Of vineyards… and vines

John 15:1-8

Oh, for heaven’s sake… there goes Jesus with another of his “I AM” metaphors. I AM the bread of life (John 6:35).  I AM the light of the world (John 8:12). I AM the gate for the sheep and the good shepherd (John 10:7, 11). I AM the resurrection and the life (John 11:25).  I AM the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).  And now, I AM the true vine.  I AM.  Translated from the Greek ego eimi. Seven times in John’s Gospel, Jesus uses this combination of the proper noun “I” and the first person singular version of the verb “to be,” arguably quite similar to the words YHWH used to reveal himself to Moses from the burning bush in ancient times, followed by a symbolic predicate nominative (e.g., the bread of life), to identify himself to his disciples. Could this have been just happenstance? Maybe… but I doubt it.  Throughout his Gospel narrative, from: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1)… through the Baptizer’s testimony regarding Jesus’ divinity (v. 1:34)… through all of the various signs and miracles attributed to Jesus beginning with turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana (vv. 2:1-11), and the feeding of the 5000 (vv. 6:5-14), walking on water (vv. 6:16-24)  and the healings (vv. 4:46-54, 5:1-15 and 9:1-7) and the raising of Lazarus (vv. 11:1-45), the writer of the Fourth Gospel has been pretty clear that Jesus was not only the foretold Messiah, God’s Christ, but that he was, in fact, of one being with the God the Father.  Besides which, we never really hear about Jesus doing anything gratuitously, does he?  Everything he says and does is intentional—for a purpose.  And I’m thinking that, when Jesus uses the words ego eimi, I AM, he’s revealing something about his own nature—and, by extension, that of God.

So, in referring to himself as the “true vine,” and his father as the “vine-grower,” what do you think it is that Jesus is trying to tell us about himself? First, let’s talk a little about vines. What comes to your mind when you think about the word “vine?”  Probably a few things: how about Tarzan swinging on a vine in the African jungle? Or maybe a morning glory vine, winding and twining up and over someone’s backyard fence here in Cedartown.  And, of course, grapevines in a vineyard.  And this is likely the sort of vine Jesus was referring to when he called himself the “true vine.”  Jesus makes reference to “the vineyard” in parables throughout the gospel narrative as a way of describing the kingdom of the here and now, as opposed to “the coming Kingdom” that God has in store for those who are faithful and diligent.  The vineyard is a place ripe with the promise of God’s abundance, but it’s too often run by corrupt overseers with little or no concern for the purpose of the vineyard, which is to bring about a rich harvest for the owner (Matt. 21:33-44), or worked by greedy laborers who are concerned more with their own wealth and power and status than they are for those less-fortunate (Matt. 20:1-16).  The vineyard is the world… our world.  The world which used to be a Garden, capable of satisfying all of our earthly needs and desires, a place where all of the upkeep came gratis, a place of joy and contentment and at-one-ment with our Creator… until our disobedience separated us from God.  So now the world has become a vineyard, one that must be tended, worked by the sweat of our brow (Gen 3:19) in order to reclaim it for the purpose for which it was created.

And Jesus is the vine, the true vine, that God the Father has planted in our here and now, to help us regain the promise of the Garden.  I expect Jesus chose this metaphor with care, knowing that it just might be an image his disciples could understand and take to heart.  The disciples knew that a properly-tended vineyard could bring great prosperity to its owner and overseers.  They also knew that grape vines could thrive in pretty arid, hardscrabble conditions, but that before they would ever bear usable fruit, they would need to mature.  The roots would need time to dig deep into the earth, extracting moisture and nutrients to strengthen and enlarge the vine itself before it could put forth new branches upon which the fruit would hang.  And they probably also knew that some of those new branches wouldn’t always bear fruit, and that it would take years of training and pruning before the vine began to reach its full potential.  And that, even through the non-productive times, the soil of the vineyard must be watered and enriched and the leaves of the branches of the vine kept free from disease and parasites.  So, in using the metaphor of vine and branches, Jesus was offering his disciples hope.  Hope and a challenge.  Yes, the world could be a harsh and unwelcoming place, full of oppression and pestilence.  But they had already been judged worthy of preserving by the vine-grower, and he had kept them pruned and cleaned, so that they would be ready to bear fruit in due season.  So, Jesus spoke of hope.  But implicit in that hope was the understanding that the disciples were not being saved from something… as much as for something.  And therein lay the challenge: they were being saved so that they could bear fruit.

And I think it’s important that we understand that.  That we are saved for a purpose.  This world is not our home.  There is a hereafter.  I can’t tell you precisely how it works, or what it looks like, but I’m absolutely convinced that death is not the end, and that how we spend eternity will, in some way, be predicated on how we’ve spent our time in the kingdom of the here and now…in the vineyard.  And no, I’m not saying that if we misbehave on earth, God will “cast us into the outer darkness where they’ll be [great] weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 22:13).  I don’t believe that God punishes his beloved children.  We’re plenty good at doing that to ourselves.  But just as Jesus offers us hope and a challenge in today’s Gospel story, he also offers some timely advice about how we can make ourselves ready to take on the challenge of bearing fruit in the kingdom of the here and now.  “Abide in me,” he says.  Stay with me. Stay the course.  Don’t try and strike out on your own.  That’s not how you’re made.  You were made to abide in me, and in me everything is possible.  Things that you never-in-a-million-years thought you could do, will be achievable—if it’s the will of him who sent me.  But if you try and go it alone, it’ll all fall apart.  Believe me.  Because, apart from me, you can do nothing.  If you try and go it alone, you’ll inevitably be seduced by the evil one, just like the corrupt overseers and greedy laborers in the parables, who ended up pursuing their own selfish ends rather than allowing the Father to use them to help bring about the Kingdom… with a capital “K.”  Just like Adam and Eve, who squandered God’s grace and abundance by failing to trust in his Almighty Providence.  Withered. Burned.  Destroyed.  You don’t want to go there.

In last week’s “I AM” metaphor of the Good Shepherd, Jesus called us first to accept our nature as sheep, bound to follow one Almighty Shepherd… and then to step up and be shepherds of the flock ourselves.  Today, we are being called first to accept that we are but branches of the one true vine, dependent upon that vine for all that we do and all that we are, and then to take our place as laborers in the vineyard, helping the vine-grower, who is God the Father, reap a great “Kingdom harvest,” and restore Creation to its intended state, all for the sake of his unbounded love. Do you believe it?  Then abide in the love of Christ Jesus.  Keep his commandments.  Be in the world, but not of it, and you will bear fruit.  Trust in God, and your joy will be complete.

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