing what it must, helping things grow into completeness. We need to be connected to God, through Jesus to have the full life that God intends us to. This means that Christ is the source of life for Christians, and they cannot survive—let alone bear fruit—apart from Christ who dwells in us.
But for me, the intriguing part of this metaphor is about having to be pruned, having to be cut back, moulded and directed, for our own good; lovingly and yet, not without pain. I have felt God do this for me all through my life. I have had my life pruned at important times and it has moved me to grow in unexpected and important directions. That is not to say that positive, life giving growth has not happened, too; growth that helped me stretch and expand. But it has felt many times that my life has been touched in both ways, sometimes at the same time.
This is best expressed for me by in hymn text by author and translator Jaroslav Vajda, whose hymn “Now the Silence, Now the Peace” is in our hymnal. He wrote “Amid the World’s Bleak Wilderness” to go with this text from John 15. (I have copies on the Ministry table, if you are interested in the whole text.)
“Amid the world’s bleak wilderness
A vineyard grows with promise green,
The planting of the Lord himself.
His love selected this terrain,
His vine with love he planted here
To bear the choicest fruit for him.
We are his branches, chose, dear,
And though we feel the dresser’s knife,
We are the objects of his care.”
This I do know from living here in Lodi: how much the grape growers care for their vines and how things are done out in the vineyard. When and how they are trimmed is a source of pride and judgement. It is not entered into lightly, but deliberately: with hope, tenderness and love. It would be unthinkable to just left the grapes grow uncontrollably; they must be pruned back. But how it is done, when it is done, for those that really care, it is not random.
Our Friend Annika Wolterbeek was here from Europe for the first time in the spring, right after they started pruning the grapes. There was an article in the New Sentinel observing that some farmers had started this pruning, but others believed it was too early; best to leave things alone to what they thought was the proper time: later. We were Lucas wine club members and David Lucas was one of these. We brought Annika, our friend, who has a Doctorate in Plant Pathology, out to Lucas winery, to taste wine, but to think there might be an exchange of insights by having her come out there. She met David and what happened was an exchange, but one that lasted a whole hour or more, slowing down our wine touring plan. David had met up with a wine taster that knew her stuff, especially about plant management, so I saw some of the passion about caring for the grapevines come out even more from David; from someone who I knew carried that passion around and applied it in what he did. He cared and did things for a reason.
Since grapes grow back, there is an element of learning and regrowth in that passion, however that does not apply to people. For us as people many times pruning that happens to us can only happen once or twice in our lives. There are no ‘do overs’. So that is where faith and prayer come into play. That is where careful learning and growing from a community, from other branches on the vine, plays a huge part. There is no simple way to make it through some of the ‘pruning’s in life without abiding in the vine, in Christ; and that includes abiding with others. This, too, is where I have to say that sometimes, things happen in life and they are not God’s careful pruning, but accidents, or unfortunate, bad things. And knowing the difference, this too comes with time and from abiding in the vine.
So by being here, abiding together, around Word and this Table, around each other, we find the place to know God’s plan and will for us. We find the place of God’s abiding Love and we feel his tender care. From the end of the hymn:
“Vine, keep what I was meant to be:
Your branch with your rich life in me.”