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John 15:1-8

Easter 5, April 28, 2024

Holy Trinity Cathedral


“Part of the True Vine”


The CBC radio program Quirks and Quarks recently interviewed an indigenous ecologist who combines western science and traditional knowledge.  Dr. Jennifer Grenz was working with invasive species and getting frustrated. Time and again, projects to pull unwanted plants and repopulate with native species would result in failure.  The invasives would return and take hold again.  An elder told her to stop and listen to the land.  When she sat quietly at the project site, she started noticing other changes in the environment that might be affecting the landscape.  The behaviour of insects, fungi, even bacteria are part of the ecology and needed to be taken into consideration.  To get at the root of the problem, she had to understand the root of the inter-relationships.  Healing doesn’t come about by changing one thing, but by working with the larger purpose.


Jesus uses the image of the true vine to speak not only of himself, but of God’s purpose for faithful community.  The whole works together for good when it is grounded and nourished in our relationship with the divine.  There is a healthy balance: we draw nourishment from the source of our being and we produce fruit that multiplies and ensures more growth.  But what happens when some parts harm the integrity of the whole?  It’s not just about cutting them out; it’s also about adjusting the behaviour of the remainder to focus on the goal. 


You don’t have to be a gardener to get the metaphor Jesus uses, but it helps to understand the context.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel is often compared to a vine that God plants and tends.  When the people listen and follow God’s Law, they are like a fruitful vineyard.  But when they go astray, they are chastised by the prophets as reverting to wild and sour grapes, unfit for anything.  God gets disappointed and warnings are issued.  Just as a grapevine gets torn up and thrown out when it is diseased and useless, so Israel risks the wrath of the divine Vinegrower.  Without a proper root, how can they hope to be part of the fruitful harvest?


Now Jesus declares that he is the true vine under his heavenly Father’s care.  He rooted in the Father’s purpose.  He abides in God.  Jesus has allowed his life to be shaped by the Creator to serve and he invites those who would be his disciples to do the same.  But he warns us: being part of the beloved community involves sacrifice and pruning.  This happens at two levels.


First, like a vinegrower shapes a plant by removing diseased or sterile branches, so Jesus says that which is not actively supporting the life of the vine is to be stripped or taken away.  This sounds pretty harsh, especially to modern liberal ears that would frame salvation as open to all, and tolerance as a virtue.  But to be a part of the vine is to be involved in its communal life.  Jesus does not have space for passive observers.  Dead wood is thrown away.


Secondly, the vinegrower doesn’t leave even the fruitful branches alone.  They are to be shaped so that they can be more fruitful into the future.  They are cleansed in the sense that they are renewed or purged by the removing of undesirable elements.  Instead of being cast out of the vine entirely, these branches keep getting attention so that their purpose more closely follows the pattern of growth God wants.  Good wood is pruned.


So how we know what needs to be thrown away and what needs to be pruned?  Left on our own, we can make some guesses, and sometimes we go spectacularly wrong.  Even when we are sure something needs changing in our own lives, it is too easy to pick one practice to improve and then be disappointed.  Dieting, for example, often fails when we do not address other needs such as exercise, health issues, and mental wellness.  And as a community of faith, it is tempting to try and fix on one thing we think will be a solution.  Nobody has ever said, “if only we could attract a lot of young families, all our problems as a church would be over”- right?  Instead, we are asked by Jesus to be attentive to what God wants for us.  Over and over again, he uses the word “abide”. 


“I am the true 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” (John 15:5).  To be rooted in the Word is to be rooted in Christ.  Not just in his sayings that come to us through our Holy Scriptures, but in loving relationship.  The purpose of the beloved community is to listen, to remain connected, and to act in accordance with the One who changes us.  For the Church in the time of the writing of John’s gospel, this was a reassurance of God’s presence even in the midst of persecution from religious and secular authorities.  To be part of the Christian movement was a courageous choice, one that set those who would be disciples apart from both Jews who continued to gather in synagogues and non-believers in the larger world.  They had to trust that God would help them bear fruit even as they were pruned in their practices. 


The Church today is undergoing another radical shift as the environment changes around us yet again.  There are no easy answers.  Again, faith in our modern world is a courageous choice that sets us apart.  However, the good news is that we are being recalled to pay attention to the source of our life and being: Jesus Christ.  In him, we discern what is dead wood to throw out.  In him, we bear what needs to be pruned.  And together, we work for the good fruits that even now are being formed on the branches of the true vine.  Amen.