Day: May 9, 2009

Sermon: A Lesson from the Vineyard

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, May 10, 2009, on Mother’s Day.  I hope your day is a wonderful one as you gather with your church family.

A Lesson from the Vineyard

John 15:1-8
1″I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes* so that it will be even more fruitful. 3You are already clean (pruned)* because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5″I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

*John 15:2: The Greek for “to prune” also means “to clean.”

Pruning for New Growth

We’re in that season of the year when some plants in the garden get pruned back so that they will produce new growth and blossoms. Crepe myrtles come to mind. We have several in our yard, and not long ago Debbie went about with her red loppers, whacking off branches. She reminded me that crepe myrtles bloom on new growth, and new growth comes when you prune the branches some.

Butterfly bushes get the same treatment, only more so. Debbie cut those almost to the ground, leaving only about 4-5 inches of the old plant. But, sure enough, new growth is coming up from the base of the plant. We’ve had most of these butterfly bushes long enough to know that they will get to be pretty large, and the bees and butterflies really do like the blooms they will produce.

We don’t have a grape vine yet. I have some grape plants that Carson gave me, and they’re doing fine, but we don’t have them situated yet. The blackberries are doing well, but that’s another story.

The Gardener and The True Vine

But, back to the grape vine. I imagine Jesus and his disciples were walking by a vineyard one day and he pointed over the wall of the vineyard at the rows and rows of grape vines with their branches snaking along wooden fences. Perhaps the grapes were already forming in clusters on the branches, and Jesus could point to the fruit that the vines were producing.

As he did so, he said, “I’m the true vine and the Father is the gardener.”

Now, this illustration had special significance because a giant gold grape vine with clusters of grapes adorned the front of the Holy Place on the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Josephus, famous historian of the Jews, the grape clusters were as tall as a man, which probably came from the Old Testament account of the bounty of the Promised Land. When the 12 spies, which included Joshua and Caleb, went to check out the promised land before the Israelites were to enter it, they brought back stories of a land flowing with milk and honey. As an example of the bounty of that land, they brought back a grape vine with a cluster of grapes so large that it had to be suspended between two men to be carried back.

So, when Jesus says, “I’m the true vine” he is conjuring up images of the Temple, the promised land, and of the nation itself. Some scholars believe that Jesus was saying, “I’m the true Israel.” That’s too deep for us to explore today, but my point is his statement was loaded with meaning that his disciples instantly understood.

And, he said, “My Father is the gardener.” They understood that as well, for even though they were not farmers, they lived in an agrarian society. Olive groves, fig trees, fields of grain, and vineyards were mainstays of the agricultural system in Jesus’ day. The disciples understood well that vineyards required tending, and that tending included cultivating and pruning.

But Jesus goes further, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Those that bear fruit get pruned expertly so they will bear more. The point Jesus is making, and will make again in the following verses is — branches are supposed to bear fruit. That’s what a grape vine does.

If there is no fruit, the problem is not with the vine, for Jesus is the vine. And, the problem is not with the gardener because God is the gardener. If the branch is not bearing fruit, it’s because the branch is not properly connected to the vine. Healthy branches produce fruit; unhealthy branches don’t, and get cut off.

So, Jesus says, “Remain in me” — meaning “stay connected to me.” That staying connected to Jesus, abiding in Jesus as the King James puts it, is so that the lifegiving love of Christ can flow through him to us. And when it does, we produce fruit.

The problem is that the Gospel of John is such a mystical book, such a spiritual gospel, that we tend to spiritualize everything John says. Rather than give us an account of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a reimagined opening with shadows of the book of Genesis —

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Pretty mystical stuff. Much more so than shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, John writes of the life of Jesus like this throughout his gospel account. So, when we come to this business of the vine and the branches, we get all mystical.

“What does it mean to abide in Christ?” we ask. “What is the fruit we are to produce?” “How do we know when we’re abiding properly?”

These are all good questions, and our answer comes just a few verses down.

Interpret Scripture with Scripture

In seminary, one of the ways we were taught to interpret scripture, especially difficult or puzzling passages, was to let scripture interpret itself. So, let’s look around and see if we can find any clues that might help us with all this vine and branches stuff.

