Unlike Suzanne and many others in our congregation, I am not much of a gardener. I love all things green, but I don’t know a whole lot about plants, including vines. So, to prepare for today’s sermon, I had to do some extra homework. As it turns out, fruit-bearing vines can teach us some extraordinary lessons about spiritual living and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
To begin with, the usefulness, beauty and symbolism of vines was well known in Jesus’ day. Grapevines are found all over Israel. The first mention of a vine in Scripture occurs in Genesis chapter 9 verse 20: “And Noah, a man of the soil, planted a vineyard.” The Hebrew Bible also frequently refers to Israel as a vine planted by God. Each morning, devout Jews pray Psalm 80: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.” In Jewish ritual, grapes, vines, and wine signify sanctification, marking a day and celebration as holy.
During the Maccabean period, 160 years before the time of Jesus, the vine became the symbol of Israel and began appearing on coins and over the doors in synagogues. Jesus and his followers would see grapevines in their landscape the way we see trees in ours – everywhere. They would have recognized the necessity of these vines for their physical and spiritual well-being. In our reading from the Gospel of John (15.1-8), Jesus takes the meaning of the vine even deeper saying, “I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear abundant fruit.”
Here are some facts about vines. Listen closely for the symbolic meaning.
Vines grow best in rich, organic soil. They have their own roots, from which they absorb the moisture and minerals they need. Once they have adequate roots, they just keep growing above the ground. Vines send out shoots that seek an object to attach to for strength and support, but are not parasitic. Touch-sensitive components locate and latch onto a support base. Depending on the species, in response to circadian rhythms these exploratory shoots twist in a clockwise or counterclockwise motion. When viewed in a digital time-lapse video, it looks like the plant is tossing out a lasso.
Vines seek the light and reach out their tendrils. Once pruned and shaped, air and light can reach the inner branches and leaves of the vines themselves, as well as reaching any host plants’ leaves and stems. As they grow, they are unable to support their own weight. They make their way up in the world by clinging to or twining around a support. Many vines do not know in which direction to grow or when to stop growing. They are resistant to pulling and breaking and are often drought tolerant. How vines grow affects how much pruning they may need.
Aren’t vines fascinating?! There’s a lot to contemplate about their spiritual significance. No wonder they are such an important symbol in Judaism and Christianity.
Now consider this: the best grapes are those that are closest to the vine. To say that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches is to say that we share in the very same sap (or life) of God. By staying close to Jesus through prayer (in solitude and with others), we can allow God’s grace to flow through us. If we do this, we can trust that God, the Divine Gardener, will water, guide, direct, and prune us. Our very life will be nurtured by the rich soil of grace.
One of the best examples of this is Mother Teresa, who began each day with two hours of prayer. After her death, Angelo Comastri, the Archbishop of Loreto, remembered that during one visit with her, she looked at him with two clear and piercing eyes and asked, “How many hours do you pray a day?” He was surprised by such a question and tried to defend himself by saying: “Mother, I expected you to speak about charity, to invite me to love the poor more. Why do you ask me how many hours I pray?”
Mother Teresa took his hands and held them tightly in her own. He felt as if she wanted to pass on to him what she had in her heart. Then she told him: “My child, without God we are too poor to be able to help the poor! Remember: I am only a poor woman who prays. When I pray, God puts His Love into my heart and so I can love the poor. By praying!”
There’s another word that I love that describes the relationship between vine and branches, between Christ and us – attachment. For a branch to thrive it must be fully attached to the vine. We know how important it is for infants to form strong attachments to their parents in order for them to develop in healthy ways. Turns out it is the same for our spiritual lives. We need to allow ourselves to be attached to God in a relationship of safety, warmth, and trust.
Think about who or what you are attached to. Can you think of someone or something you would say you are strongly attached to in a healthy way? (pause) How does it feel? Now how does this compare with how you feel about your relationship with God? Do you have a sense of a supportive relationship with God? Through a life of prayer, we can develop a sense of intimacy with God. Thomas Keating teaches that it can be as simple as centering ourselves in the presence of God by repeating a sacred word like Creator, Jesus, or Spirit to sense the indwelling of God.
