On Divine Integrity Within Humankind
May 2, 2021
Fifth Sunday of Eastertide
John 15: 1-8
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Today is the fifth Sunday of Eastertide; we are three weeks away from Pentecost and working our way through some of the most significant scriptures found in the Gospel of John. These scriptures are selected especially for this time because they are passages where we find some of the most direct information from Jesus about who he is and why he is here.
Today’s sermon is titled On Divine Integrity Within Humankind. What we are offered in our scriptures today may well be one of the most stunning statements in the New Testament record. It comes as the final statement in a group of seven that are found previously in the Gospel of John. They are known as “the ‘I am’ discourses.” Each and every one seeks to describe and to explain what one scholar names “the communal and relational nature of the Christian faith” (Stephen Cooper). The statements build, one upon the other, a wide spectrum of relational qualities. Listen to what Jesus is recorded as saying:
“I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35, 41, 48, 51)
“I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12)
“I am the door of the sheep.” (John 10:7,9)
“I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25).
“I am the good shepherd, you are my sheep.” (John 10:11, 14)
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
“I am the true vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:1, 5)
His final statement, “I am the true vine, you are the branches” is the only one of the seven that draws humankind into such an integral relationship with the Divine. I personally find great hope in reading this particular metaphor but I suspect Jesus’s audience did not have the same reaction.
In the First Testament Hebrew scriptures, psalmists and prophets use the metaphor of “the vine” to describe the people of Israel or the nation of Israel at least seven times.* Jesus’s audience would have been intimately aware of these metaphors. I imagine that when Jesus said, “I am the true vine” he emphasized the word “true” and I imagine there were audible gasps among those gathered in the crowd. Remember from last week that Jesus’s words have already sent people looking for stones to throw, not once but twice. Authorities have already attempted to arrest him but the scriptures say “he escaped their grasp” (John 10:39).
Jesus’s words were interpreted as blasphemous by the temple priests. How dare he place himself in the place of God’s favored nation as “the true vine”? Jesus’s words were interpreted as seditious by the Roman government officials; only the Roman emperor could have been publicly described as the true vine and his people as the branches. It was Roman law to acknowledge the Emperor and his immediate family as gods. Historians call this the Imperial Cult and it persisted for over 500 years.
We could say that in identifying himself as “the true vine,” Jesus invited double trouble from those in positions of power within the temple and government. This is the historical context and this is proof of Jesus’s willingness to challenge authority on multiple fronts in order to lift up the people that he cared for the most. They were a people in despair, living under foreign occupation, struggling to pay taxes to Rome and to the temple, wondering when and if their autonomy will ever be restored.
From among them rises this unlikely prophet from Galilee with an astounding message. “I am the true vine and you are the branches.” Together we live and grow and flourish. Together we experience shalom, wholeness, integrity, and health. Together, all things are possible. God is tending to us. Stay with me, abide in me, I will help you. The closer you remain, the more fruit you will bear, just like you know it to be true with the vines in the fields. The best fruit grows closest to the vine. The best fruit grows closest to the vine.
This is a loaded message in a volatile time when allegiance to government and allegiance to cultural and religious traditions were nearly impossible to reconcile for the Hebrew people. This is an age-old dilemma that challenges us, still. What do we stand for? With what and with whom do we find a sense of belonging? The answers to such questions often divide us, into classes, parties, racial groups, and religious denominations. And yet our teacher reveals that we are not separate from the source of all love and goodness that he personifies; we are all part of the same system.
In living plants and trees there are two systems of vessels that work in tandem, very much like our veins and our arteries. The xylem carries water and minerals from the roots to the branches and the phloem carries food produced in the leaves to other parts of the plant. Both systems are needed; one of them alone can not sustain. This is a stunning analogy for Jesus to choose to teach us about who he is and why he came.
My interpretation of this analogy and my experience as part of humankind confirm that there are two integral systems at work within us and within the culture we create. One system is focused on the human experience, the other on the Divine. The two systems work very much like our veins and arteries, like the xylem and phloem; they work in tandem to sustain us on many levels. Yet it is clear to see in our culture that as humans distance ourselves from the vine, from the source, we move further and further from what truly sustains us and we are no longer nourished, no longer living as an extension of the goodness and grace of God.
I see this playing out in our culture in so many ways. Our modern lives take us way out on the metaphorical limb where our connection to the earth and our reliance upon the systems of the earth are more easily forgotten. We fall victim to the illusion that we are sustaining ourselves with what we do and what we accumulate. No wonder we can never seem to have enough.
I see this playing out in both government and corporate systems where the illusion of personal power and influence carries many executives and elected officials so far out and away from their workers and the people they are elected to serve that they become out of touch and concerned only with their own advancement. They become desperate to hold onto their positions of influence because they are suffering from lack of true and meaningful connection. They are too far from the vine and their decisions can no longer be grounded in what is best for the whole.
Friends, I think we could consider this metaphor of the vine and the branches as both a message of hope and a message of warning. Whatever within us that is not bearing fruit, whatever within us that is keeping us from loving with all our hearts and minds, whatever within us that is feeding our illusion of separateness from God and from the rest of humanity must be identified. We will know it because it is not helping us, it is not feeding us, it is weighing us down and keeping us from reaching for the light. Perhaps it is a bad habit like gossiping or an old grievance we hold onto. Perhaps it is an unhealthy choice we make over and over again, or participating in an unhealthy relationship. Perhaps it is an allegiance to an ideology that sees the other as the enemy and a threat. Whatever it is, whoever it is, with the help of God we can mindfully and compassionately free ourselves from what may be holding us back from really living in love.
In closing, I pray that in our moments of despair we will find solace in the image of the vine and the branches. Integrity, wholeness, vitality and Divine wisdom is available to us in every moment of our lives. When we find ourselves far from the vine where humanity is relying on personal power and influence to find a sense of wellbeing, may we remember where our true sense of peace and security is found. May we, as the branches of Christ, bring health and wholeness wherever we are. So be it. Amen.
*Psalm 80:8-16, Isaiah 5:1-7, Jeremiah 2:21, Ezekiel 15:1-8, 17:5–10, and 19:10–14, and Hosea 10:1
God who is the Giver, the Forgiver and the Kind, I thank you for the gift of our lives and the gift of our togetherness. I thank you for the willingness of many to hold the concerns expressed here this morning. With all of the distressing events in our world, it can feel like a heavy burden to bear, although it is through this sharing that we strengthen the ties that join us to the rest of humanity. Help us, Holy One, to be mirrors of your all-inclusive love and acceptance. Help us to be the ones that edify, encourage, and appreciate; help us to focus less on problems and more on finding, and being part of, solutions. Guard us against apathy and callousness, Lord; may we retain our sensitivities to the plight of others . Remind us to lift all things to You in prayer and attune our senses to the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit so that we may think, speak and act as people devoted to God. Let us pray together the words that Jesus gave his disciples.
I leave you with these words from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
“May the peace of Christ reign in your hearts; unto that peace, indeed, you were called in one body.”