May 3rd, 2015 “Organic Unity” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Our reading this morning presents us with some very familiar imagery. Jesus’ lesson that he is the vine and we are the branches is one of the most beloved metaphors of our faith. For some of us, last week’s image of Jesus as a shepherd is pretty foreign to our actual experience. Lucky for us, this week’s image is much closer to our everyday lives. Here in Warrensburg we are not far removed from the world of agriculture. Many of us have gardens and many of us have witnessed working farms as we drive down highway 50. Most of us have even seen grape vines in the field and so we can easily draw up an image in our minds of the vine and branches that Jesus is referring to.
As always, it is important to note the context of our reading. This passage from John is taken out of a greater speech that Jesus gives to his disciples. This is his farewell address, a final word to them before he faces his death on the cross. Jesus is preparing his followers for their life without him, and as such his words are helpful to us, the later generations who have never known Jesus in person.
The image that Jesus presents of the vine and branches is one that would have been familiar to his disciples. Like many of us, they were familiar with the gardening practices of pruning and harvest. In addition, this would not have been the first time they were presented with the vine as a metaphor. The Old Testament is rich with imagery describing Israel as the Lord’s special vine or vineyard. In Isaiah we read that “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of
and the people of
are his pleasant planting.” The prophet
Isaiah pleads with the people of Judah to produce grapes pleasing
to the Lord or else to face removal of the vine altogether. Israel
There are a lot of potential sermons in this passage about the vine and the branches and I am certain that you have heard many of them. There are sermons about bearing fruit, sermons about abiding in Christ, and of course there are sermons about the values of pruning. This morning, I want to talk about what this image says to us as a church community.
First, the image of community that Jesus presents is centered on interrelationship. If you picture the branches of the vine in your mind you will understand what I am thinking of. When the vine is growing, the branches are almost completely indistinguishable from each other. Each branch runs into the next and it is nearly impossible to determine where one branch stops and the next branch starts.
I was at Powell Gardens last weekend and their giant wisteria by the lake is a great example of this. When you look at that area it is very hard to determine where one plant ends and another plant begins, let alone to follow the paths of specific branches. When examining the branches of the vine you find a whole mess of similar looking branches twisted together into a knot. All branches run together as they grow out of the central vine.
What Jesus is teaching is that each individual should be rooted in him, and hence they give up their individual status to become one of the many branches in the knotted vine. The communal life of the church challenges our culture’s focus on individual autonomy. In order to produce fruit, the church must work together as one unit. The individual branch is subsumed into the communal work of bearing fruit and living in love. To follow this model, the church must be a place where members are known for the acts of love that they do in common with all other members, rather than a community built around individual accomplishments.
In addition, the vine metaphor suggests a radically non-hierarchical model for the church. When we examine the vine and branches, no branch is more important than any other. No branch has precedence over any other branch attached to the vine. The only differentiation between branches is their fruitfulness. And it is the gardener alone who decides which branches need to be pruned and which branches need to be cut out. All branches are the same before God, and since all branches sprout from the same vine there is no place for status or rank among the branches.
Perhaps most striking, the image of the vine and branches is challenging for the church community in that it is so stark in its call for anonymity. So often when we think of the church we think of Paul’s image of the body of Christ in his letter to the church in Corinth. We are all familiar with Paul’s metaphor of the church as a collection of body parts, the hand and eye each having a unique work to do. We often think of the church as separate and differing people all working together for a common good. Paul holds together the oneness of Christ and the diversity of gifts and members in his body metaphor.
But in a broad reading of the Bible we can find a variety of thoughts and opinions. When we read the gospel of John, we find a metaphor for the church that is dramatically different from Paul’s body metaphor. The richness and variety of voices in our Scriptures is something that makes them such a powerful and timeless text. The metaphor of the vine and branches that Jesus presents in John’s gospel undercuts any celebration of individual gifts. This too challenges our culture’s values of personality and individualism. If the church were to live as branches of Christ, versus the body of Christ, individual distinctiveness would give way to the common embodiment of love. The mark of the faithful community is how it bears the fruit of love, instead of how talented each of the members are as individuals.
Today’s message is one of sameness rather than diversity. Jesus presents an image to the disciples of how a community rooted in Christ would grow. All branches would run together, each branch indistinguishable from the next. All branches work together for the bearing of fruit. And all branches are equal before the Lord, no branch is more important or prominent that any other branch.
What Jesus presents in the gospel of John is a picture of organic unity. To live as branches of the vine of Christ is to live in a natural unity, shaped by the love of Jesus. Together the branches, rooted in the vine, work as one organic unit to bear the fruit of Christ’s love and to share that fruit with the world around us.
So often our culture places emphasis on who we are as individuals. Like last week’s image, we don’t really want to be sheep in a flock; we want to be individual leaders. We don’t want God to take care of us, we want to take care of ourselves. This morning’s reading flies in the face of such thinking. If we are to be part of Christ, then we should strive to be one in him. The church community should be a place of equality and sameness, where we all work together toward a common goal.
There are few places in our modern times to experience this sense of oneness and sameness, but one place where we can clearly understand this idea is here around the communion table. We won’t actually celebrate until next week, but when we gather together at the table I would invite you to remember that we all come before the Lord as equals. All are served the same bread and cup, all are given the same gift of grace and forgiveness, and all of us are reminded that Jesus died for each of us as much as he died for our neighbor. Around the communion table our individuality disappears and we are brought together as one under the mantle of Christ’s sacrifice. It is important to remember that the celebration at table is part of our rootedness in the great vine that is the entire Christian tradition.
As you go out into the world this week I invite you to ponder this idea of the vine and branches. Take a look at the way the vine grows versus the other plants in our neighborhoods. Jesus doesn’t teach that we are each an individual tulip bulb, sprouting into one solitary flower. Instead he teaches that like the grape vine we are all connected, we are all the same, and that we must be rooted in Christ if we are to be the community of faith. Amen.