Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
John 15:1-8 Jesus the True Vine
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
I read something last week while preparing for my sermon on Good Shepherd Sunday. I mentioned it just at the end of the sermon because I didn’t know what to do with it in that particular sermon. It’s about that part of John 10 where Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks said this part of the reading on the Good Shepherd reminds us that the community as it now stands does not complete the body of Christ. Jesus calls sheep from all corners to join the fold. And, as the sheep are gathered, they become one flock... one body. A central issue in Christianity, a flock with lots of different kinds of people, especially people not welcome in many other places, is helping people understand themselves as one Body of Christ made by people of different backgrounds with different gifts. Jesus preaches about it several times as recorded in John and Paul preached about it to several of the churches he founded. In just a few weeks, it will be Pentecost, and we’ll hear a story from the book of Acts about the Holy Spirit empowering the disciples to speak in different languages in order to be able to preach to people from many different countries. Jesus’ flocks is designed to be a flock of all kinds of people. But, how do you get people with real differences to understand themselves as one Body of Christ.
The central metaphor of today’s reading, the vine and branches, I think, can show us something about how Jesus’ followers, with all our wonderful variety and necessary differences, grow with Christ into one whole body. Jesus said that he was the vine and God was the vinegrower. The ones who hear the Gospel and are moved by it, becomes branches of that same vine. The branches cannot grow without the vine and the vine cannot grow without the vinegrower. Also, though, we should note, the vinegrower receives sustenance from the fruitful vine. The scholar Karoline Smith says we need to pay attention to the fact that the relationship between growers and plants is mutual. Each party is necessary for abundant growth and life. No one part grows by itself. Intimacy among God and Jesus and Jesus followers is necessary for the vine and branches to thrive.
The intimacy with the Divine that is necessary to grow into a thriving vine comes from following Jesus’ teaching. In John, this is called abiding in Jesus. According to Karoline Lewis, this is one of the most important ways Jesus understands his ministry in this Gospel. He says that the ones who abide in him and in whom he abides will bear much fruit. To return to the work of Dr. Brooks, in her commentary on today’s reading, she says that “The guiding principle by which all would be transformed into the image of Christ is boundless love of God and neighbor.” A thriving vine of Christ will be fed by this love of God and love of neighbor. When you love God, you love your neighbor. When you love your neighbor, you tend to your neighbors’ well-being and make sure that any body of Christ you are helping to cultivate is capable of incorporating new branches. Because a vine that doesn’t grow can’t produce the fruits of justice and love. And what are we doing here if not growing towards the Gospel that Christ has shared with us?
This is where the part of how to make one vine out of many branches comes in. We are still in the season of Easter, where we spend time considering how Jesus would prepare his followers to carry on the Gospel without him being physically present. He did not preach the Gospel alone. He called them. They, too, will need co-workers. The Gospel is always the work of community, at work through relationships. The branches will be called and empowered to grow and carry on Christ's work in the world, long after Jesus himself returns to God. These branches must grow, pruning that which does not produce love and justice, and reach out into all of creation, bearing fruit of God's love on this earth. And, one way we will grow is by making sure this vine is prepared for new branches.
As I thought of the new sheep to the fold from last week and the new branches that grow this week, I could not help but think of the way new branches can be grafted onto an already existing plant. Just as each new branch that is grafted to a root stock adds to the strength and viability of a Vine of Christ, so, too, does it change how vine grows. If the grafting is done well, by a skilled farmer, a vine will respond to the new graft’s presence by knitting together old and new, creating a stronger plant. In time, this new plant will bear new fruit. Growing this fruit is only possible because the root stock and graft grow together. Doesn’t this sound like the part of the reading where Jesus described himself as a vine who relies on the vinegrower? But, it also helps us see the way the vinegrower tends to new vines to make the old vine stronger.
When I started thinking about grafting as a religious metaphor, I started to read up on grafting new branches onto plants. Here’s what I’ve learned about why people graft trees. For one, people would like to clone an apple or pear varietal that they've developed. This seems to me like when someone has cultivated great gifts for ministry in other communities, be they churches or neighborhoods, and decides to use those gifts to serve a new congregation in a new way. While carrying gifts from one part of your life into a new congregation isn’t exactly like cloning a plant, I do think that it is possible to replicate the attentiveness, prayerfulness, and dedication with which a person went about developing these gifts in another situation to fit the needs and joys of a new congregation. One of the great joys of being grafted into a new community is being trusted to bring all of the experiences you have had up until that point and being allowed to use these experiences to serve in a new way. It is a joy to see these gifts bloom in a new place.
A second reason that I learned that people add grafts to trees is to help heal injured parts of a tree. Healing is certainly foundational to the Gospel. Jesus spent so much of his time healing people. Congregations, ideally, spend a lot of time healing, too: Healing old hurts and arguments, offering comfort for the pains of everyday life, working to heal systemic injustice that wounds whole communities. Branches rely on the vine. The vine relies on the branches. In recognizing the ways we need healing and that the world needs healing, we are abiding in Christ and Christ is abiding in us. If we love our neighbors, we will seek healing. And, we will be confident that God is at work in our healing, too.
A third reason that I learned that people graft trees is probably the one I find most interesting. Grafting can be used to make a healthy tree stronger and create more variety in its fruit. New, healthier parts of the tree can be grafted in to keep it from cracking with wind and age. Also, you can help the tree pollinate more easily and successfully by introducing new grafts. Sometimes you can even make wild plants with several different kinds of fruit on them. I think I’ve told you about an apple tree my neighbor has. It has 4 or 5 different varieties on it! Every time new branches are added to the vine, we have the possibility of becoming more vital and more fruitful, growing things we could have never grown without the grafts. A vine with many kinds of branches will liven up any table with its fruit.
This body of Christ, the vine and branches, is not complete. There is always the possibility for new and different growth meeting the needs of new and different times. Whatever we will become is already growing in us, like the graft growing with the root stock. And, we’ll like get some new grafts, too, helping us reach out with Christ in directions we can’t even imagine right now. Storms will come. So will droughts, freezes, and caterpillars. Do not fear, though. We have a vinegrower with water to refresh, patient hands to pick away the bugs, and tools to prune and shape us as we grow. May our fruit be glorious.
Resources consulted in writing this sermon:
Helpful information on grafting: http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/fruit/grafting-and-budding-fruit-trees/
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.