The image of Christ as the vine and we as fruit-bearing branches suggests that it is our relationship with God that makes possible the bearing of fruit – not our own designs, genius, efforts, or agendas. Relying on God, we can trust God to direct our growth and fulfill the mission God gives us. We do not have to run around – as we say in my family – like headless chickens trying to do, do, do. Deeply connected to God, we do not need to chase our goals in a frantic way. If we can remember what we are here to do – to serve God – who will give us what we need to do this, including companions on the journey – we can relax into doing what is ours to do. And as those who have faced burnout know, if we overdo, God will find a way to prune us.
The image of Christ as vine and we as branches also suggests that in the Christian life we are never alone. If you look at a grapevine, can you tell the exact place where the vine ends and the branches begin? Both are part of one living plant – just as we are one with Christ in the life of God. Intertwined, the branches symbolize that we are also one with each other.
Debie Thomas recognizes, “We are meant to be tangled up together…to live lives of profound interdependence, growing into, around, and out of each other. We cause pain and loss when we hold ourselves apart, because the fate of each individual branch affects the vine as a whole…Branches that refuse to cling to the vine die… (to abide) is to live a life that is messy, crowded, tangled, and gorgeous. A life that’s deeply rooted and wildly fertile.”
In today’s reading, the word “abide” is used repeatedly. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” One definition of abide is “to be at home with”, which is one of the greatest gifts any of us can enjoy in this life. When you really feel at home with someone, the relationship is easy, joyful, honest, and safe. You can be your full self with the other person, who can also be their full self with you. This is the quality of relationship that Christ invites us to share with God.
In relationships that thrive, people feel at home with one another. This quality is what I hope all of you feel in your primary relationships and within this spiritual community. At home, ideally, we can let our guards down, open our hearts and be vulnerable with each other. When that happens, intimate, loving relationships form that free us to joyfully share and develop our gifts. We can become fruitful.
Now contemplate those relationships where you are fully at home. How important are they to you? How do they make you feel? This is the quality of relationship we are invited to by God. Now I’m going to use a word that most of us recoil at – dependence. The branches depend on the vine for life. They need the vine. “Because apart from me you can do nothing.” Let that sink in. Our spiritual freedom comes when we depend on God. Not on ourselves. Not on others. And this is good news – especially during those times in life when we are overwhelmed and stretched thin. Through prayer, we can call on the One on whom we depend for life so that with grace we can fulfill the mission God gives us. We need God.
It is when we flip the equation and expect that the spiritual life is about God serving our ego-based agendas, that we get into trouble and need to be pruned. For the health of the vine and branches, a skillful gardener knows to remove errant stems, especially those growing away from the support. Likewise, stems that are dead, damaged, diseased, unproductive, or overly tangled stems must also be removed. Whenever we are in the midst of a painful life experience, we might consider that God’s spirit is actually at work pruning us – that the trials we are bearing will eventually lead to new life.
Friends, the Christian life is an invitation to a life of service, of bearing fruit. But, that does not mean that we are nothing more than hired hands in the vineyard of life. The point of the Christian life isn’t to see who can work the hardest or accomplish the most. The invitation of the Christian life is to dwell deeply with and in God; to be at home with God in a relationship of safe dependence. Ours is a God worthy of trust, who wants us to be attached, to stay close.
To bear sweet, healthy, life-sustaining, abundant fruit we need to allow ourselves to draw from the rich, organic soil of grace that happens when we pray – alone and in community. We don’t need to fret over what direction to take with our lives. That is the Divine Gardener’s job. We have the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of God, running through our veins. Trust. Let the light in. Breathe deeply. You have been planted by God, forever grafted onto the Vine of grace, tangled up with others, forever connected in Spirit. Live a life rooted and grounded in prayer so that God’s love will flow through you to bear the sweetest, most abundant fruit. Amen.