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I wonder if you’ve ever thought of what your last words might be. What kind of message might you want to leave to those who are closest to you, the ones you care about the most, and the ones who care about you the most? Perhaps living in a pandemic this kind of question might be a little more immediate. I said not long ago that I think that times like these give us an opportunity to stop. To look at ourselves. To examine our lives. This is serious stuff, I know, but these are serious times and it’s not often that I’m accused of being unserious.
It’s a time for we in the church to examine ourselves. We who claim to be in Christ. I say claim because not all who claim to be in Christ actually are. It’s not that it’s up to us to make this determination thankfully. Experience has borne this truth out. Judas bears it out in John’s story. There exists always the danger of drifting away, or of falling away if we think of the image of the vine and the branches. Which is the image that Jesus leaves with his followers in this part of John known as the farewell discourse. The farewell talk. We might ask the question “What would Jesus tell those who followed him, and by extension those who would come after if he had a chance to leave them with a message before he left?” Thankfully John provides the answer to us in chapters 14 through 17. The words of Jesus right after he celebrates the Passover meal with his disciples and right before his arrest. I invite us all to read them. This week we’re looking at this wonderful image of vine and branches. Next week we’ll look at the prayer that Jesus prays in chapter 17. Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at God’s word for us this morning.
I’ve never been that much of a gardener, though I do try as time allows. There is a rose bush toward the back of our backyard which I do my best with. I must say it seems to bloom each year very well despite my attention or lack thereof. I’ve read though that rose bushes need to be cut back or they will actually grow in on themselves. They need room to seek light. My wife Nicole is very good at cultivating orchids, and I have seen that part of the care of an orchid, and part of ensuring that it continues to bloom is to from time to time cut it right back almost it seems to the base of the plant. If you’re unfamiliar with this kind of practice, I suggest you speak with some of the horticulturalists among us – Judy or Elizabeth perhaps who do so much to beautify our sanctuary.
Because it is in the seemingly ordinary everyday things of life that deep spiritual meaning can be found. Jesus and his disciples have left the room where they ate supper and where Jesus washed his followers’ feet. John 14:31 has these words of Jesus, “…but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.” It’s possible that they went to the courtyard of the Temple. Over the Temple entrance was a giant carving of a grapevine overlaid with gold. It is said that bunches of grapes in this carving were as large as a person. They might be in an actual vineyard. Wherever they are, Jesus takes the opportunity to talk to his followers about what it means to follow him. What it means to take following him seriously. These weeks of Eastertide are a chance for us to celebrate the living Jesus and to consider what it means to call Jesus “Lord” or “Shepherd” or “Vine.” What does it mean to be in Christ? To have the living Christ living in us by his Spirit?
Before we look at ourselves we need to look at God and who God is and what God has done and is doing and will do.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” To be in Christ is to be in the vine. To be in Christ is to be branches. God is the one who plants and tends the vine, which is Christ. This is an image taken from the Old Testament for the people of Israel. A people through whom God would work God’s saving plan. It was an image with a lot of meaning for a people who lived in a land dependent on seasonal rains – not at all like the abundance of water we’re used to here – where a vineyard represented a fairly low labour intensive way to obtain drink and nourishment. Drink and nourishment in a thirsty land, because the fruit is the whole point of a vineyard (and we will come back to this later). Listen to these words from Isaiah 5:
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.”
No wild grapes here because Jesus is, as they say, the real deal. The authentic vine. The true vine, the new vine out of the old. God in Christ has pitched his tent among us, has moved into the neighbourhood, to make God’s ways known, and to be the one by whom we are forgiven and brought back to God and transformed. Christ by whom we are cleansed by the word that he has spoken to us. The word from the Word, because when it comes to Christ, the medium really is the message. He’s the medium. He’s the message. We’ve been looking at his words through the Gospel of John since February. We’ve just celebrated deliverance in his life and death and life. The promise of new life because this is what God does. This is what God has done in Christ and this is what the Holy Spirit brings. This is the promise to which we look forward, that voice we will hear one day saying “Look, I am making all things new.” So far so good.
