In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes several “I AM” statements, metaphors to describe his relationship to both God and God’s people. “I am the bread of life…I am the light of the world…I am the way, the truth, and the life…” Last week we heard Jesus say, “I am the Good Shepherd.” There is something more to this than just metaphors, though. It harks all the way back to the story of Moses and the burning bush. When Moses is pushing back against God’s call, he asks, “And who am I to say sent me?” God replies, “I am who I am. Tell them “I AM” sent you.” In using the phrase “I am,” Jesus is subtly claiming a connection to the divine, one that might be lost on us but would not have been lost on the people listening to him at the time. You may remember that when Jesus is arrested in the garden, there is this peculiar moment when the guards have said they came for Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus response, “I AM he.” The guards fall back in fear—because they recognize the power behind that phrase when Jesus says it.
Today’s statement, “I am the vine” is the last, and perhaps the most significant.
The image of vineyards is big in the prophets. They represent the people God has called to be God’s own, to make God’s light shine out into the world, drawing all people to God. (Yes, I’ve mixed metaphors. So did Jesus.)
In the prophets, it’s rarely a good thing for that image to come up, because it’s usually includes a scolding that goes something like this: “God planted a vineyard, tended it carefully and lovingly. God put a fence around it and protected it…but it went and produced wild grapes! WILD grapes!” There is always this sense of consternation as to how the wild ones could even have found their way in. In those passages, God explains the consequences of failing to be what they were created to be—if they want to be wild, God will let them be wild. The wall protecting them will be torn down, the vines will be trampled underfoot, no fruit at all will grow and eventually they’ll be yanked up and burned.
Makes that “pruning” language in today’s passage sound a little less harsh, don’t you think?
Jesus tells them he is the vine on that last night before the Crucifixion. They are gathered in the upper room. Judas has gone to “do what he is going to do” so we, the readers, know what’s about to happen, but the disciples don’t. They have no idea that the next 24 hours will be filled with betrayal and arrest, trial and denial, crucifixion and burial. This is the night when everything changes.
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says. “Abide in me, and you will bear much fruit…apart from me you can do nothing.”
Jesus is picking up that old, old image of the vineyard, but giving it a new twist.
God is trying something new in the vineyard. Instead of the people being the vines, there will be just one vine. A vine that will remain faithful and strong and healthy. Jesus will be the vine that will never die, will never need to be rooted out and burned. Jesus will finally achieve God’s original purpose. Through Jesus, the vine, God will bring forth the good that God always intended for the world.
And we can be part of that. We can be branches on that vine and we can bear the fruit that God wants us to bear. But there’s a catch.
We have to remember that we are the BRANCHES, not the vine. If we get confused about that, if we think that WE are the vine and that we can exist without being rooted in Jesus, we will ultimately break off and wither, or be infested with parasites, and be good for nothing but fuel for the fire. We need to stay rooted in Jesus.
But why do we need to be pruned?
A friend of mine has reflected quite eloquently on this passage in the past, on how the pruning is a GIFT. It keeps us in good shape, it assures us that God is paying attention to us and cares about the ways in which we grow, and will offer us guidance if we accept it.
But do you know why pruning is so good for the vine?
If the branches are kept short, then the water and nutrients don’t have as far to go, so more of them can go into grape production and less into simply maintaining the plant. The best grapes grow close to the vine. So the good vineyard keeper will keep those branches trimmed down, so that they can be the most productive. Anything that grows too long, anything that forgets it’s a branch and tries to become a vine on its own, is cut off and burned. Not as a punishment. It’s just what you do with dried up old branches. You use them for fuel if you can’t use them for anything else. Nothing is wasted.
All this sounds great in theory. If you left here praying, “Keep me pruned, Lord, help me bear good fruit!” I would be quite happy. But I also think that in a week or two you might come back to me to report that in practice is a lot harder that you anticipated.
Because you don’t get to choose which branches get pruned—on yourself or anyone else. You may discover that God cuts back the branch you are proudest of. You will probably notice that you would like to see God take the pruning shears to a couple of very branchy places in someone else. You will definitely notice that you get pruned no matter what you do! Jesus says that you will be pruned if you’re not bearing good fruit, but you’ll also be pruned if you are bearing good fruit so that you will produce MORE good fruit.
So how do we make THAT appealing to someone who is seeking a deeper spiritual life?!
We get a glimpse of an answer from that first reading about the Ethiopian eunuch. He is riding along in his chariot, reading a passage about the Suffering Servant from Isaiah, and wondering what this can mean. A eunuch who reads the Hebrew Scriptures is something of a contradiction. As a eunuch, he is not allowed to be part of the Jewish congregation. He has been literally “cut off” from them. Despite his powerful position in the courts of his country, despite his obvious wealth and intellectual curiosity, despite his desire to be a part of the vineyard, he is an outsider. And then Philip explains that with Jesus, no one is left out. Anyone can belong. I always hear a hint of doubt and wonder in the eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He has begun to understand there is a place for him in this new vine, but he doesn’t dare believe it. He asks the question that way half-expecting to hear that there IS a reason. He is afraid that the small print will exclude him. But no—they went down into the water, and Philip baptizes him.
He is grafted into the vine that is Jesus, he abides in Jesus. He belongs.
Today, we will graft Colette Catherine into that same vine through baptism. She, too, will belong, she will become a branch on that vine that stretches all the way back to Jesus, and forward into days yet to come. We can give thanks that God is still at work tending this vine. In years to come, when Colette is facing days of pruning, she can remind herself that she belongs to God.
People are hungry to belong. They want to know that they are not alone in this world. They want to know that they are loved.
That fruit that we are to bear, that fruit that is at its best when it grows close to the vine, is ultimately love. It may be expressed in a variety of ways depending on the person bearing it, but at its heart is love. Love of God and love of neighbor, which is what God intended when God planted the vine to begin with. Hear again the words from the epistle First John:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”