May 5, 2012
Most of you know that my wife is an avid gardener. What you don’t know is that over the years, I have provided most of the sweat and muscle involved in our gardening projects. I’ve made raised beds, moved tons of rock around, planted trees in hard red clay. She’s got a whole list of things for me to do when I get time off again (hopefully, in a couple of weeks). Having done most of our gardening in the south, Corrie is having to learn new things about growing seasons, hardiness zones, what plants will work and what won’t. So azaleas, which are almost ubiquitous in the south, are very rare in Wisconsin, and we hadn’t seen or smelled a lilac in bloom for over fifteen years when we moved back north.
But vines, vines we know about. There’s our experiment with a trumpet vine that we planted in front of a fence near our house. It tripled in size in one year, and by the third year, we realized we had to get rid of it before it attacked the house, foundation and the entire neighborhood. We dug up what we could and surreptitiously put it out on a railroad bed. We continued to dig up roots and suckers from that vine for the next two years, when we moved north.
Still, when one thinks of vines in the south, one thinks of kudzu. We happened to live in the area where kudzu was first introduced after the Civil War to help with soil erosion. What a mistake that was! It grew on anything, and took over everything. We used to see along side the road small areas , test plots introduced by the kudzu eradication project, in which they tried various means of eradicating or limiting the growth of the noxious vine. Some years ago, the city of Chattanooga experimented by buying some goats to try to keep the kudzu suppressed on steep hillsides.
Now, Jesus is not talking about kudzu when he says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Like the images of sheep and shepherd we heard last week, the vineyard is a theme with deep resonances in the biblical tradition. In the Hebrew Bible, the vineyard often symbolizes the people of Israel but here it is taken in a new direction. Coupled with another Johannine emphasis, “abiding,” the figure of speech used here, Jesus as the vine, his followers as the branches, stresses the relational aspect of life in Christ.
The language can seem violent, even terrifying; as anyone who has had to root out a vine knows. To cut the branches and tendrils of a vine means killing those branches, and often one needs considerable effort to extract the vine from the trees or trellises or walls on which it is growing. On the other hand, as any gardener knows, pruning is often necessary, not just to make sure the plant grows in the shape and direction desired, but in order to ensure its robust growth, and to ensure that it will bear fruit. An unpruned fruit tree, an unpruned grape vine will provide little fruit.
So too with our life in Christ. When Jesus describes himself as the vine, and the Father as the vinegrower, and speaks about the vinegrowers actions’ to prune the branches in order to ensure an abundant harvest, he is reminding us that we cannot live abundantly without him. The branches that are pruned from the vine wither and die; the vine itself thrives.
Throughout the gospel of John, the gospel writer uses imagery of “abiding” to describe the life we share in Christ. It’s an odd word, and its use in this reading obscures how common it is in the gospel as well as in John’s letter. Every time we see the words “staying” or “remaining,” it is worth remembering that the same Greek word underlies those translations as well as “abiding.”
In fact, the theme of abiding appears first in the very first chapter of John. When Philip and Andrew follow Jesus, he asks them, “what are you looking for?” They reply, “where are you staying?” Jesus tells them, “Come and see.” The gospel writer then tells us, “they stayed with him all day.” It was by staying with him, by abiding with him, that they came to know him.
Of course, it’s not just about getting to know who Jesus Christ is. Abiding means much more than that. It means living, thriving in that relationship, gaining strength and life in it. We may think that when Jesus is talking here, that he is describing a personal relationship between himself and you or I, but it’s more than that, too. The “you” in this passage is always plural. The relationships that Jesus models for us, is not a relationship between two people. It’s Trinitarian, the relationship, the community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our relationship with Christ is a relationship lived in, experienced, shared, in community. We abide in Christ, and he abides in us, when we abide together in love.
Today’s reading from I John stresses this point. Love, the author says is from God. God is love. But again, this is not some hazy, Hallmark sentimentality. It’s much deeper and stronger than that. Whoever loves, knows God. But love is perfected and fully experienced only in community. We are urged not only to love God, but to love one another, because love comes from God. Loving and abiding are related to one another. Whoever abides in God loves and is loved by God. This may seem abstract, but it’s not, for we know and experience God’s love first and foremost through the Son whom he sent to us, to love us. We know and experience God’s love above all in Christ’s gift of himself to the world on the cross. It’s that love that we know and are called to share with others.
I’ve used the image of “hanging out” to describe what Philip and Andrew did with Jesus on the day they met him. They stayed with him, hung out with him. And it’s easy for us to imagine our life in community with Christ in just those terms, as a passive experience, in which time passes unnoticed, people simply enjoying time spent together. But the image of vine and branches reminds us that it is more than that—abundant life in Christ means bearing fruit, expressing that love by sharing it with others and offering them nourishment from the same vine through which we are nourished.
The language of John’s gospel often leads us to imagine that Christian community is intensely focused internally, on the love within the community, and the community’s love for God. As Jesus says at the last Supper: “Love one another as I have loved you.” But he goes on to say something else—“by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” There’s a sense in which the commandment to love one’s neighbor, and one’s enemy, becomes in John, the commandment to love within the community.
But that’s misleading at best, for the love shared in community becomes a means for outreach. Abiding in God’s love does offer a witness to the world. Many of you know that we are about to embark on a process to think about how we might renovate and adapt our space. Although the process has begun with the Aesthetics committee, this is not primarily about how things look. Rather, it’s about mission and ministry. The question we have to ask ourselves is how can we adapt our space to the mission needs of our congregation? How can we make our space sacred space, not just for ourselves, for the community that worships here, but for our neighborhood, even the city? How can we make it a place where all can experience the love of Christ, where all might find it a place to abide in God?
On Sundays, we open our doors, inviting people in, but our building, our community must also be a place where God’s abiding love breaks out of these walls and enters the world, a place where our abiding love in God is experienced on the sidewalks and street corners, as well as in our worship and fellowship. If we abide in God’s love, if we are branches of the vine, we will bear fruit that will nourish the world.