Then comes the command. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Remain in me. Continue in me. Be present in me. This pandemic has, I believe given us an opportunity to examine who we are; how we are present to one another; what we are present in. It’s hopefully given us a chance to prayerfully evaluate our days and ourselves. I read an article in the New Yorker recently that said about London England – “The city looks not so much post-apocalyptic as post-capitalist, as if the fever of consumption that characterizes it had finally burned itself out.” The fever of consumption. The fever of distraction. The fever of activity. What fevers need to burn themselves out in us. What branches or shoots need to be tended by God in us, cut away and burned in a refining fire?
This relationship with Christ is a living thing. It’s interesting to think of the way the church of Christ is described in the NT. The church isn’t a building, we often say, and if that’s not being proven true in these days, when will it be? Paul describes the church as the body of Christ, with many members. The foot doesn’t say “Because I’m not a hand I’m not part of the body.” “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” He riffs on that for a while in 1 Cor 12. Peter describes the church as a building, a spiritual temple of living stones with Christ as our cornerstone. Here we have the image of Christ as the vine and us as branches.
It’s an organic image. I like that. I like things to happen organically. I used to think anything less than organic was contrived and therefore inauthentic. “Just let it happen organically man,” I used to say. If you’re like me you maybe aren’t a big fan of structure or regimen. If you’re not there maybe people like me around you (I can’t be the only one!). I don’t think that anymore though. You see it’s been my experience that if we rely on the organic and living nature of relationships to make them thrive, they’re not going to thrive. They’ll wither. We have work to do here to abide in Christ, just as we have work to do to be present to one another. It’s the difference between “We should get together sometime!” and “How does next Thursday at 2 pm work for you?” Abide in me, says Christ. How do we do that? We get together meaningfully and often to worship. To praise. To pray. To gather around word and table. We’ve looked for alternate ways to abide in Christ these past few weeks. To abide together because there’s no such thing as a lone branch on this vine, don’t fool yourself. I know withdrawal is easy but we’re not called to completely withdraw. Sometimes we are called to withdraw for a while. To abide in Christ in solitude. Pray. Hear God’s voice in God’s word.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” says Christ. Remain in me. Stay in me, because the risk of falling away is great, and to fall away is to be good for nothing but fuel for the fire. Note though that this passage isn’t just or even primarily about the unity of the church or abiding in Christ as an end in and of itself. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Christ says.
Which brings us back to the image of the vineyard. The purpose of the vineyard wasn’t just to look good, or give vinegrowers and workers something to do. The purpose of vines and branches on vines is to make grapes. To bear fruit as the Bible says. The grapes bring glory to God. What does this mean? It means they make God’s ways known. Mercy. Justice. Grace. Peace. Joy. Love. How could we ever claim to be able to represent the love of God on our own? The grapes are attached to the branches that are attached to the vine who lives in the love of the vinegrower who has loved the vine from the foundations of the world.
In other words - to rest in this vine is to be attached to the eternal source of light and life and love.
To remain in the vine means to rest in the everlasting never-ending love that binds God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is meant to look like something and Jesus describes what it looks like in v. 12 – “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.” You may say, “Well how can you command love?” and if you do you’ve missed the point here. To follow Christ is not to view the love of God and love of one another as an obligation. It is not to pledge our love out of fear or coercion as if God were some sort of Big Brother figure and we were brainwashed Winston. It is rather to listen to the voice of – to remain in the love of – the one who loved us to death and who loves us to life. Abiding in this love means we are coming ever more to know what it means to be more fully human. Abiding in this love means that the joy of loving fellowship is in us and that our joy may be made complete or perfected.
Of course, this love is meant to look like something. What might it look like for us in these times? I read an open letter from Christian leaders in BC recently that contained some really good suggestions. “Find neighbours who are alone or self-quarantining and offer to help. Assist the elderly, even if only to talk to them from their porch, through a window or on the phone. Assist others in need of extra encouragement, companionship, and help… single parents, those with limited mobility or chronic illness, or those struggling with mental illness. Do more of what brings you deep joy, then share with family friends and the world. Donate to charities working on the frontlines. Be in touch with your nearest church or community organization, and if it is safe for you, offer to volunteer.”
Friends may it be the desire of our hearts that we abide in our vine. May it be the desire of our hearts that in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, we bear much fruit through our resting in our loving God. May these things be true for all of us. Amen.