Lectionary Year B
May 21, 2000
Step VI: Contemporary Address
"To Be Fruitful Or To Wither"
There is a vine with flowers on it that grows and blooms each spring at my parents home. It is a beautiful vine and this year my parents gave me some seeds from it, which I recently planted around our duplex. A few days ago, a visitor came by, noticed the seedlings and very enthusiastically remarked, "Oh, you have a Black Pea Vine growing there. They are so beautiful! I love how they grow out in so many directions, with gorgeous purple flowers all over!" Hearing that joy expressed upon recognizing those seedlings was heart warming and I am glad I took the time to plant those seeds. In light of our passage today, I thought about how quickly that vine was recognized. I wonder if someone had repeated such passion throughout my vine enthusiast friend's life? John's gospel and specifically this vine and branches lesson grants the opportunity to delight in the beauty of Christs caring love.
Can you imagine such passionate joy shared among the disciples as they heard all about Jesus being the True Vine? John's account of our Lord's words spoken so repetitiously to the disciples, elicits questions about the absorption of Christ's teachings. Do we enjoy the True Vine's growth? Are we enthused upon hearing Christ's beckoning of you and me?, BE ROOTED IN MY WORD. Or do we think we are so familiar with this vine symbolism that our attention must turn to other, more pressing needs. Another image of the disciples might prevail when considering how often Jesus claims to be the vine and we the branches in these few verses. Do you think that among the disciples, keen observers of life in their own right, one might have heard, "yeah, yeah, the True Vine, branches, bear fruit, we hear you". "Are we not already believers, Lord...do we not follow you around...do as you do?" These thoughts might not seem to unfamiliar, as we listen over and over again to how we are to abide in the Word, and let the Word abide in us.
Do we even know what to abide means anymore, or is that just a word lost in time somewhere? The Hellenistic understanding of abide was "continuing at an objectively fixed place for an objectively determined time". [JA- source?] A fairly philosophical way of saying remain somewhere for awhile. Where though, in ourselves?, with beautiful thoughts on God? Certainly Christ is teaching that the Word abiding in us is the Living Word. His hope is a concerted hope for complete understanding and the permanent adoption of his teaching. We are to enjoy God's covenant of grace, as Christ's promise of forgiveness remains active with us. Then our hope in eternal life will not turn to doubt, for we will know we are not cast aside. Quite inspiring also is that in letting hope live in our hearts, the work of the Holy Spirit continues to overwhelm us. The lives of those we love, even those whom we have trouble liking, can be impacted by our sharing this Good News, that Christ loves us, and Christ loves them. Absorb Christ's call, BE ROOTED IN THE WORD.
It has been said that wise teachers are never afraid of repeating themselves. Seldom is a mind able to absorb truth through just one verbal exchange. It is much like painting a wall for decoration or painting something we wish to protect from rust or rot. Quite often two or three coats of paint are used for we know how quickly only one coat would wear off. And what if our coat of faith would wear off, don't we risk withering? Ezekiel gives a prophecy of woe in what is also referenced as a "parable of the vine". The prophet explains how worthless the wood of the vine is especially after having been "charred by the fire"! Christ, could be drawing upon this prophecy and be warning of the danger in becoming a withering branch, pointing out our inability to bear fruit without Christ, and the risk of remaining apart from God forever.
Our Lord evidently used repetition for effective teaching. Identifying often with specific items and routinely drawing upon symbolism, Christ illustrates special meanings. Often questions linger about possible symbolism in Scripture, like with the fruit of the vine referenced in this passage. Is Jesus presenting a reference to the cup of salvation? Has the apostle John taken the liberty to address the absence of the details of the Lord's Supper in John's gospel, the words of institution of the Sacrament? All that seems definite here is that Jesus well intended to be repetitive, giving the disciples, and us tiny bits of the bread of life, over and over again.
I like a story that illustrates the need for precise repetitive teaching. It goes like this: a person known to be devoted to honesty and a simplistic outlook on life is being questioned and evaluated on the knowledge attained. The first question asked is, how many days of the week begin with the letter 'T'? The person responds, "Two. Today and tomorrow." Which is followed by, "How many seconds are in a year?". And the reply given is, "Twelve. The second of January, the second of February...". The third question asks for another name for God. The person blurts out, "Andy. When I was little we sang a song that went, Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own."
