I recently visited one of our local wineries, under the guise that I was doing research for this sermon. As I walked among the just budding vines I noticed something interesting; about half way up the trunk there was a change in the plant structure, as if it had been fused together. When I enquired if the plant was okay. The vintner explained that they prefer to graft their grapevines to a different rootstock. The roots have evolved to resist certain diseases and fungi that are very common in this growing climate but because they want a variety of grapes they graft different varietals to the heartier roots. And as I listened with intent I thought to myself, A-HA! I’ve got my meditation introduction! It wasn’t until 1864 when grapevines in France began to decline sharply due to a pest that had been introduced from North America that vintners began to graft grapes. Now almost all wines grown in France are grafted to a North American rootstock that is resistant to this pest. Grafting technology is not a new invention within farming. An ancient Chinese farming manual from 6th century CE talks about how to graft pear plants to crab apple stock to increase harvest. But it is actually Paul in his letter to the Romans who writes one of the earliest evidence of grafting practices. In Romans 11: 17 he says, “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches.” In this passage he is speaking directly to Gentiles and explaining how they have been grafted into God’s kingdom.
Last week we heard how Jesus called himself the good shepherd and how he listens not only to his own flock but to the lost sheep outside the fold, hinting at a broader depth to his role as God’s son. This week we hear another “I am” statement. Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” So, here we have another “I am” metaphor that Jesus builds upon verse by verse. And I’m going to be honest, unlike the shepherd metaphor, I totally identify with this image….I think. But again, just like Jesus qualified his comment about being the good shepherd, so Jesus says “I am the true vine”. This is essentially implying that there are many false vines. Jesus might be referring to the corrupt religious leadership of the day that was distorting the law. Jesus might be referring to false messiahs, all claiming to have a special connection to God. But I tend to believe that Jesus is stating that there is a lot in this world that can give us a superficial sense of worth. Sources of energy that can give us comfort but inevitability do not provide us with the life that Jesus can offer. Distractions that can take us off course under the pretence of being something worthy. Therefore Jesus is the true vine.
And if that’s the case, then God is the vinegrower. God knows the plants, studies their development, provides the right growing conditions and removes and prunes as necessary. However, it is the next line about abiding that made me think of grafting. We will dive much deeper into what this word “abide” means next week but we get a sampler of it today. Jesus appears to abruptly switch gears and talks of abiding in him as he abides in us but he explains that this is because the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, it must abide in the vine. Now, I know, vines and branches are not the same as roots but essentially on a grapevine the branches and vine are one. They must be grafted to something of strength in order to grow. The root must run deep and be resistant to the many dangers that face a plant, particularly in an ever changing climate. I like to think of the root as the Trinity- all that God is, is found in one strong core. It is the foundation upon which we grow. And Jesus explains that there is part of his person that is the vine, reaching out, in teaching and healing, so that the branches can bear fruit. All of which provides the right growing conditions for a fruit bearing vine.
But in this analogy what is the role of the Holy Spirit in all this? Now, bear with me because I’m about to develop this vine metaphor even more. I can remember my elementary teacher Mme. Peltier teaching us about photosynthesis. This incredible process by which a plant converts light energy into chemical energy which transforms into oxygen and sugars. The sugar helps the plant grow and the oxygen, helps us live. While it is all easily scientifically proven I think that there is still mystery to such an involved process, especially when it is for something as basic as plants. But if I were to develop and deepen this fruit bearing metaphor a little more I would include photosynthesis- an unseen process that gives life and strength. That’s the holy spirit in my books. Without it we can not grow.
So where do we go from here? Jesus says, I am the vine, you are the branches and God is the vinegrower and I have built on this to include the process by which the plant flourishes to reflect the holy spirit, and the trinity upon which this is all grafted is the root. But what is it to bear fruit? A healthy plant does not have one spindly branch but many branches. This draws on the idea that fruit bearing is not a completely individual practice. It requires the community. Director of the Styberg Preaching Institute, Gennifer Benjamin Brooks says, “bearing fruit means engaging for ourselves as individuals and as the church in those activities and tasks that recognize and invest in the goodness of God’s love by spreading that love to the neighbour whom we are called to love. The specifics of bearing fruit are left to the community as a whole and to each individual who receives the nurture that both Christ and the community provide…Yes we are individuals, but as Christians the individualism so admired by the world must take a back seat to the reality that all that we are and have are a result of the abiding grace of God.”
Community has taken on a new meaning as we all individually participate in this service some watch or listen live, some at a time that works best for them. But many comment on how we can see how many views a service has. Originally I thought it was part of our YouTube culture- we want to see if this is going to “go viral” but I actually think it is because it creates a sense of community. We know that there are others who have seen this service. We are participating in this together. It is a way for us to feel connected but also a way for us to branch out. Always rooted to the trinity. Growing through the unseen mystery of the Holy Spirit. And in this way we abide in Christ, and Christ in us, and we together as disciples. Cheers! Amen