Sermon for 5th Easter -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
In my first congregation I became a jogger and a gardener, two pastimes that were certainly good for my physical and mental health. As a gardener, I tilled, raked and planted my garden, often with the help of my father. I usually planted a lot of vegetables: zucchini, green and yellow beans, spinach, lettuce, carrots, onions, etc. Whenever I planted my garden, I rather expected much of what I had planted to grow, at least I hoped it would grow if the weather was wet enough or I remembered to water it regularly. What I did not expect was for anything else to grow in place of what I had planted, except, of course, the weeds which come with any garden. Where I planted lettuce and spinach, I did not expect sugar peas to grow! Where I planted green and yellow beans, I did not expect to see corn growing! It was only logical of me to expect that if anything came up at all in the places where I had planted seeds, it would be what I had planted, plus some pesky weeds.
In a more serious way, Jesus expressed a similar idea when he said in today’s gospel lesson from St. John’s gospel, “By their fruits, you shall know them,” meaning that we will be able to tell what sort of people other people are by their “fruits,” that is, by how they treat others, etc. That is the sense of the metaphor used by Jesus in today’s gospel lesson from St. John, this 5th Easter Sunday.
This lesson is similar to the gospel lesson from last Sunday, also from St. John’s gospel, where Jesus described himself as the “Good Shepherd.” Today, Jesus continues to use examples from his listeners everyday life to explain himself and his ministry. This time it is an agricultural example, “I am the true vine.” In this analogy, Jesus is the vine, people are the branches, and God is the vine grower, the gardener.
Much the same as in the Good Shepherd story from last weekend, Jesus as the “true vine” was an example easily understood by his listeners. Grapes, wine, vineyards, and vines – they were all part of everyday life in Jesus’ day.
However, since I do not know of any professional grape growers and wine makers here at Mt. Olive, though some of you probably have made your own beer and wine, in our times today this passage may need some additional interpretation for us to understand it more clearly.
Here Jesus picked a perfect example to portray our life with him, to show how a person can follow Jesus. And, this example should be quite disturbing to those who claim to be Christian but do not put their Christianity into action in their lives.
When you think of a grapevine, what image comes to mind? For me, I remember the grape arbor behind my grandmother’s little row home in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, the home in which my mother grew up. The backyard was pretty grim and rather overgrown and the grape arbor was part of that picture. It was wooden and had been painted white until most of the paint wore away. It was falling apart. There were lots of very old, winding grape vines over, around and through the arbor. The purple grapes it bore were only good to eat it you squeezed out the inside from the thick, bitter-tasting skins. Even then you had to deal with the seeds within the soft center. Friends of mine have told me they would have made good grape pies, but I found them good for squeezing and not much else.
Perhaps your mental image of a grapevine is similar or very different. No matter, the point is that, if you could picture a grape arbor and grapevine, I am betting that you pictured it with grapes! The very nature of a grapevine is to bear grapes, to bear its fruit, sweet or sour as it may be. We would hardly imagine a grape vine without grapes!
That gets us closer to Jesus’ image from today’s gospel lesson: “I am the true vine,” says Jesus, “My father is the vine grower,” the gardener. “You are the branches,” says Jesus, and you and I, we, are to “bear much fruit.”
Followers of Jesus, you and I, do not do good works, bear the fruit of our faith, to earn our way into heaven, to earn our salvation. That is already a free gift from God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But, followers of Jesus by their very nature do bear fruit, do good works, to show forth Christ in their daily lives. Bearing fruit, doing good works, is the essence of being a Christian, just as bearing grapes is the essence of being a grapevine. One without the other is just not possible. To be in Christ is to bear fruit. Jesus’ disciples are to be fruitful in the world because they follow Christ. And, “by their fruits you shall know them.” To be in Christ is to bear fruit.
Christ goes on to say, beyond today’s gospel lesson, that the first “fruit,” so to speak, to be born is to love one another. To be in Christ is to love one another. That sounds simple and direct enough, but everyone knows how difficult loving one another can be, whether that person is as close as a parent, child, brother or sister, spouse or friend, or as far away as angry young men in Baltimore or an immigrant from a distant land. But, that is our calling as Christians, to bear fruit, for Christ’s sake, to love one another.
The difficulty of being fruitful is one of the reasons we have the church. Here we can come together to confess our corporate and individual shortcomings as sometimes fruitless Christians. Of course, according to today’s gospel text, that would be a contradiction in itself – one cannot be a Christian, John tells us in today’s gospel, without bearing fruit, without doing good works. All the same, we all are fruitless at times in our lives. And that is one reason we come together here at Mt. Olive for worship and fellowship, all in Christ’s name. Here we can recharge our Christian batteries, so to speak, for another week in what sometimes appears to be a very un-fruitful world. Here we can receive forgiveness for our shortcomings. Here we can feel inspiration for our attempts to bear fruit in the world as we reach out in love to our fellow human beings, Christian and non-Christian alike.
Most importantly, if God is the gardener, Jesus the vine and we the branches, then we are not in this alone, as lonely as we may feel at times. Christ does not send us out to bear fruit without help. Christ is with and behind us at all times, even in those times when he may not appear to be at our side, nurturing, supporting, caring, even holding us up, just as the vine supports the branches.
And, as branches, we then support one another. The old hymn says it well, “Blest be the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love.” In the church we are bound together in mutual support to worship, learn, support and reach out to others in service and love.
Think of that grape arbor again, the one we pictured in our minds some moments ago. It is full of vines and branches, all intertwined and supporting one another. If the white, wooden arbor were to fall, chances are good that the grapevines would stay in place, supported by one another, probably still even holding the shape of the arbor. All the while, those vines would also continue to bear grapes, fruit for all to see and to enjoy.
That is the image for us as Christians and for the church as described by Jesus in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus is the vine; we are the branches, Jesus’ branches, placed here to bear much fruit. As Christians we are called to bear fruit for Christ’s sake, to love one another, to care for one another, friend and foe alike, those nearby and those far away. The vine grows, the branches reach out. We all grow in Christ. Jesus said it and we follow, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
The True Vine
Sermon for Easter 5
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
May 2 / 3, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California