In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes lots of “I am” statements. “I am the light of the world.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” Last week’s “I am the good shepherd.”
Today we get another “I am” statement: “I am the true vine.”
Here is a confession. I don’t like vines. I know there are good vines. I am guessing the people who heard Jesus say this immediately thought of grape vines, and I am officially pro-grape. But my own experience of vines has been negative.
I first paid attention to vines when I was a teenager, and my parents paid me to get rid of a vine that had colonized our yard. I have repressed most of my memories of that particular vine. All I really remember is working hard to dig up all the roots and failing magnificently. I assume my parents eventually found someone else to do the job I couldn’t do.
Now, decades later, I am again battling a vine. Someone must have planted this vine at the foot of the telephone pole at the edge of our yard. If I were not standing in a pulpit preaching to Christian people, I would curse that person!
By the time we moved in, the vine had totally covered the telephone pole. Eventually the power company sent someone out to cut the vine about twenty feet from the ground. But they left the dead vine tendrils hanging there, too high for us to reach. They don’t look great.
And that didn’t kill the vine, of course. The power company had just temporarily liberated the telephone pole. Every year, the vine starts back up the pole. The vine also produces lots, LOTS, of other shoots.
Having been humbled by my failed childhood anti-vine efforts, I am not sure I would even try to dig the whole thing up. But I can’t because whoever planted the vine there also planted flowers that have flourished and that we really like.
As a result, I anticipate pulling shoots of that vine repeatedly every summer for the rest of my life. I have already pulled my first shoot for this year.
Those are the associations I bring to Jesus’ claim that he is the true vine and we are the vine branches. As far as I am concerned, Jesus might as well say, I am the roots of a very tough weed, and you are the weed shoots.
But I can say one positive thing about vines as I have experienced them. Vines are incredibly tough. You can’t get rid of them—at least I can’t—because vines have so much life force.
That is certainly true of Jesus.
The religious and political elite of Jerusalem, the Roman Empire—the mightiest empire the world had ever seen—and all the forces of evil combined to put Christ on the cross. They killed Jesus.
And they lost that battle. Nothing could defeat the Lord of life. Death itself couldn’t hold Christ. Christ rose again. And our resurrected Lord keeps popping up, to the disciples, to their successors, to us. Christ is like a vine that evil can never get rid of. That is the good news of Easter.
And—we say this all the time, because we need to keep hearing it—we share in Christ’s victory.
Christ is the vine, and we are the branches. We, Christ’s people, we are those shoots that come up year after year. We are the branches in which the life of Christ becomes manifest. That unconquerable life force in Christ is in us too. Like Christ, in and through Christ, we too have the power to overcome death itself.
That made me like vines a little better. But as I continued to work with this image of Christ as the vine, I found myself in an uncomfortable position. In my yard, I am the one trying to kill the vine and its branches. That means in the image from our reading I stand for—this is our baptismal language—“Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness,” “the evil powers of the world,” and all “sinful desires.” For the next bit, assume I represent everything opposed to Christ. But just for the next bit!!
In my yard, I have given up ever getting to the roots of my irritating vine. The vine’s roots are beyond my reach and are too tough for me even if they weren’t. Even the shoots are hard to deal with. But I can handle the shoots. I just have to yank them away from the root, and they’re done. More shoots will come up. But that particular shoot is dead.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus says exactly the same thing about us. Our life itself depends on us staying connected to our root system, staying attached to the vine, continuing to receive nourishment and life and strength from the vine, nourishment and life and strength that is not otherwise available to us.
If we stay connected to the vine, if we abide in Christ, we have life, abundant and eternal. If we get separated from the vine by whatever opposes Christ in us, we wither and die.
There is more to say about the divine life in us, who abide in the true vine. Another name for God’s life in us is love. As our epistle says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Calling love God’s life in us reminds us of an important truth, another one of those things we say over and over again because we need to hear it over and over again. We love because God loved us. And because of God’s love, we must also love our brothers and sisters.
God’s love for us, and the love for God with which we respond, necessarily ripples out. It includes our brothers and sisters in Christ. It includes our neighbors. It includes the people who irritate us. It includes the people who disagree with us. It includes our enemies. Ultimately, the love of God embraces all people and so we are called to love all people.
I think one more time about the irritating vine in my yard. I have to be the bad guy again, the one who opposes Christ, the true vine. So, the roots are beyond my reach. The best I can do is pull the shoots. But even pulling shoots can be hard. Together the shoots are too strong. To have any chance of separating a shoot from its roots, I first have to separate it from other shoots. I have to isolate a single shoot, and then I can get it easily. Pretty easily. (I am done being the bad guy!)
In the same way, we are not supposed to be single shoots. Alone we are vulnerable to whatever the world throws at us, whatever we throw at each other. But when we are united with God, when we join with other shoots, we share the love and life of God. We share Christ’s victory. We can face down sin and evil and death itself.
And so on this fifth Sunday of Easter, I give thanks to God for Christ’s victory. I give thanks to God for the invitation to abide in Christ and to share Christ’s victory. And I give thanks to God for all the people we are called to love, who in some surprising way, are part of our experience of God’s victory.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan