HOMILY FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER 2015
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
This fifth Sunday of Easter our common theme is no longer animal husbandry. We are done for a while with the care and feeding of sheep. It is from viticulture, or the growing of grapevines that the metaphors of today’s Gospel are derived. This is not exactly a theme that most people can relate to, either; since vineyards and grape growing are not exactly a back yard phenomenon in Guatemala- we are more likely to have an avocado, a lime or an orange tree in our back yards. But again, if we hearken back to the time of Jesus and the writers of the Gospels grapevines were possibly the most common of fruit-bearing plants, and they can be grown not only in vineyards but against the walls of the house, or on a trellis in the courtyard or patio. In order to produce their fruit, they are pruned back every year at the end of the growing season. Further pruning is needed during the growing season so that sucker vines do not drain the energy of the vine, and so that the energy goes into producing fruit. Excess growth has to be removed or cut back to improve growing conditions for the fruit, to allow light and air to reach the producing vines.
The tender leaves of grapes are used as a wrapping for packets of savory meat and grain mixes which are steamed or boiled in broth. Grapes of course are dried and made into raisins. As such, they were a source of sweetness in a time that did not yet know sugar. Grapes can be pressed and made into juice, and of course the juice when fermented becomes wine. The wine itself was and is central to Jewish Sabbath evening rituals at every observant home in Jesus’ time and now. It is a part of the Passover ritual; most certainly it was a part of the Last Supper, which, most scholars agree, was a Passover celebration. The cups of wine drunk at the Passover Seder are an integral part of the meal. And among many Christians, the Eucharist with its bread and wine are central to our worship. Even those fellow Christian groups that eschew alcohol and see in the Lord’s Supper only a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice celebrate that memorial with grape juice. Grapes figure importantly in our every day and in our spiritual lives. For us at Saint James, every Sunday brings us into contact with the wine which, when consecrated, becomes the blood of Christ, shed for us.
Now in today’s Gospel, unlike last week’s, Jesus is not the owner of the vineyard. If last Sunday he was the shepherd tending the sheep, this Sunday he is not the gardener tending the vine, but the vine itself. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15; 1). From here Jesus goes on to describe what the gardener, God, does: “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15; 2-3). In even stronger terms Jesus says: “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15; 6).
Picking and choosing pieces of this text, as above, there are some things that sound ominous. A pulpit pounding bible thumping fundamentalist could turn these metaphors and similes into threats of judgment. Is the audience bearing fruit? Should the slackers be cut off and discarded? If some people are not bearing fruit, the fire awaits. This would be an incorrect reading of the text, for it overlooks the central fact about God: God is love. His love was revealed to us when he sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. This is the key point made in the Epistle we read today.
Jesus presents himself as the true vine, and we are the branches. The vine without its branches does not bear fruit, just as the branches without the vine will wither and die. Here we have a reminder from Jesus that we are interconnected and in a relationship with him, in which we bear fruit if we remain in him. “Remain in me, and I will remain in you” (John 15; 4). “I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man remain in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15; 5). What Jesus says here is central to what we believe- without a relationship with Jesus our good works and our strivings will bear no fruit, for they are divorced from the necessary central relationship, which is with God, through his Son. In other words, we will wither and bear no fruit because we are cut off from God’s love not by his volition, but by our own refusal of his grace and love. When we do not abide in Christ we are cut off from the vine that nourishes all of its branches.
We need to remember that there is one vine, but there are many branches. We are interconnected and interrelated, because we are all branches of the same vine. As a community of believers, Jesus is our vine, and we are his branches. As branches on a vine, we are asked to produce good fruit, fruit of love for one another and our neighbor, fruit of kindness towards one another and others, and fruit of compassion for one another and for those around us who suffer. All this fruit stems from our being connected to the vine, which is Jesus. As the Epistle reading from 1 John 4 tells us, Jesus is the manifestation of God’s love. God is love, and Jesus, His son, is that love incarnate and made flesh, who dwelt among us. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1John 4; 16).
Let’s reflect on what we can do to be more fruitful. Do some of us overshadow others and keep them from bearing more fruit? Do we get tangled up in the ways of this world, in the demands on our time and attention that the world makes on us? In becoming entangled, don´t we neglect our relationship with the vine, and with our fellow branches? Can we turn to God, and ask his help in pruning these things out of our lives? Can the overshadowing vine be pruned and shaped so that other vines can also bear fruit? You realize, of course, that I am saying that we are responsible for our own pruning, for examining our relationship to Jesus the vine, and with our brothers and sisters in this community of faith. All this we do in order to bear more fruit. Can we get rid of the inessential aspects that keep us from loving more, from being kinder, and from being more compassionate in our relationships with each other and with our community at large?
What do we need to prune in ourselves and in our community? I would suggest to you that what needs pruning are those things, attitudes and habits in our personal lives and in our Church family life that do not contribute to our bearing fruit. And what is the fruit that we are meant to bear? It is basically love- we need to bear the fruit of love.
Perhaps we should look at our lives in terms of what is productive and what is not productive in our relationship with Jesus. How can we be better united with the true vine? How can we reshape our relationship with the other branches so that we help one another bear more fruit? How can we better abide in God and He in us? I would note that on the vine, there is no hierarchy of branches, only those that bear fruit. Each has its own connection with the vine, but each is also interrelated with the other branches. Together, vine and branches make the true vine. We abide in him, and he in us.
In closing, let us ask God to help us bear much fruit, that we may be true disciples of Jesus. We ask this not for our glory, but for the glory of the Father who gave us Jesus, the Christ. To Father, Son and Holy Spirit be all honor, glory and power evermore, world without end,