“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.
(John 15: 1-8, NRSV
The text for this last Sunday is a really fun one for me. It holds a lot of imagery from an agricultural aspect.
Forty years ago this spring I planted one thousand grape plants on two acres of ground that we held west of Kuna, Idaho. It was in the earliest days of the consideration of Idaho as a wine producing region in the northwest. It was fun to be a part of that time in the state’s history. Most of the grapes were Riesling and about one hundred were a pinot noir variety.
We spent the next few seasons getting the cutting starts established and up on the trellising wires. It was a most interesting time as I learned to hear the many Biblical stories that were often agricultural in nature with new ears. Those stories were now different. I understood the metaphors through different ears; from a different vantage point. I now find it really interesting to study the first century history and gain a glimpse of how the hearer of that time might have perceived the messages of Jesus and the early church writers.
I developed a different view of the story of the seeds on the good and poor soil, and I gained a new awareness for getting a crop harvested with the story of the workers in the field coming on at various times to get the work done.
By the mid 1980’s we were delivering grapes to a local winery with a peak crop of fifteen thousand pounds.
But to get to this text, and the imagery of being connected to the vine, this story became clear to me and certainly was to the first century listener when the midsummer pruning occurred. There is a time where the plants can become confused and lose sight of what they are supposed to be up to; that is producing fruit.
I’m sure somewhere you have seen grape plants sprawling aimlessly across the ground or climbing fences and occasionally even trees. This is not healthy for the plant and absolutely counterproductive for the overall crop. The first century vineyard keepers certainly knew that after some number of leaf nodes out from the parent plant, rampant growth was not good for plant or product. Thus summer pruning occurred then as now.
On a hot day it only takes a trimmed cane a few minutes before the leaves begin wilting once away from the vine. Over the ensuing years I have coached a number of people in the management of their grape plants; whether one or a dozen. As we travel together around the plants I offer reasons for why such pruning is necessary. My favorite thing to do is to come back to a recently trimmed branch and point out the onset of the “wilties”. This may not be a real term as my spell checker does not like it but gardeners will recognize this term immediately. I then make reference to this Biblical citation and gardeners quickly make the connection.
People speaking to this text over the years have taken and run with the metaphors and others have attempted to identify the various characters through the use of allegories. I’m not sure that the latter is an appropriate way to open up this text. Yes, Jesus places himself in the text as the vine, vs 6; and again in vs. 7-8. How then does the Father enter this cast of characters and what about the nation of Israel? Now things become a bit fuzzy. Some scholars even go so far as to state that the first century Galilean was not sophisticated enough to make such allegorical connections. Certainly however, metaphor is appropriate.
So what about us today? What do we think when we hear this text? Do we see the wilted leaves and the greenery struggling for sustenance from the vine? Do we even bring to mind the necessity, the urgency for that life giving nutrition?
What is most often overlooked is the invitation to be a part of this in verse 4. Jesus opens his arms and welcomes us all into this relationship. He invokes no requirements save staying connected. Verses 7 and 8 open our thinking to what can come of this invitation; to be welcomed into the Kingdom now and to become a disciple.
Let us hear your words of invitation and enter this relationship of service and discipleship. Amen