Year B Easter 5 John 15 2012
I Am the True Vine
It is fascinating to me that in our Protestant religious culture, such a strong emphases is placed upon literal interpretation. Interestingly, Jesus so often did not speak literally, but figuratively. He spoke in allegories and images. He painted word pictures. Instead of literally coming out and saying what he meant, he so often would tell a story and let people draw their own conclusion. Indeed, these hidden messages of Jesus frequently frustrated his disciples. They wished that he would speak literally and not be quite so subtle.
This morning we take a look at one of the "I Am" sayings of Jesus. Jesus said: I am the true vine. Now, even the most ardent fundamentalist has to agree that when Jesus spoke these words he was not speaking literally. Obviously, if we are to understand what Jesus was getting at here, we must look beyond the surface and do some exploring. We have to go beyond the actual words and discover Jesus' meaning.
When Jesus spoke about vineyards, the people of Judea knew what he was talking about. It was an industry that had been carefully cultivated throughout the country for centuries. It was crucial because it was a cash crop as opposed to grain, which was raised purely for consumption. In early America the essential crop was corn, but the cash crop was tobacco. It was, therefore, vital to the economy of the land.
Quite frankly I must admit that I know very little about the particulars of the wine industry. In preparation for this sermon I did some reading in this area and it was really quite fascinating. The vines are a very rugged crop in a way and in another sense it is a very delicate fruit and requires being treated with kid gloves. A young vine is not permitted to bear fruit for the first three years. It is therefore drastically pruned in December and January to preserve its energy. The particular branches that do not bear fruit are cut out to further conserve the energy of the plant. If this constant cutting back was not done, the result would be a crop that was not up to its full potential.
So when Jesus spoke about vineyards certainly the people could identify with that metaphor, even as a person in Iowa would know about corn, or in Mississippi about cotton. It didn't make any difference whether or not you were in that business. You had grown up around it enough that you would still be familiar with it.
But there is something else that these listeners would most certainly know. A vineyard was the symbol of the nation. In America we might think of amber waves of grain, but in Judea they thought of their nation as a vineyard. It was a kind of national identity. Over and over again in the Old Testament, Israel is pictured as the vine or the vineyard of God.
Isaiah the prophet pictured Israel as the vineyard of God. He said: The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel. In Jeremiah, we read God referring to his chosen people in this way: I planted you as a choice vine. Hosea spoke a word of judgment when he said: Israel has become an empty vine. In the Psalms we read that God compares Israel to a vine that came out of Egypt. Josephus, the Roman historian, informs us that over the Temple in Jerusalem was carved an exquisite, gold leaf grapevine. It stood as a symbol of national unity. Israel itself was, in the eyes of its people, the true vine, whose roots ran all the way back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In Jesus analogy, he likened himself to a vine, while the fruit bearing branches here are the disciples. God the farmer is depicted as the one who cultivates the vineyard. He waters and tends the soil, so that the vine is properly nourished. He takes pride in his crop. But this means that he also prunes the vines and removes the dead wood. The grapes hang on to the branches. What Jesus is saying is clear. The disciples should receive their strength from Jesus. He is the true vine. If they break away from him, they will be like unproductive branches and die and bear no fruit. They then will have to be pruned out.
What can we make of this analogy in terms of our daily life? What does it mean to be God's vineyard?
- First, it means we must bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.
- Secondly, it means there is such a thing as an unproductive life.
- Third, it means we must cultivate a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Practicing the Presence
Acts 8:26 40
"Practice what you preach."
That old saw is usually trotted out when some high profile "holier than thou" type has their wings clipped and their reputation riddled with holes. Or a "sterling" character is revealed to have feet of crumbling clay.
But there is one big problem with "practice what you preach." It all depends on what it is you are "preaching." When some convictions are put into action the results can be catastrophic or cruel, insidious or just plain evil. Mother Teresa practiced what she preached, but so too did Adolph Hitler. Osama bin Laden practiced what he preached, as did the Unabomber.
If only the church "practiced what it preached," we say, then the community of faith that confesses "Jesus is Lord" would be the #1 purveyor of love and peace in the world. But once again, we need to consider carefully what is being "preached" and who is doing the "preaching." When we get wrapped up in preaching a doctrine or a direction or a divine plan, we end up practicing things like "spiritual laws" or "strategic plans" or "target quotas." But is that the kind of gospel mission and message presented in today's text from Acts?
The power that "preached" to Philip; the power that "preached" to the Ethiopian eunuch in today's Act's text: that power was neither scripted nor strategic, neither planned nor programmed. It was the power of the Holy Spirit. It was the power of the Spirit of God working through one of Christ's followers in surprising, remarkable, and unexpected ways.
For the first generation of Christians the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ made present within the human heart, was what made "Christianity" a living reality. There was no preconceived idea for "church growth," no specific guidelines for "mission expansion" or "church planting." There was only the openness of disciples to the wonder working power of the Spirit.
In other words, the first generation of Jesus' followers did not "practice what they preached." Instead they "preached what they practiced...