Fifth Sunday of Easter, rcl yr b, 2021
St. John’s in Third Wave
ACTS 8:26-40; PSALM 22:24-30; 1 JOHN 4:7-21; JOHN 15:1-8
I am the true vine
In our reading from John’s Gospel today, we have some deeply evocative, poetic language describing what it is like to be in relationship with Jesus.
Our unity with Jesus, or oneness with Jesus, is something we find throughout John’s Gospel and is something we find here again. “Abide in me as I abide in you” is what Jesus says here, and this notion of abiding, or remaining, brings to mind some of Jesus’s first words to his disciples in John— the disciples ask Jesus, “where do you live?” “Where do you abide?” Only for Jesus to invite the disciples to come and live with him, to come and share space with him—to hang out for a while, as we might say.
Much later on we will find Jesus speaking in similar terms in the great prayer he prays over the disciples just before the passion. What begins in John’s Gospel as an invitation to come and spend time with Jesus, becomes something more deeply spiritual, even metaphysical. In that prayer Jesus speaks of his relationship to the Father. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you”—the relationship of unity and difference between Jesus and the Father—becomes the way to imagine Jesus’s relationship with his disciples: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us … I in them and you in me.”
This kind of unity then becomes the way to imagine the life the disciples share together: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
If that’s a bit too much to take in all at once, let me put it this way. In John’s gospel, there is a relationship between Jesus and the Father in heaven (in John’s language) that is so deeply intimate that even as they are different from one another, they are so close to one another that it can only be described as a relationship of deep unity and oneness. This deep intimacy shared between Jesus and the Father is then described as the same sort of intimacy Jesus has with his disciples. This sort of intimacy is then described as a possibility among the disciples themselves.
And if that’s still all a bit abstract—which it most certainly is!—then we have our reading from today. In between the abiding that is described at first as a kind of hanging out with Jesus, and later on the abstract unity and difference of John 17, we have our reading from today—and the image of the vine and the branches.
If you’ve ever had the chance to drive through the Niagara peninsula, or had the chance to visit other wine regions throughout the world, you’ve probably seen working vineyards. In the winter you might see rows and rows and rows of woody vines—the trunks that don’t ever get cut back, the “vines” that are intended to always be there, year after year. And then in other seasons you see all the green branches growing from those vines, the new growth that will provide the grapes to harvest. Without the vine—the part that stays from year-to-year—there would be no branches.
Not all those branches though will grow grapes; sometimes the branches are diseased or damaged. These non-productive branches are cut back so that the living branches can grow even more fruit than they would have if the damaged or diseased branches were left on the vine.
In Jesus’s analogy he is the vine, the woody trunk that remains from year-to-year; and we are the branches, bearing fruit as we draw life and sustenance from him, the vine. And so in this you can see the more abstract notion of unity and difference come into view through the analogy of vine and branches; the vine isn’t the branch, and the branch isn’t the vine, but the two together form a kind of unity and a shared life.
In this analogy of vine and branches Jesus is also clear that not all branches are fruitful, and that the branches that do not draw life from him, the vine, and are dead—are pruned by the vinegrower. It’s something of a hard lesson, and hard for two reasons. First, it seems that there are those out there that are destined not for life, but for the fire.
So on the one hand it’s hard to imagine that God would be like this. But on the other hand, we often act this way! We decide who it is we like, who it is we’d like to have around. And we are tempted to pick up the pruning shears ourself, and do a bit of vine maintenance. As if we were the vinegrower.
I’ll start with a few words about this second hard lesson—that we aren’t the vinegrower, even though we are sometimes tempted to pick up the pruning shears and deciding who needs pruning. Augustine, writing on these sorts of parables, simply says that we don’t know who will be pruned, we don’t know who is wheat and who is the weed to be pulled up, we don’t know which of the fishes will be kept or thrown back. That sort of judgment is God’s work, not ours.
The challenge of this, though, is that we are asked to be good shepherds. Jesus’s words to Peter, as a restored leader of the Christian community, are that he should be good shepherd. And so he is tasked with not being the hired hand who lets in the wolves, the wolves that would snatch away members of the flock, the innocent ones sought out by the ones who prey upon others.
This is most certainly a challenge for Christian communities, isn’t it. The need to step back when we are tempted to prune the branches, and to recognise that work as the work of the Father, the vinegrower; and the need to be good shepherds to our communities, which sometimes means acting to protect the innocent and vulnerable.
All I’d say about that, is that I have no firm answer as to how best to do that. Except to say that this is a real tension for us, and one we often have to live out with humility, growing in wisdom and discernment, learning when we do need to be the good shepherd, and when we need to be the branches (and not the pruning vinegrower).
And so what of this vinegrower who throws the dead branches into the fire? Are some destined not to life, but to something else? First, I’m not sure the passage from John, about dead branches being sent to the fire, is meant to speak to the eternal destiny of some. All I would do is to turn to Psalm 22, for the moment, and to point out what is spoken of there, remembering that these are Jesus’s own words from the cross—the cross on which our salvation is wrought, a crucifixion that brings life, and if life, ultimately to Jesus, then life to those who are one with him. The cross and the resurrection aren’t just about one man, but about all those who are given by the Father to Jesus.
Today we get the jubilant part of Psalm 22; but as the writers of the gospels put the first words of Psalm 22 in Jesus’s mouth on the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”—we are meant to imagine the whole Psalm as significant to this moment. And in Psalm 22, which begins in lament, doesn’t end in lament. In the middle of Psalm 22, just before the verses we heard just now, there is some sort of transformation we don’t get to see, and it moves the Psalm from lament to praise, and then to a comprehensive vision of who it is that ultimately belongs to God: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.”
But its not just all the nations that turn and bow to the Lord, even the dead turn to God: “To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust fall before him.”
And then, even those who are yet to be born are added to the chorus: “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.”
And as Jesus expresses from the cross the breadth of salvation— all the nations, all of the dead, and even all the yet unborn—our hope become his proclamation to us. From the cross, no less—we learn that what is wrought here, in hope, is the salvation and restoration to life of us all.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons