“A Bit of a Tangle”
John 15:1-8 Penticton BC, April 29, 2018
Prayer: Open us, O God, to the truth of the words we have heard from your Word this morning. Whether we speak now, or listen, send your Spirit to move in us so that we may live by that truth, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Pruning grape vines. Could there be a more appropriate place, outside the hills of Judea, to talk about pruning grape vines than here in the Okanogan Valley? For all the strange and obscure language the Bible can throw at us, today, in this week’s gospel reading, the lectionary has smiled upon us, here in Penticton. Unlike many Canadians, you know what grapevines look like. Some of you may even have pruned a grapevine. A text about pruning may make sense to you. I need to admit that I am rather squeamish about pruning. Whether it is giving houseplants a haircut or taking the shears to Saskatoon berry bushes or the lower limbs of spruce trees, Bill will tell you that I not only make him do it, but I don’t even want to watch while it is happening. “Tell me when it’s over,” I say to him. It is not rational, this anxiety of mine. I know that pruning is logical, necessary. But somehow, I feel sorry for the pruned leaves and branches. They put all that effort into growing, only to be cut away. What did they do to deserve this?
Now, you might laugh at my strange pruning phobia, but I believe it does bear some relation to this morning’s reading from the gospel of John. And I think it even connects to our lives in the church, and the churches, and especially to the question of ecumenical sharing that brought us together here in the beautiful Okanogan Valley this weekend. So, I invite you to explore with me what this pruning gospel might have to say to us.
“I am the true vine,” Jesus tells his friends, at a very long speech he delivers at that fateful final Passover meal in Jerusalem. This is not the first time that Jesus has compared himself to an object. Bill, who, apart from being the resident pruner is also a New Testament professor, points out that a special feature of John’s gospel is that in this gospel more than the others, Jesus likes to tell his listeners who he is. Earlier in the gospel, he has said, I am bread; then, I am light; then, I am the gate for the sheep. So, when Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my father is the farmer,” he is adding another thing to this collection, these objects from everyday life that we, the listeners, might employ to understand Jesus’ relationship to God and to us. Jesus, in our passage, goes into a description of the pruning process, but he quickly intertwines the pruning language with language about “abiding” in him, and with language about bearing fruit, and with the warning that those who don’t abide will be thrown away, like branches that are thrown away, and, by the way, burned. How the pruning, and abiding, and fruit-bearing, and getting thrown away all relate to each other are not entirely clear. In short, as vines can be, it’s a bit of a tangle.
Well, that lack of clarity has led to two thousand years of Christians speculating about what John’s Jesus means by all this, and especially, who will be thrown away and burned. Christians got interested very early on in the notion of the wrong people burning, and it has been an unfortunate preoccupation of Christianity ever since. Through the ages, Christian interpreters have argued with one another about this passage. Some have said that the “fruitless” branches are the people who claim to be Christians, but are not really converted, in their hearts. Others say they are people who were converted once, but then drifted away. Others have taken the words to apply to whole communities: they argue that the passage means that those who are truly faithful will be “fruitful” – they will grow, while those who are not really abiding in Jesus will wither away. One way or another, God will punish the bad branches.
Of course, this talk of fruitfulness and punishment has fed nicely into centuries of Christians mistrusting and rejecting one another. Pruning language has been used to pit “us,” the fruitful abiders, against “them,” the non-abiders, with the implication that a fiery fate awaits “them.” Has anyone accused you, or your church of not being “really” Christian? Or have you ever found yourself wondering if they, over there, can possibly be Christians? It is hard to avoid, this us and them experience, isn’t it? And whenever it happens, among the texts playing softly in the background is this reading from John, with its vines, and branches, and abiding, and fruit-bearing, and withering. Can this really be what Jesus wanted to tell his friends on his last evening with them? Something tells me that this is not the way the good news is supposed to work.
But how to untangle this complicated passage? Ironically—or perhaps this is how the Spirit moves—my help came in the form of an article by a fundamentalist Baptist seminary professor who is also a horticulturist. He wanted to know exactly what Jesus was talking about, so he found two ancient non-religious texts about viniculture—grapevine farming—that explained how grapevines were pruned and cared for in the ancient Mediterranean world. I’ll spare you the details, which are interesting, and involve Romans and trellises—we can discuss them in coffee hour—and get to the main point. Not surprisingly, the whole process of caring for grapevines was (and no doubt is) more complex than the “us and them” crowd has admitted. Yes, branches were pruned in the spring to increase their chances of bearing fruit—Jesus says as much in our text—but even fruitful branches were cut off the vines in the fall to prepare the vines for winter.