Surely, repetition requires the expounding upon the information in richer and more vibrant ways. Christ is forthright in this regard. While repeating the claim of being the vine, an explanation of what the True Vine grants is given. Jesus delivers the wisdom of just why we need to let the Word live in us. The Lord's desire is strong for us to know the Truth. In living out our love consistently, not only will we bear fruit, but we'll stay ready for God's nurturing care which enables us to bear much fruit. And Jesus is compassionately teaching that God's pruning of his branches, may not always seem pleasurable.
As a teenager, one of my heroes was a heavy weight fighter. My infatuation in the power and fame this person had was overwhelming. With each of this fighter's victories, my thirst grew stronger for another opportunity to watch the annihilation of another opponent. I remember how I would be confronted at times by arguments about the cruelty of boxing, and how quick I was to counter with how boxing programs are offered as outreach to disadvantaged youth. I remember how seldom that comment took root in anyone.
My friends and I would seldom miss a fight. In my twenties and in the late 1970's, I watched my hero get pulverized, by a much younger and stronger opponent. I remember how agonizing it was to watch blow after blow be given and taken. I recall the hope I had for the fight to end quickly, without harm to my hero. It wasn't until then that I had ever thought about the pain and suffering in boxing. To this day I remember the chanting of the crowds yelling frequently, "kill him, kill him". Tears of concern overwhelmed me and I began praying for the fighters and for myself. I stopped supporting boxing, a decision which created a void in part of my social life. Declining friends invitations to watch fights at first was hard. Yet it became easier as my conviction grew stronger that condoning the beating of others just did not fit with professing the need for people to practice love for one another .
During that same time period another heavyweight champion lost his title to an opponent that had incited the crowd to chant "kill him, kill him". The one who lost had professed to be Christian and publicly refused his fans the right to utter such a chant. It seems another fight was won that day! Just a few months ago, the media reported the death of a boxer in San Marcos, Texas a few miles from here. The report was that throughout the fight the crowd was chanting quite loudly, "kill him, kill him!". How easy it is to be drawn into the crowd. How sad it is too.
My feelings of sadness were comforted though by knowing the chanting crowd no longer included me. Still my feelings of sadness were intensified by knowing many turn to boxing as an escape from their poverty and drug infested lives. Joy remains with me though, in the form of the hope there is for the success of other programs which reach out to the disadvantaged. Supporting mentoring programs, vocational training programs and fellowship programs have replaced the void I experienced long ago. Christ's call to bear much fruit by abiding in his teachings, is a loud call, and merits frequent hearing. Care must be given to avoid being distracted by the allure of personal infatuations and actions which are contradictory to what Christ exemplified. Then we will not wither away, but instead, let our selfish interests wither and be cut off. With strong faith in God's help to do such we can rejoice as Christ blesses us saying, YOU HAVE HEARD MY WORDS AND ARE CLEANSED AND THEREBY ROOTED IN MY WORD.
This passage speaks so adamantly about faith. Christ blesses the faithful Christian. He says, "Ask whatever you will and it will be done for you.". This too is repeated by the apostle John. For in the chapter prior to this one John writes, Christ says, "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it...". Each time, Christ connects this promise to faith and Christian discipleship, saying "Truly, truly I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do...", and "If you abide in me and my teachings abide in you..." what is asked will be done. These are the conditions that Christ teaches as ways to hope to know what to ask for. It's a call to trust the Holy Spirit to make our requests be in accordance with the Divine plan, God's will!
The theologian Karl Barth offers insight into abiding faith, he writes " This abiding is concretely fulfilled, however, as an abiding 'in the grace of God," in God's goodness, "in the faith, in the doctrine of Christ, in the doctrine of the apostles, in the special calling in which each is called, and in brotherly love. "Humility and love and selflessness and every other act of Christian virtue, the confession and the loyalty and the perseverance of faith, the joyousness of hope--all these are for Christians a simple duty, a fulfillment of the injunction to let their light shine, not in any sense extraordinary, but the ordinary rule of life." [JA - source?].
Our light indeed shines brightly as the light of Christ, especially when we give of ourselves. You might have shown such love recently as you laid your pressing schedules aside and went to spend time with someone in need. Maybe you gave a word of encouragement to someone that just does not like you very much, or someone you find trying. Some of you might often be donating to a charity or directly to the poor. And maybe you did tell someone at work, or someone on the phone, all about Christ's love. Is this not the roots of Christ's love, our reaching out to others with care, concern and encouragement and thereby glorifying God? Christ's love for you remains eternally. God's everlasting nurturing love is offered to us all. Certainly, "Faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love!". For God's love for you and me is great, and so is the need to share it with our neighbor.
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