St George’s, Bellville—John 15:1-8
Before moving to the midwest eight years ago, Brenda and I spent thirteen years in the central valley of California, where, for the past several decades, grapevines have dominated the landscape. In the southern part of the valley, the grapes mostly end up as raisins. In the northern part, they mostly end up as wine, and the border between wine country and raisin country seems to be moving steadily southward, as wine, for some inexplicable reason, seems to be a lot more popular than raisins. Of course, with the drought, that whole system is in jeopardy, so keep California in your prayers … and possibly also begin to develop a taste for southern Illinois wine, I guess!
A longer time ago, between the mid-seventies and the mid-eighties of the last century, we lived in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. In the backyard of our home there, there was a large Concord grape arbor. It was—roughly speaking, and if I remember my high school geometry correctly—an isosceles triangle, and the distance from the vertex to the base was probably around fifteen feet. It was large enough to provide shade for several people in lawn chairs on a summer afternoon. But, as large as the wooden structure of the arbor was, its only function was to support a just one plant, a single organism. At base of the post supporting the vertex of the arbor, the thick trunk of the plant emerged from the ground, anchored to what I can only imagine was an extensive underground root system. It was a marvelous thing, and, thirty years later, I still miss it.
So, whether it’s acres and acres of grapevines in the California sunshine, or that one magnificent plant in my backyard in Oregon, I find the grapevine to be a mystically rich and compelling organism. I actually feel much the same about corn in the midwest, but grapes are what we are presented with today by the gospel according to St John. A grapevine can grow to become quite large. It forms a complex network of branches and shoots springing from other branches and shoots in a web so extensive that it would be effectively impossible to map, even if one were inclined to try. The furthest leaf emerging from the furthest shoot from the trunk is a great distance from a leaf much nearer to the trunk. Yet, those two leaves are intimately and vitally connected to one another. They share the same life. I often wondered over the fact that, if I were to take a pair of loppers and randomly make a cut somewhere in the middle of that extensive plant, that single cut could have a fatal impact on several square feet of that vine, killing off a whole section of the network.
What all the leaves on a grapevine have in common, whether it’s large or small, is that they are all connected to the trunk, and they are connected to the trunk precisely and solely through the rest of the vine. As long as that connection is maintained, a leaf lives. When that connection is broken, the leaf dies. And it should be ridiculously easy, then, to see how Jesus deploys the image of a vine when he teaches his disciples, a teaching event that we are privileged to overhear, courtesy of St John. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” he says. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”
The word “abide” is no longer a common part of our secular vocabulary. We might use a phrase like “abiding interest” or a cliché like “humble abode,” but, for the most part, the only time we use it is when we are engaging texts like the one in front of us this morning. But in this context, it is a tremendously important word. When we understand how a vine works, to abide in the vine becomes quite literally a matter of life and death. We are fed by the life of Christ precisely inasmuch as we abide in him. So what I’d like to do, in a sort of bold stroke sketchy way over the next few minutes, is tease out what it concretely looks like for a Christian to abide in Christ, to abide in the True Vine, so as to have life and bear fruit.
What are the elements of “abiding” for us as disciples of Jesus? I would like to suggest three: Word, Sacrament, and Community.
Word. Jesus is God’s word spoken; scripture is God’s word written. Not everybody is called to be a biblical scholar. I don’t really care whether you know about the documentary theory of the formation of the Pentateuch, or have an informed opinion about the three stages of tradition in the synoptic gospels. Those are not bad things to learn about if you want to, but … purely optional. What I do care about is that you engage scripture in some way on a disciplined and intentional daily basis. I care that the vocabulary and grammar of the Bible become the language of your heart. I care that, when you sing hymns that refer to passages of scripture, you’re able to make the connections, and that you understand the grand narrative sweep of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation, from creation to consummation, from the Garden of Eden to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. To abide in Christ includes abiding in scripture.
Sacrament. Sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. There isn’t time now for me to break open the whole sacramental system, so I’ll simply suggest that the “sacrament of abiding” is probably the Eucharist, because that’s the sacrament that we participate in most frequently and regularly. When we come together for the Eucharist, we reconnect with both our beginning and our end, with our original bliss in the Garden and our ultimate bliss in the Celestial Banquet. We share in the very life of God as we are nourished by the Body and Blood of his crucified and risen Son. Coming to this altar Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, holy day after holy day, is the consummate act of abiding. The other sacraments are tremendously important, but it’s the Eucharist that connects them and gives them context.
Community. A grape leaf or a cluster of grapes does not have an independent existence. It can’t go rogue and start its own vine. It will die trying. Nor does it have a direct and singular relationship with the trunk. It depends on the whole interrelated web to be able to draw life from trunk. So it is with us. We have no life apart from God, and we have no relationship with God apart from the community of his people. To switch biblical metaphors, if Christ is the Head of the Body and all baptized persons are the members of the Body, there is no relationship with the Head without a simultaneous relationship with the other members of the Body. It’s a package deal. So, when we study scripture, we do so shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the Body, both those whom we can see and those who have gone ahead of us, because only in that context can we be sure that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. When we celebrate the sacraments, it is always, at least in concept, an act of the whole Church, the whole community of the baptized. Even in confession, the priest represents the whole Church. And when we serve the world in God’s name, we appropriately do so together with the Church and as the Church. That’s abiding in Christ because the Church is the Body of Christ.
So … Word, Sacrament, and Community. This is what abiding in Christ looks like. And abiding in Christ is what results in bearing fruit. And bearing fruit is what results in the glory of God, the salvation of our souls, the building up of the Church, and the life of the world. Got it? Good! Alleluia and Amen.