Sure enough, we do. Just a few verses down from this passage, Jesus seems to re-state what he has just said. Perhaps the disciples had really funny looks on their faces, like “we don’t have any idea what he’s talking about.” They often did that, it seems. And, so Jesus restates in very plain language what he has just told them in the illustration drawn from the vineyard. Look at verses 9-17:

9″As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 17This is my command: Love each other.

So, here the language is plain and straightforward:

* Remaining in Jesus means remaining in his love.
* How do we remain in Jesus love? By obeying his commands.
* What is his command? Love one another as Jesus loved the disciples.
* What does that love look like? It looks like Jesus willing to die for his friends.
* Who are Jesus’ friends? They were and we are.
* What has he chosen us to do? Bear fruit.

So, we’re right back to the vine, branches, and fruit, only this time in plain language.

What Does This Mean To Us?

Okay, so far, so good. But the big question is “How do we do this?” As you can imagine, lots of folks have taken a turn at explaining what all this abiding, loving, and bearing fruit that lasts means.

Some have suggested that “remaining in Jesus” means to believe the right doctrine. Of course, those are usually the folks who think they have the only right doctrine, and there is no shortage of those people. Which then brings us to the question, “Which doctrine is the right doctrine?” and here’s where things get really complicated.

I finished reading two interesting books this week. The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkins; and, The Jesus Sutras by Martin Palmer. In The Lost History of Christianity Phillip Jenkins expounds on the very colorful history of the Christian church of the East, meaning Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Africa, and even Japan and China.

To make a long story very short, apparently as the church in Rome with the help of the Roman empire, took charge of Christianity, many eastern Christians churches decided to go their own way. Rome declared most of them heretics at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, and so the Eastern churches, who traced their lineages back to Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and Thomas who travelled to India decided to operate on their own.

The amazing thing was that these Eastern churches were larger, had more bishops and priests, more churches, and more adherents than the Western Church.

In The Jesus Sutras, Martin Palmer tells the story of these same Eastern churches sending a formal delegation led by Bishop Aleben of Syria who was accompanied by 24 priests. This delegation traveled the ancient Silk Road, the eastern trading route connecting China to the Middle East. I grew up hearing the story of Hudson Taylor who founded the China Inland Mission in the mid-1800s. But Bishop Aleben and his monks reached what was then the capital of China in 635 AD, 1200 years before Hudson Taylor set sail for China.

Amazingly, the emperor of China, Taizong, embraced Christianity, which he called the “Religion of Light” and decreed that churches should be built. He also decreed that the Chinese should also turn to the One Spirit, their name for God, and leave behind the pantheon of lesser gods of Chinese culture. Christianity thrived in China for almost 200 years, and a stone monument was erected in 781 AD commemorating the coming of Aleben and the Religion of Light to China. Martin Palmer also discovered the first Christian monastery built by Aleben and his monks, and work continues at that site near Xian, China.

My point in all of this is that there are lots of doctrines that have divided the Christian church over the centuries. Some of the adherents were actually named heretics by the Western Church — Bishop Aleben was one of them, from the Nestorian church of Syria. But, they worshipped God, believed in Jesus, celebrated communion, gathered for worship, and baptized converts to the faith just like we do. And, some of these “heretical” groups were actually more faithful, more evangelistic, and larger than the so-called orthodox groups of their day.

So, it’s not in following one doctrine or another that we abide in Jesus. It’s by loving others as Jesus loves us.

What Did Jesus Do?

You would think that loving others would also be a simple concept to grasp, but here too we have problems. In its checkered history, the church has more than once been guilty of expressing its love at the point of a sword or gun. “We love you so much we’re going to kill you if you don’t convert.” Happened much more frequently than you might think. So to understand what “loving others” really looks like, we have to ask, “What did Jesus do?”

