Fifth Sunday of Easter
TEXT: JOHN 15:1-8
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
The people of ancient Israel knew a thing or two about grapevines. They knew that, for two months of the year, the vines needed careful attention. After blossoms developed, the farmer—the “vinedresser”—would hoe the ground, cut off non-bearing branches, and prune the vines. As the grapes matured, he built watchtowers and lived among the vines to protect the grapes from thirsty animals and hungry birds.
If we lived in ancient Israel, we would have grown up with the words of the prophets, who spoke of Israel as the vine and God as the vinedresser. We would remember times when the nation’s life had been like a good crop … or like a bad one. In our minds, questions would loom—questions such as:
- God faithfully tended, but did we respond?
- What if God stopped tending us?
- What if God did not guard us, did not prune us?
What would prevent these vines from becoming brambles? What would protect them from disease, or keep them from drying up before the harvest? We would have sung, “O Israel, hope in the Lord, from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 131:3).
If I had lived in ancient Israel, I wouldn’t have had to go online to read up on viticulture before I wrote this blog! But I did. Here’s some of what I learned:
- There is virtually no plant more amenable to training than the grapevine. In general, you let a new plant grow freely for a year. The next year, you cut off all but one cane.
- You trim that one back to just two or three buds, and pinch back any growth too low to the ground. You stake it, let it grow a foot taller, then pinch it back. The year after that, you let two branches grow on each side and cut the others back.
- If there are too many buds on any one branch, remove some of them; the fruit will be too small if the nourishment is spread too thin. Each winter, you cut back the fruited canes to make room for new ones. And here’s the kicker: almost all of these steps must be repeated annually!
To a non-gardener like me, this sounds like way too much work! But I don’t think you can grow grapes where I live, anyhow.
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower … I am the vine, you are the branches.” There is a clear difference between the one who plants and the plant itself. But where is the boundary between the vine and its branches?
Certainly, the vine consists of the roots and the trunk. But the vine isn’t just these parts. The vine is the whole thing—branches, trunk, and roots. When you see a vine, you really only see the branches—and in late summer, you see mostly leaves and fruit.
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says. “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” But—considering that, without branches, the vine would only be a trunk—Jesus might also have said: “Without you, I can’t do anything, either!”
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, saying: “Abide in me. Stay with me. Stay connected to me. If you don’t, you’ll just wither up.”
Speaking to those already in the Church, he says: “You have been pruned, trained, given every advantage. Unless you produce, this vine will have no fruit.”
Just as the branches need the vine, the vine needs the branches to do what a vine is meant to do—which is to bear fruit.
We are the branches. We are the Church, planted in the world to make Christ known. Together, we make up what is visible and effective about Christ in the world.
So, how shall we be branches? Will we allow ourselves to be shaped, trained, sometimes pruned, sometimes stretched into a new position? Our willingness makes all the difference. What we do—or don’t do—makes our branch of the vine either fruitful or barren.
But you know, a mature vine doesn’t have just one or two good branches; it has many—and you can hardly tell one from another. Just like in a choir—where you don’t want one or two voices to stand out—the key to success is in the blend. So, in the Church, we are all meant to be fruitful branches.
What fruit are we called to bear? Well, Scripture tells us that the vine of Christ produces many varieties upon its branches. Remember? I’m sure many of you learned about this in Sunday School, at one point …
Galatians, chapter five, verses 22-23: “… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Remember? Sure you do!
That kind of fruit feeds those who are hungry, puts cans on Food Bank shelves, makes sandwiches for the homeless. It takes care of the sick, and visits those who are lonely or in prison. It gives us will power and compassionate understanding so we can resist the temptation to harshly judge another person. That kind of fruit sweetens this often-bitter world, and makes it more and more like God’s vineyard.
But another variety of fruit touches on what we do every Lord’s Day—whether in person or online—through our music, and our art, and our meditation upon God’s Word. In worship, the careful tending and energy of the music program bears fruit that is nourishing and rich. Liturgical colours remind us of our journey—our pilgrimage—through the church year. Instruction in the Sunday School—and from the pulpit—helps us recall what purpose this vine is supposed to have.
In worship, we allow ourselves to be shaped (and maybe even pruned) for our work of bearing fruit. Worship feeds us and sends us out, but worship is also part of the fruit.
And whenever we can gather around the Lord’s table, it seems to me that the imagery of vine and branches is especially meaningful. At this table, as we share food and drink—and as we remember Jesus, and celebrate our unity in him—we come together as the Body of Christ.
If you’ve ever heard me teach about the Sacrament of Holy Communion, you’ve probably heard me repeat the words of an insightful 14-year-old theologian from Kamloops, who said: “It doesn’t matter so much how Christ is present in the elements on the table. What’s important is that God’s people are there. That’s where the ‘real presence’ of Christ is—it’s in the people who come to the table.”
She really did understand—maybe even better than I did, at the time—what the Sacrament is all about. To be sure, it’s about painting a vivid picture of the unity we have with one another, and with all Christians everywhere, because we are united with Christ. But it goes further than that. It becomes a literal embodiment of that unity.
The New Testament is full of metaphors about this. Writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul used the human body as an analogy, saying: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). Elsewhere, he used the figure of a house “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” in whom “the whole structure is joined together” (Ephesians 2:20-21).
In today’s gospel, Jesus himself gives us the symbol of vine and branches. As Paul also told the Corinthians, we share in Christ’s body and blood.* We are one with him not only when we partake of the Sacrament, but also in and through our daily living. And through Jesus we are connected to one another. Like branches grafted onto the same trunk, we share a common life-force, and draw nourishment from a common vine. That is why—and that is the only reason why—we are able to bear fruit.
So, today, let’s meditate not only upon our unity in Christ, but also upon the fruit we should be producing for him. Here’s the same pop-quiz again, church: What are the fruits of the Spirit?
“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” To bear more of that fruit in our lives—that should be our deepest, heartfelt desire. To bear more of that fruit in our lives—that’s what we should be working toward, individually and together.
To bear more of that fruit in our lives … we need to make sure we stay connected to that True Vine which is Jesus Christ our Lord. May it be so for each one of you. May it be so for me. May it be so for all of us together. May it be so today, and tomorrow, and always.
* 1 Cor. 10:16—“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?”