To be a good grapevine farmer, in the ancient world and probably today, too, was not about punishing the vines; it was about knowing what and how to cut off where and when. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” says Jesus. Like all analogies, the vine image is not perfect. Real branches don’t have options. But Jesus does give his branches a task. One task. The only task of a branch on Jesus’ vine is to trust that God is a good farmer. In farmer God’s hands we are part of a salvation story that is bigger than any of us can know or imagine. The point of this tangled vine analogy, it turns out, is quite the opposite of the us-and-them church-dividing finger-pointing. The point is that Jesus wants his friends to remain with him, even when times get tough, as he knows they will. Hang in with me, like a branch clings to its vine, says Jesus. Trust that even in the tangled mess of life, God has a good plan, a plan that will shape a world like the one I have been showing you: one where the hungry are fed, the sick healed. So, stick with me, says Jesus, take my words into your heart and mind and soul, and I will make you a disciple, a learner of the gospel trade. And then, and this is the crazy thing Jesus promises, stick with me, ask for anything, and there is no telling what you might be and do.
As I was preparing for this Penticton weekend, our world in Saskatchewan was rocked with the terrible Humboldt hockey team bus collision that took so many lives, especially of young people. It spread ripples of grief throughout Canada and beyond. Hearing of tragedies in other parts of the world—including a school bus crash in India that same weekend, and this week, in Toronto—only intensified the sadness. I was so proud of my clergy colleagues in Humboldt who worked with one another and town leaders to create a space and a liturgy for sharing grief and seeking comfort. In that crowded arena there were no good or bad branches, only a community clinging to the one vine in sorrow, but also in solidarity and in hope.
Now, it is good, but not entirely surprising, that people could come together in such love and care at this tragic time. Much more difficult, we know, is sustaining that vine-like solidarity day after day. Our annoying differences, both large and petty, start to surface. We get worn down with the worries that come with struggling to be church in a dismissive culture. We get overwhelmed by our own difficulties: personally, communally. My own church has enough problems; do I really need to take on your problems too?
I think the founders of the World Council of Churches understood that challenge. Their very first global gathering in 1948 in Amsterdam was a time of great rejoicing. Some Christians had worked for decades for that moment. The 1948 assembly issued a short message to the world. It included the phrase: “We intend to stay together.” I love that phrase. We intend to stay together. It is a vine and branches sort of phrase: we will hang in together. It may not always be easy, but we will make it work. We will make it work because, the World Council message states: “Christ has made us his own, and he is not divided.” For seventy years, the World Council of Churches has stayed together—confronting their many differences to become as one writer put it, “a miracle of unity in diversity,” offering the world a taste of the good fruit of reconciliation, justice, and hope.
The loved ones of those who died in the Broncos crash look for hope. Part of what will sustain them is knowing that we have learned something good from those precious lost lives. So, they have told us about their sons and husbands, brothers and sister. Evan Thomas was an 18-year old rookie from Saskatoon. His father says that his son was struggling a little in his rookie year in Humboldt, but he was always upbeat and undaunted. Evan, says his dad, loved his teammates; he “absolutely loved” them. That experience of solidarity and friendship is something we hope for all young people, isn’t it, wherever they live, whatever their gender, race, abilities.
Young Evan’s newspaper obituary sums up his too-short life with a slogan, printed in bold. It may be familiar to people involved in sports but was new to me: “Play for the name on the front, not on the back,” it said. Play for the team name on the front of your jersey, not for yourself, the name on the back. Play for the name on the front.
Well, what if we Christians did that? What if we first and foremost played together for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even if the names on our backs were Anglican, Presbyterian, United? What if we gave ourselves over to the joy, the uncertainty, the potential heartbreak, of throwing ourselves together, staying together as disciples of Jesus and learners of the gospel trade? What if we absolutely loved one another?
In the Gospel of John Jesus is bread, he is light, he is a sheep gate, he is a vine. Strange and wonderful images, all intended to remind us that Jesus feeds us, guides us, holds us. Abide in me, hang in with the team, he says, and I will teach you how to be my church, how to love the world as I do. Could we do it? Would we do it? Well, beloved friends, sometimes we already do it, and when we do, the tangled vines of a yearning creation surely dance a little in the spring breeze. And anything is possible.
Thanks be to God.