Fortunately, Jesus gave us lots of examples of loving others. He announced his ministry by saying —

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ ministry was to be focused on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed, and his intention was to declare a year of Jubilee — that’s what the Lord’s favor means. In the year of Jubilee, which came every 50 years, all property went back to the original tribe or family which owned it, all debts were cancelled, and everyone started off with a clean slate. Unfortunately, the nation of Israel quickly figured how to get around the year of Jubilee and it’s intent, but that doesn’t stop Jesus from declaring his intention to reinstate it.

Then Jesus goes about to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the children, the lame, the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and all the other marginalized people of society in that day. He eats with them, goes to their homes, heals their diseases, feeds them, cleanses them, forgives them, restores them, and saves them.

Then, when someone asks him which commands are the greatest, he says, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Looking for a way out of that requirement, they ask, “Who is my neighbor?” At which point Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. A Samaritan was the lowest form of life there was, according to the Jewish social norm of the first century. Samaritans didn’t worship in the right place, didn’t believe the right doctrine, and didn’t observe Jewish dietary laws. But Jesus says that the Good Samaritan acted like a neighbor.

It’s pretty clear from both what Jesus did and what he said that loving others means helping them, caring for them, being a neighbor to them. Oh, Jesus also had a little bit to say about helping people.

It’s interesting that there a lot of things that Jesus doesn’t tell us to do. For instance, Jesus doesn’t tell us to go to church. We gather on Sunday, the first day of the week, to commemorate his resurrection and to worship God, but not because Jesus told us to. Jesus doesn’t tell us to study the Bible, either. As a matter of fact, his followers couldn’t have studied the Bible if they wanted to because the scrolls were kept in the synagogue and not owned by individuals. But, we do study the Bible because it’s a good thing to do. So, you would think if we do good things that Jesus didn’t even tell us to do, we’d sure do the things he did tell us to do.

So, in Matthew 25 when Jesus says, “34”Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

And then concludes by saying, “37”Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

Jesus concludes by saying —

40″The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

That’s pretty clear — Jesus is telling us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners. By implication, Jesus is saying, “Help those who need help.”

That is how we love others. That is how we abide in Christ. That is how we obey Jesus. It is very simple, very straightforward, but we miss it everyday, just like the Pharisee, and the priest, and the Levite who passed by the man who had fallen among thieves.

An Opportunity to Help Here in Chatham

Let me make this more real. Last week, Debbie and I met Mr. Melvin Hodnett. Mr. Hodnett came to our house to ask Debbie for some flowers, but I think that was not the real reason for his coming. During the conversation they had, Mr. Hodnett told Debbie that his house had burned, and he was trying to find some help to fix it. The next day, he came to the church and I met him and heard the same story. I told him I would come look at his house, but I asked if he had been to Community Action, and other social services agencies. He had, he said, but they couldn’t help him.

I made a few phone calls to inquire if he had sought help and the response. Sure enough, there are no programs to help people whose houses burn. Everybody is supposed to have insurance.

On Monday, Mr. Hodnett came to the church and I went with him to see his house. I had mentioned it to Sterling, and as Mr. Hodnett and I were pulling into his driveway, Sterling and Tommy Craddock, and Eugene Hodnett, Melvin’s cousin, were about to pull out.

The house was pretty badly damaged, almost everything inside is ruined. Furniture, clothes, books, decorations. All ruined. Most of it is lying in wet, soggy piles on the floor, right below where the ceiling and roof caught fire and burned.

But the worst part is that Mr. Hodnett is now living in the shed behind his house. He has no water, no electricity, no house, and no one will help him. But in the midst of all that he has planted two gardens.

Our deacons voted last Monday night to figure out how we can help Mr. Hodnett. It will cost less than $2,000 to repair the damage and get him back in his home. There are some details to work out, volunteers to line up, and lots of work ahead.

When I told Mr. Hodnett this week that we were going to try to help him, he said, “I’m raising some greens and if they do well, I’ll bring you some and maybe you can find someone who needs them.”

If we want to abide in Jesus, bear a lot of fruit, love others, and do what Jesus told us to do, then we can start with helpin Mr. Hodnett. He is certainly one of the least of these. Jesus said that when we helped others, it’s like we are helping him. So pretty soon, we get to put a roof on Jesus’ house located right here in Chatham.  Sometimes abiding in Christ means we don’t have to leave home.