Reflections for Sunday, 2 May 2021

By Revd George Mwaura

Psalm 22: 25–31 and John 15: 1–8

Tangled up in the vines…

This passage from John’s gospel is one that has created great comfort for many people,
and at the same time, profound pain and suffering for others.
So, let us begin by putting some context to it and, as we do so, it might be helpful to remember
that stories about a vine and vineyard have been told in Israel since ancient times.
So, really, Jesus was not covering any new territory.
The Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel used the vines and vineyards illustrations all the time to drive their message home.
It is important to remember that these prophets arose and spoke during times of great threat to the country.
They spent their time warning the people what was going to happen to them if they did not change their ways.
The prophets had an ability of presenting issues in ways that people understood,
and since most folks back then were familiar with vineyards, they got the message quickly.

In Chapter 5 of the Book of Isaiah, for example, the prophet told a story about someone who planted a beautiful vineyard on a fertile hill.
He did everything needed to create an ideal setting for the vines. But the vineyard failed.
The owner asked, ‘When I expected it to yield domestic grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?’
He then tore down the protective wall and hedge around it and let the vineyard become overgrown with briars.
He even commanded the clouds to stop raining on it.
That last detail is important because it tells us that the owner being described was God, and the vineyard of wild grapes was the people of Israel.
Isaiah used familiar language to make his point in his attempt to call the nation back from the destruction that was imminent.

Years later, Ezekiel tells the nation:
Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard transplanted by the river,
fruitful and full of branches from abundant water (Ezekiel 19: 12).
Again, the mother in reference here was the land of Judah, then under threat by Babylon.
Because of the stiff-necked behaviour of the Judeans, it was plucked up in fury and cast to the ground.
The east wind dried it up and its fruits were cut off.
Ezekiel painted a familiar yet vivid picture that everyone understood.
Unfortunately, they did not heed his warning.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus told another vineyard parable where the vineyard owner’s son was killed
by those who were supposed to be taking care of the vineyard.
So now, as Jesus talked about the vine in our passage,
the disciples would have understood him, as they were familiar with narratives about vines and vineyards.

Jesus told this story while he and the disciples were gathered after celebrating the Passover meal
and only a few minutes after Judas had bolted to go and betray him.
If ever there was an opportunity to talk about wild grapes, this was it!
In the minutes that followed, Jesus was either going to say something profoundly kind and loving,
or something so harsh that it would end up dividing and destroying families and nations for generations to come.
So, what did Jesus say? He said, ‘I am the true vine!’
I wonder how the disciples reacted upon hearing this.

For generations, the vine had represented the true way, the true vision for what the people of Israel were meant to be.
The vine had been God’s way.
Jesus then began talking about pruning the vineyard, and this is where the problems began.
Sounding very much like the doomsday prophets, Jesus said, ‘He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit,’
and then he added this rather ominous statement:
‘Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers;
such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burnt.’

Those few sentences have created voices that scream for active pruning of those who do not seem to bear fruit;
those who appear to be producing wild grapes!
This passage is used as the commandment to separate ourselves
from those who do not produce the fruit that is seen as desirable in our churches.
While laws of the land see to it that such people cannot literally be cast into the fire
(well, at least nowadays), it has still been possible to cast people out in other ways.
Many folk have been excommunicated, condemned, shunned, and treated as though they were pariahs.
Some people have been labelled as sinful, or unclean and driven out of churches.
I wonder, do you think it is necessary that we identify those people
who are the wild grapes in our churches and cut them off, so they do not corrupt the rest of us?
Is that what Jesus is saying to us?

But Jesus also repeatedly used the word abide as he told this story.
Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away, and those who abide in me and me in them bear much fruit.
A quick Google search tell us that there are two primary definitions for the word ‘abide’,
one of which is to withstand, endure, or put up with.
Now, with this definition in mind, do you think then that Jesus is saying to us
that while it may be difficult sometimes to take the harsh step of cutting some people out of the church,
if we withstand the pain that this may cause, we are doing his will by protecting the church from possible corruption?
Is that the message in this parable?

I want to be as clear as I can possibly be because I do not want anyone to misunderstand me or to quote me out of context.
While it is true that Jesus does say, more than once, that the vines that do not produce fruit will be removed,
it is important to note that he never suggests that it is our responsibility to do the pruning.
Jesus never suggest that it is our role to judge the value of the vines. Not once!
Jesus is saying that while there may be some pruning of wild grapes to be done at some point,
we are to leave that to the owner of the vineyard: the vine grower, the only one who can measure the true value of any vine.

The other definition of the word ‘abide’ is to remain, to continue in relationship with – and in this passage, it means more than to put up with.
It means believing in something strongly enough to continue living with it.
The story of the vineyard and vine is a story of everyone being connected to Christ and remaining together as the family of God.
It is when the parts of the vine are all connected that goods fruit are produced.
All the different parts of the vineyard: the soil, the roots, the vines, the leaves, …
as different as they are to look at, have their value in producing good fruit.
If there are unfruitful branches, it is not our primary focus.
Rather than trying to find those vines that need to be cut off,
our only focus as his church should be to work together to produce the fruit the vineyard owner planted us here to produce.