Saturday, April 27, 2024

Flourishing On the Vine: A Homily For the Fifth Sunday After Easter

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, the Fifth Sunday of Easter (B), April 28, 2024.  Readings for this Sunday:  Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

“Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower” (Jn 15.1).

The Gulf Islands, dotted along the east coast of Vancouver Island in BC, are beautiful places to visit and to live, and you may be surprised to learn that they are destinations for wine lovers.   I remember visiting one years ago, and toured a winery that had literally been built out of the stone ribs of the island.   Terraces had been dynamited out of the rock, soil brought in by ferry, and vines imported from far away.  Given the costs of such an enterprise, you can imagine that the owners and investors keep a close eye on the health and production of the vines, and will quickly replace any that aren’t producing the required amount to be profitable.  In other words, the owner’s view of the vines is purely utilitarian;   what vines give the best return on investment?

Today we hear Jesus use imagery about vines and spiritual fruit, which is a common image in scripture, in the sense of how we as believers bear spiritual fruit.  In Galatians, for example, St Paul talks about how those who are “led by the [Holy] Spirit” will produce good fruits, such as love, joy, and gentleness (Gal 5.22-23).

Well, we hope and pray that we will produce good spiritual fruit, but perhaps the sense of expectation might make us uneasy.  After all, in our gospel today there is a third character, the Father as vinegrower.  Is the Father out in his vineyard, regarding us with a critical eye, measuring our spiritual fruit against his expectations of us?

And isn't there the sense in scripture that if we don’t produce good fruits, or a good spiritual result, then God will be displeased?    In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about final judgement where the righteous will be harvested like wheat, whereas the evildoers will be treated as weeds and burned in a furnace.  There’s similar language in today’s gospel where Jesus warns that “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (Jn 15.6).

Because of such passages in scripture, I think it’s natural for us to attribute the same utilitarian motives God as we would to any other vineyard owner or farmer.   The thinking would go as follows:   either I produce results that are pleasing to God, or I will be judged as deficient and I will not be saved.  I don’t agree with that way of thinking, and I want to reassure you that it’s not helpful or true to how God in Christ sees us and loves us.    The gospel is not coercive.   God isn’t a “do this or else” God.   God loves the world God created, and God’s purpose is to save the world.   So with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in today’s gospel.

As they say, context is everything.   Our gospel reading today takes us back to the events of Maundy Thursday.  Jesus is gathered with his disciples, he has washed their feet, he has predicted Judas’ betrayal, and he has told them that he is with them “only a little longer” (Jn 13.31).   What follows next are words of reassurance to people who are disturbed and uneasy about a future that has suddenly become uncertain.  Jesus assures his friends that he will never abandon them.  And so Jesus “I am the vine, you are the branches” words are a powerful image of how the disciples will remain in an intimate and life-giving relationship with Jesus.

Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus has described himself as the one who nurtures, sustains, and gives life to his disciples.   These descriptions are known as the “I AM” statements.   In these sayings, Jesus variously describes himself as “the bread of life” (Jn 6.35), as “the light of the world” (Jn 8.12, 9.5), as the “gate” (Jn 10.7), and “good shepherd” of the sheep (Jn 10.11), as “the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11.25), and as “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14.6).  All of these things - bread, light, protection, a safe path, and life itself - are essential to our human flourishing.   They are all part of Jesus’ self-declared mission that his followers “may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10.10).  Not have life meagrely.  Not have life in a subsistence way, but to have life fully, joyously, overflowing - abundantly.

Now, in today’s gospel, Jesus makes this statement explicit.  Previously in these statements, Jesus has just described himself - “I Am”.  Now, he includes the disciples.  “I am the vine, you are the branches”.   It’s the same message of life and intimacy, but now Jesus makes it clear that his followers, you and me, are involved.   He is the vine, we are the branches.   

What I love about this image is that it’s one of interdependence.     The vine supports the branches and gives them life, but there would be no purpose to the vine, and certainly no grapes, if there were no branches.    In the same way, as Jesus has already told the disciples on this night, he is their master and lord, but he is also their servant who has knelt and washed their feet.   We depend on Jesus for life, for purpose, and for salvation, but Jesus depends on us to be the church, to spread the gospel, and to love the world he died to save.  Just think back to our first reading, from Acts.  How could the Ethiopian man have learned who Jesus was if it hadn’t been for Philip?

Thinking about the vine and branches language as an image of relationship with Jesus should help dispel some of the fears about good fruits vs judgement that I outlined at the start of this homily.   The vine knows that it must give life to the branches.   The branches know that they they cannot live without the vine, and if they are connected to the vine, then they will produce fruit.  The branches don’t think about how much fruit they will produce, or what kind.  They just know that they will produce fruit.

In the same way, in our second lesson, if God is love, and if we know God through Christ, then we will love.   How exactly we love, and what that will look like, will vary from person to person, but all in all, it’s going to look like love.   In a sermon on our second lesson, St. Augustine summarized it quite neatly when he said the point is this:  “love God, and do what you want”, because once we love God, then whatever we do will come from God. 

I don't think of God as the vineyard owner, watching us critically to see how we perform.   Maybe God is more like a gardener who is just happy to see plants flourishing.   I like to think that God sees us the way that Joy and I see the apple tree growing in the front yard of our house in Barrie.   We don't keep the tree for it's apples; they are little, green sour things, and we’re too lazy to try and make jam or jelly out of them.  

In the summer months, the apples drop to the ground, hundreds of them in a day sometimes, and we try to collect them before the wasps arrive.   We put up with the apples and the wasps because, for two weeks in May, when the tree blossoms, it’s the most beautiful thing that God ever made.    At the end of these two weeks, its fragrant white petals float to the ground, coating the driveway like snow. 

We love this tree simply because it gives us joy.    Someone else might cut it down as a nuisance, but as long as it’s in our care, we are committed to it.   I like to think that our love for this tree is just a pale shadow of God’s love for us.    God wants us to flourish, and sent his son to live with us and in us so that we might grow and blossom.    And maybe this is the point of the Christian life, to grow and to flourish, even blossom sometimes, because our growth and flourishing delights the heart of God.


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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