“I am the Vine, You are the Branches” Fifth Sunday of Easter at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Oakland
Easter V – May 10th 2009 Mother’s Day
Acts 8:26-40 Psalm 22:24-30 1 John 4: 7-21 John 15:1-8
I am the Vine, You are the Branches
The picture language that Jesus uses to communicate with us is very powerful. Jesus says, “I am!” “I am the grapevine, you are the branches.” When you are secure in me and I am in you, you will bear much fruit. And apart from Jesus we can do nothing.
What kind of a grapevine is Bethlehem Lutheran Church? What kind of a grapevine is this congregation? Do we find a whole lot of lush green leaves and can we move a leaf slightly aside and see a huge cluster of purple grapes hanging there, sweet and juicy, of which some can be used to make red, red wine that becomes the blood of Jesus shed for us?
Now looking at our congregation this way can be a harrowing experience, especially if we become critical. It’s like the pastors themselves of our congregation had to be cut away and our little grapevine has trouble growing. When we feel that kind of judgment bear down on us, it can cut our hearts to the quick, so for comfort we have to hear what else Jesus says to us: His Father is the Vine-Keeper, the Gardener, and we know the garden that the Father grows. It is quite better than any of our inner-city, community gardens, more luscious than even the gardens in a flower show. The Father grew the Garden of Eden, Paradise, where the leaves of the trees heal our diseases and where the wonderful river of God flows. Hey, what a green thumb God has! And that Father is tending and caring for this grapevine called Bethlehem Lutheran, and what’s more, the grapevine itself is Jesus, the great “I am” and we are his precious branches getting our life-blood from his precious veins.
What can we say? Who can separate us from this vine, from Jesus Christ? Pastors can’t do it. They are up against a gardener that knows how to grow us and get us to the point where we can bear fruit. The juice flowing through us and making us come alive and bear fruit is the life-blood of Christ, the life that Jesus laid down for us, and the great love, by which Jesus pours love into our hearts, because he called us his friends and laid down his life for us so that we could receive abundant life and love each other in the same way.
In the first lesson we heard about how Philip preached the good news to the Ethiopian and he went a way rejoicing. “Yes, the Ethiopian went rejoicing, because he heard the good news.” That is a song we used to sing. In this way the Coptic Church came into being, an important vineyard of the Lord.
When we had our Vacation Church School and Day Camp in Coney Island, Cherry Pelzer brought her friend Diane York to our church and she introduced the song to us from the second lesson: let’s just sing it. It comes word for word from the beginning, just the words are the King James Version:
Beloved, let us love one another. Because love is from God and everyone who loveth, is born of God and knoweth God; s/he who loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love, God is love. so beloved, let us love one another. First John four: verse seven and eight.
Now this love makes us remain in the congregation, makes us endure, as the Father tends and cares for us, and in this grapevine, the branches are part of the vine like the vine is also made up of the branches and the whole grapevine is just the wonderful love of the Father embodied in this congregation. Of course, just as an aside, many times God is spoken of in the Bible as a mother. For example, that God like a mother hen gathers up her chicks under her wings. God is beyond sex.
We have to remain in Christ and let Christ dwell in our hearts, just like the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father. That can’t happen without the Holy Spirit in us. But just like the Holy Persons of the Blessed Trinity, mutually we place each other in our hearts, so when someone’s mother dies, we all feel it. When a marriage is on the rocks, it makes us all cry. When some of us are unemployed or lose their houses stop! You’ll hear it through this grapevine! Losing your house does not take away your home. We have a home in Jesus and we might be unemployed, but God provides for us in a wonderful way!
Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches and my Father is the Vine-Keeper.” In Greek, word for “vine-keeper” or “gardener” is georgos. And we know that word in the name “George.” So let George do it! That phrase can now have a whole new meaning! Let George do it! Let God take care of us: till our soil, put in nutrients, that is, fertilizer, put in new plantings, cut out branches that don’t bear fruit: ouch! And then prune those that do, (that hurts too) so they bear more fruit. Yes, hold still and let George do it! That expression used to mean, sit back and let the pastor do it, or let some active member do it. Now God is getting you to the point where you bear fruit.
