Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

TEXT: John 15:1-8

“I am the true vine,” [Jesus said] “and my Father is the vine-grower.” (John 15:1)

Today, we consider some of the “I am” statements found in The Gospel According to Saint John. I’m sure these are familiar to you:

  • “I am the bread of life.” (6:35)
  • “I am the light of the world.” (8:12)
  • “I am the gate for the sheep.” (10:7)
  • “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (14:6)

All those “I am” statements imply an intimate, vital, and continuing relationship with God. And perhaps by way of summarizing what he has said up to this point, Jesus declares: “I am the Vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5)

Everyone who heard this should have understood what Jesus meant. It is the vine that supplies the necessary food, nurture, and environment for a branch to live and blossom. It is only when we are connected to Christ the Vine that our lives remain healthy and full of vitality. Jesus’ words remind us that we are not the bread, or the light, or the door, or the shepherd. Neither are we the life, or the truth, or the way.

No. We are only witnesses to these things—only in Christ do these things find embodiment. God in Christ is the centre of our faith and the fulfillment of God’s promises; and it is to Christ that we belong. As branches are an extension of the vine, so we are an extension of Christ; but we are not the Christ. When Jesus declares, “I am the Vine, you are the branches,” he is reminding his disciples that we can serve only one Lord. Jesus’ Lordship sets our priorities for the rest of our lives.

Have you ever heard the story of the young man who goes to the greeting card store? He carefully looks through all the cards, opening and reading and examining each one. Finally, he finds the perfect card—the one with just the right verses to express his deep love and devotion for the special girl in his life. Then he goes to the register, and he finds the clerk, and he says to her: “I need six of these!”

You can’t have six special girlfriends, no matter how much energy you think you’ve got! Likewise, you can’t have six “number one priorities.” And you can’t have six Lords. There has to be one that ranks above all the others. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.” (Matt. 6:24)

How many of you have seen the movie, “City Slickers” with Jack Palance and Billy Crystal? If you haven’t seen it, rent it! Apple TV’s got it, and I’m sure it’s on other streaming services, as well.

The premise of the film is that three New Yorkers come to a ranch in the American West to unwind, and to find renewal and purpose. At one point, Jack Palance’s character (Curly) laughs and says: “You guys come out here every summer and you all have the same problem. You spend 50 weeks a year getting knots in your stomach, and you think two weeks here will solve all your problems. You don’t get it, do you?”

He pauses. And then, he asks: “Do you know what the secret of life is?”

Billy Crystal says, “Nope. What is it?”

Palance replies, “One thing—just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else doesn’t mean a thing.”

Billy Crystal says, “Wow! One thing! That’s great! But what is that one thing?”

Jack Palance grins and says, “That is what you turkeys must figure out!”

Here’s another story—one that really happened, in New York City (about 30 years ago, I think). As I recall the details, a building on the lower east side of Manhattan was destroyed by fire. Now, that in itself isn’t such an uncommon occurrence. So why did news about this fire get reported in Canada—and all around the world?

It’s because this fire should never have gotten as big as it did—and it should not have been as destructive as it was. The people inside the building must have had a lot of practice with fire drills, because everybody seemed to be doing exactly the right thing. The alarm was raised early on. The exit doors worked properly. The steps were clear. The people got out of the building quickly. The trucks and fire personnel arrived promptly. When the firefighters arrived, they found the standpipes just where they should have been on the wall, and properly installed. They also found hoses just where they should have been—hundreds of feet of hose, in fact. With so many things going right, it should have been relatively easy to put the fire out.

In spite of all that, however, the fire burned out of control—and the building was completely lost. So what went wrong? Well, you see, it was discovered that the water connection from the street had never been attached to the standpipes in the system!

The same thing can happen in our walk with God. However good we think our system is—in the church or in our families—if our pipeline is not connected to Christ, we’ll be in for a rude awakening when our lives catch fire.

Jesus did more than simply come to live among us for 30 years, 2,000 years ago. That was just the beginning. His mission continues to this very day, which is why we are able to live in him—and he is able to live in us. Jesus says we are to abide in him. And abide is a verb; it signifies action and activity. It announces that something is flowing in the pipeline. This is what the power of the Holy Spirit is all about. This is the perspective that Jesus shares in today’s gospel text, where he summarizes what he has taught so far—and it’s all about “being connected.”

“I am the bread of life.” But what good is bread, if it is not eaten?

“I am the light of the world.” But what good is light, if it does not lead us out of darkness?

“I am the gate for the sheep.” But what’s the point of a gate, unless it’s opened, and we pass through?

I am the good shepherd.” But of what benefit to us is a shepherd—unless we follow, and listen?

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But what good is a way—unless by faith we trust someone to lead us upon it? What good is truth, unless we act upon it? And what good is life, if we refuse to live it?

All these great “I am” statements point us toward God—and they also point out an important truth for all who would be disciples: God in Christ has the priority claim upon our lives. We must not allow anything—or anyone—to compete with God for first place in our lives. That’s why we gather for worship week after week: so we can keep our lives connected to God. Before we can give ourselves to the purposes of God, we must immerse ourselves in the presence of God!

Dr. R. Maurice Boyd, who was minister of Metropolitan United Church in London, Ontario, for more than a decade (1975-1988) was the author of many books. In one of them, he wrote this:

The choosing of one’s life’s priorities brings a sense of peace. An awareness of what one is called to do makes the big decision for us, and making the big decision makes many of the little ones. If I am a Christian … I don’t have to discover a new set of values every day. Being a Christian is enough to decide many questions of my behaviour and morality. What is left for me is not to discover new answers, but to be obedient and faithful to the truth I already know.”

[R. Maurice Boyd, Permit Me Voyage (Burlington, Ontario: Welch Publishing Company Inc., 1989), Chapter 10: “Simplicity.”]

The only way to do that is to remain connected to the One who is the source of our faith: Jesus Christ. This is the beauty of Christian faith: God has given us more than a set of instructions. God has given us more than a nicely-bound book. God has given us himself. More than rules and outward appearances, God offers us a relationship with himself—a relationship of the heart, through Christ.

In closing, I offer one final story. It’s about the American author Mark Twain, who once made a trip to Europe with his wife and 11-year-old daughter. They were guests of many famous people. Kings and nobles vied with each other for the privilege of having Mark Twain at their dinner parties. At the end of the trip, as they were on their way to the port where they were to sail for home, Mark Twain read to his wife and daughter a list of the celebrities who had entertained them. When Twain had completed the long recitation, his daughter looked up at him and said, “Daddy, you must know almost everybody worth knowing—except God!”

“You know everybody worth knowing—except God.” Ouch. I hope nobody ever says that to me!

Or to you, either.

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