Sunday, May 14, 2006

Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 15
1Jesus said to his disciples: I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts away every branch of mine that doesn't produce fruit. But he trims clean every branch that does produce fruit, so that it will produce even more fruit. 3You are already clean because of what I have said to you.
4Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me. 5I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit. But you cannot do anything without me. 6If you don't stay joined to me, you will be thrown away. You will be like dry branches that are gathered up and burned in a fire.
7Stay joined to me and let my teachings become part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want, and your prayer will be answered. 8When you become fruitful disciples of mine, my Father will be honored.

At one time my neighbourhood was described as the realm of "Irish cops and TTC motormen." In time it became an Italian neighbourhood, a secret unknown to many who now know it as "Greektown." I imagine it is because the Italian period was relatively short, and the Greek presence so pervasive, that my little stretch of the Danforth never enjoyed the designation of "little Italy."

The first house I owned had all the telltale signs of what we came to call the Italian Renaissance. Every outside surface was concrete: porch, path, parking pad. There was a generous amount of wrought iron and (the most telling trait) a giant fireplace in the basement suitable for cooking. I recall the house inspector's glee as he went on and on about the concrete porch: "Do you know why there are no termites on this block?" he asked. "No where does wood touch the soil. I just love this porch." He was alone. We called it the bomb shelter.

The other telltale sign was the grapevine. Planted just beyond the patio (concrete!) were four large vines, supported by a rusting trellis we soon replaced. Judging by the thickness of vine at the ground, these were mature vines with high production potential. We soon discovered just how high. The trick with grape is pruning. If you want to encourage new branches, then prune back as far as you can and watch the vine put all it's energy into filling the area with new growth. Neglect to prune, or prune conservatively, and the vine goes into fruit mode, with a single vine producing hundreds of clusters of grapes. With four grapevines, cleverly connected to the house with wires to direct the growth, there were times I worried that the sheer weight of fruit would bring down the house.

For my neighbour Yanni, fascination with grapevine had long ago turned to hate. According to Wikipedia: "grapevines are often considered a nuisance weed, as they cover other plants with their rather aggressive growth." Yanni's grapevine emerged from a small hole in his concrete walkway and threatened to take down his fence. First he tried cutting it off at the ground. Then he tried cutting it off below the ground. Then he tried chemicals. Next he cut it off, mixed up his own batch of concrete and put a cap over the hole. Every time the grapevine would return, even pushing out the concrete cap in an effort to live. If you have any doubt about the potential for life and nature's desire to continue, call Yanni. Or drop in. Look for the fence with the grapevine.


I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.

In the world of metaphor, some meaning is painfully obvious. John wrote his Gospel at a particularly troubled moment in the early church. The tension was between the new Jesus movement and the Jewish community, who until that time had been the most fruitful source of new affiliates. You can see the tension most glaringly in the passion narrative. Matthew, Mark and Luke are content to describe "crowds of people" gathering or demanding the death of Jesus while John alters this language and blames "the Jews." It is an odd thing to read these constant references to the Jews when, in fact, everyone in the story except the Romans were Jewish. The first three Gospels are written in an earlier context, before the real tension began, while John comes to us from a context of competition and mutual disregard.

The great thing about metaphor is that there is always more than one meaning. While we acknowledge the anti-Judaic nature of the text, we can look beyond this to find greater meaning, meaning that will give life to our community of faith. We can focus instead on any number of vine-related ideas and tease meaning from the text. Remaining connected the vine (Jesus) is the only way to ensure growth and the production of fruit. Parts of our life together may need to be pruned in order for our fellowship to grow. An example would be trying to do too many things rather than focusing our energy on one or two things we do really well. Maybe it means pruning the parts of ourselves we regret in order to become more faithful disciples. Metaphor, the preacher's best friend, can lead us in any number of directions.


What about quantum physics? What if Jesus was talking about the quantum view of the world, just slightly ahead of his time? Before I say more, I want to quote some scientists to set the mood:

"The quantum world is weird, even to scientist" (Wheatley)
"Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it." (Bohr)
"I don't like it and I'm sorry I ever had anything to do with it." (Shroedinger)

I will try, in a nutshell, to begin to give you a glimpse of something I barely understand. Help me out, scientists, if I appear to be getting it wrong. Basically, we used to understand the world as filled with little particles we could measure. Scientists were concerned with size and speed and how one thing would predictably act on another thing. Then someone discovered waves. It turns out that all matter is basically made up of particles and energy in the form of waves. Scientists discovered (much to their chagrin) that while you can measure particles and you can measure energy in the form of waves, you can't measure both at the same time. The more you try, the harder it gets.

At the risk of giving myself a headache, I continue. It may be, as Leonard Sweet once said, that "matter doesn't matter." What matters is the relationship between these things: particles, energy, mass, momentum, waves -- the relationships are the reality, not the things we try to measure and explain. (Wheatley, p. 34)


Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.

The primary aspect of the Christian life is relationships. It is not the program. It is not the preacher. It is not the building. The centre of the Christian life is relationships: between us and God, between each other, between us and the surrounding neighbourhood. Program, preacher and building have an impact on the life of the church, but they are not the church. The church is the sum of all the interconnections and the quality of the relationships we possess. There is much about our life together that doesn't really matter: but relationships always matter: they are all there really is.

The most common and most dangerous way to treat the vine metaphor is to imagine that Jesus is talking about troublesome people. We need to ignore what seems like the most obvious interpretation and focus instead on the quality of relationships. As soon as we begin to prune people from our midst, we have tuned our backs on God. I want to quote William Countryman who begins his quote with part of 1 John 4:

'This is what love consists of, not that we have loved God, but that God loved us.' God's love is not conditional on anything. It is expressed in forgiveness. You can ignore or oppose God, if you really want to. It will probably do you no great good, but it won't deprive you of God's love either. (Resources, p. 136)

The seven most painful words a pastor can hear are: "I used to go to your church." I have heard it since I arrived here, and (I'm sad to say) more often than I expected. It appears we have alumni, and whenever a church is confronted by the presence of former members, we are faced with a stark choice. The simplest and most common response is to say "it is their choice." We continue, they have moved on. But have they? I call the seven painful words a cry for help -- a cry for connection. The onus always falls to the continuing fellowship to say "come home."

The lesson of the grapevine is the inexhaustible desire for life. People want to grow, they want to be connected, they want to bear fruit. It is the past and it is failed relationships that get in the way. Where we have failed, we need to seek forgiveness. If we have spend to much time looking in, now is the time to change. Past doesn't matter, circumstance doesn't matter, matter doesn't matter -- only relationships matter: you, me, God, our neighbours, vine, branches, vinedresser and the love that connects us all. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home