Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
You are the Branches
Preached at Heron Point Vespers
Sunday, April 18, 2021
New Testament Lesson John 15:1-8
1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Sermon You are the Branches
I normally love when Jesus uses an analogy to make a point. That means that I love many Gospel verses, and this one seems straightforward. God is the gardener, pulling a wheelbarrow full of fertilizer, a shovel, and some twig snippers, taking care of the whole garden of creation. Christ is the true vine. And we, lucky us, are the branches off the vine. This line, I can follow, but then the logic splits.
On one side, good branches that bear fruit. On the other side, branches that don’t bear fruit, that get whacked off and tossed into the fire. Well, that’s just great. I was nodding my head for a bit. Now I can’t help but worry a little. Am I bearing fruit? Am I even a branch?
Jesus’ disciples 2000 years ago wanted to be branches, wanted to be fruitful. They wanted to do something to help the mission of God in Christ come true... for themselves and for the world. So, Jesus gave them this image, of Him as the true vine.
The disciples are not comforted by this analogy. They were challenged, even shocked by this vine image. The disciples already have several other vines in their lives, and Jesus is asking them to abide only in him.
First, the vine was a symbol of their nation. Psalm 80 remembers the salvation of God’s nation, Israel, through the great Exodus, “you (God) brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the (other) nations and planted it (Psa 80:8).” Isaiah later spoke of the Northern Kingdom of Israel as “a vineyard on a very fertile hill (Isa 5:1).” Jeremiah spoke of the Southern Kingdom of Judah as, “planted... a choice vine, from the purest stock (Jer 2:21).” God had seeded, transplanted, and nurtured the nation, but this vine had far too many times betrayed God.
The disciples knew what Isaiah said next. God was expecting good fruit, justice and righteousness, from the nation. But all Israel produced were “wild grapes” of bloodshed and tears. So God pulled back and let the vine be trampled, let the briers and thorns overgrow it. That was the vine image to the disciples. They remembered their nation was the vine and was meant to grow good fruit of justice and mercy, and when it didn’t it was conquered by Assyria and Babylon. Jesus was asking the disciples to remember the vine image of their nation, but pledge their allegiance to the true vine... himself, Jesus the Christ.
Second, the vine was also a religious symbol. In Mark (12:1-12), Jesus was confronted by the religious leaders, the chief priests, scribes, and elders. Today that might be the priests, pastors, ministers, and preachers. They challenged Christ’s religious authority and message, and Jesus responds with a story about a vineyard leased to wicked tenants while the owner is away. God is the owner. The vineyard is the religion. The tenants are the religious leaders. God, the owner sends back servant after servant to check on the leased vineyard. The servants, like the prophets or John the Baptist, are insulted, beaten, thrown out. Finally, in the story, the owner sends his son, and the tenants kill him, hoping to keep the vineyard, religion with all its power and influence over the people, for themselves. Jesus announces the owner will return and will destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to someone else.
The religious leaders got the message. They were properly insulted. Mark tells us the chief priests and scribes and elders “realized he had told this parable against them, (and) they wanted to arrest him.” They understood very well Jesus’ imagery of religion as a vineyard. He was teaching the disciples, us, not to stake our hopes and lives on religion, but to the true vine... Jesus the Christ.
Third, the vine was a symbol of money. The Maccabean Jews, who revolted against the empire in hopes of reestablishing a Jewish nation, put the vine emblem on their coins to symbolize the hope for growth and strength economically. But money, and all it can buy, are not sources of holy nourishment.
Before I was a pastor, I was an engineer, who moved to marketing, and then sales. I remember looking at my corporate paycheck, at that number at the top, especially in months where commissions were included, or at the end of the year when objective-based bonuses were tacked in. Then looking down the stub, the number shrank fast. Deduction after deduction to Caesar. The number at the top of the stub seemed like enough, but I felt like the number at the bottom was never enough. So I put my nose to the grindstone, trying to find new ways to increase all those numbers, under the guise of providing “enough” for my family. In the process, I lost myself for a while. I was working for money but losing my faith. I lost God, not that God had gone very far. That’s what money can do. It is a trickster that says happiness is for sale. Just put money at the center, work hard to have more of it, and you’ll be happy. But that vine does not feed the spirit. We cannot ever find wholeness by grafting ourselves to money, but only by our connection to the true vine... Jesus the Christ.
So, is that what Jesus was saying to them and to us, unplug ourselves from our primary loyalties to nation, religion, and money. Grafted ourselves to Christ? No. We cannot pick ourselves up and attach ourselves to the vine. The vine grower comes along and chooses us. If we read just a little bit farther, to John 15, verse 16, we hear it. “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit.” God’s choosing is first, then God grafts, then the fruits. Being grafted to Christ is not our choice, not our right, and we don’t deserve it. It is a pure gift. God alone chooses when and who will be grafted to the vine.
In ancient Rome, wild olive trees were cut back by skilled gardeners. In the freshly sawed ends, they made V-shaped slits. Then, they took a branch from a cultivated olive tree and pruned its end into a V-shape that would plug right into those slits. The joint was smeared with mud, splinted with bark from other trees, and bound with cloth. And, many of the grafts no longer produced wild olives, but good fruit.
Like these gardeners, God chooses us, makes room for us on the vine of Christ, shapes us to fit, marks us, protects us, and clothes us. All of these are God’s doing, not ours. We are just branches, and becoming engrafted to the vine is God’s gift.
Faith then isn’t what grafts us to Christ, but a sign that God has already done so. I don’t remember the day or moment I believed. Maybe some of you had moments of instantaneous, miraculous belief. If so, glory, hallelujah, praise God for that. But, I would guess that some of you are like me... belief buds and blooms then falls away for a season, then buds and blooms again. That cycle of faith is a sign God has grafted us into the vine, and that vine is the source of our faith itself. The vine and the faith from it held on to me through the death of my father, through my baptism, through my early years as a husband, parent, employee, through the death of my mother, and for almost 20 years in ministry. That nutrient of faith from being grafted to the vine holds onto me even today. It’s just there, attached to me now. Faith is a sign that God has given us the gift of grafting us to Christ, and we didn’t have to choose it, and we couldn’t cut ourselves from it even if we tried.
Now, what fruit will grow from us? Those who God has grafted to Christ will bear good fruit. If we are grafted to nation, religion, money, our fruit will be for them. But, if God has truly gifted us with grafting us to Christ, our fruit will feed God’s kingdom now and evermore.
To God be all the glory and honor, now and forevermore... Amen