Monica, the mother of St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) prayed for him for seventeen years so that he might convert. She prayed for him seventeen long years and that’s a long time! They lived up in northern Africa and Augustine had turned Manichean; he had gotten into a heresy away from a true faith in Christ. He also had a mistress and a child by her. Augustine prayed to God, “Make me chaste, but please God, not yet!” Mother Monica kept praying and praying and suddenly Augustine was sitting distraught on a stoop and a child was saying, “Tolle, lege!” “Take and read, take and read!” Augustine picked up his Bible and opened it and read the verse:
Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy” (Romans 13:13) but put on the Lord Jesus Christ!
That was the place that Augustine inadvertently opened to and it spoke to him. He broke down and cried an ocean of tears. “Oh Lord, how long?” he cried, “How long before you clean me? Why wait for tomorrow? You can make me clean today. How long Oh, Lord? Why not now?”
Mother Monica’s prayers were answered and Augustine became the leading light for Christians for more than a thousand years. He wrote his Confessions and The City of God, among many other books. Martin Luther became an Augustinian monk over a thousand years later and experienced the same kind of grace that Augustine did.
St. Augustine had to cut out a lot of what he was doing in his life and tend the vineyard of the Church. He became the Bishop of Hippo in Africa through the difficult time of the Fall of Rome, when those White barbarians were tearing a whole civilization down.
Through her prayers, mother Monica, nurtured the vineyard and the grapevines of this church for a good thousand years. That is why Jesus said,
If you abide in me and my words abide in you, then ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you – and the Father in Heaven is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples (John 15:7-8).
What a prayer-warrior Monica was! Bearing a child and being a natural mother was not enough. She prayed for her child to be reborn as a child of God. Mother Monica prayed that her child might receive Christ, believe in his name, so that he would be given the power to become a child of God, born not of the blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God! (John 1:12-13)
Monica was not only a natural mother, but she herself had become a child of God and with her persistent prayers that God answered, she became the spiritual mother of her son.
Ah, we have to pray and pray, so the dear Father, who tends this grapevine, called Bethlehem will make our branches bear fruit, by the blood we shed, meaning the sacrificial love we have for each other in this congregation. Each of us needs a new birth to become the fruit of the Father’s love, because we are all widows and orphans, we are all barren women until God makes us the happy mother of a house-full of children! We can be a barren congregation until God fills the first three pews of this church with children!
Our families are like wonderful grapevines and persons are sweet and nutritious, like great big purple seedless grapes that burst in your mouth when you eat them!
I just read in the Book of Numbers, when the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they sent spies to go ahead of them into Canaan, into the Promised Land, into the land flowing with milk and honey. And they came back with a cluster of grapes so large that two men had to carry it. They held a pole on their shoulders and the cluster was so large it almost reached to the ground!
Now isn’t that enough incentive to be the true branches inside the vine of Christ, the vine that is tended by George, that is, the Father, the great Gardener, making us bear fruit and bear it abundantly so we become Christ’s disciples?
Let me end with three important questions from the commentary, because the Word of God prunes and cleans all of us. Branches that don’t bear fruit, and take away the sun from those that do, are cut away, so that the strength of the vine does not go into wild growth, but right into the fruit, which is our love and our rebirth out of God’s love and the Beloved Community our congregation becomes.
Jesus says that his words clean us. As it says in Hebrews,
Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow, and it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (4:12).
Question one: what has been pruned out of your life in the last five years and what new fruit has Jesus produced in your life during this time? When you have some time for reflection, ask yourself that question.
Question two: What needs pruning out in your life? What do you have to cut out? What keeps Jesus from producing new fruit in your life today? Do you have to cut out partying like Augustine, or cut out an hour of sleep to use for prayer or allowing the Word of God to dwell in you richly? I’m getting so much out of the book-of-the-month-club, that is, reading one book of the Bible a month! Rejoice, if you can think of some things, because then the sharp-edged Word of God is working in you, pruning, purifying, killing and making alive.
Question three: Bethlehem, how are we being pruned and growing in our fruit bearing here in this month of May in this community? We ought to meet and ask ourselves this question.
When we are branches in the true vine of Jesus Christ and the word of God dwells in us richly, then we will know and every cut that the pruning shears gives us, even when it hurts so much, will make us bear more fruit. We are God’s first-fruits when we are born out of God’s love and then share that abundant love with each other.
 These three questions and this particular sentence comes from Brian Stoffregan’s online Commentary in Crossmarks.