May 12, 2013
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
One of the things I find really interesting about the Jesus’ teachings is how he used examples from the world around him so effectively. Jesus lived in a mostly agrarian culture, and he taught the people using nature. He talked about how the life of faith is like sowing seeds, how we are like sheep, how faith is like a mustard seed, how reaching others is like fishing, and so much more.
Jesus was especially insightful in his use of vineyards and winemaking to teach people about the spiritual life. He used vineyards as a metaphor a number of times, and for good reason. Drinking wine was central to life in the Middle East. What most people don’t realize is that back in Jesus’ day people didn’t really drink water much, unless it came straight from a deep well. Water that sat for too long was quickly filled with parasites and germs. Instead, they drank wine—even the children.
Their wine was different from the wine we might drink today. It was more like a wine syrup, except for special wines, such as sacramental or ceremonial wines, which were drunk for religious events and celebrations. The typical wine syrup would be mixed with water and heavily diluted. The wine they drank daily wasn’t very strong, but strong enough to kill germs. So wine was drunk throughout the day because it was considered healthier.
They also had a different attitude about drinking. They believed that wine was a gift from God to enhance relationships, but they also believed that drunkenness was a sin. To get drunk accidently was considered a shame. To get on a more regular basis was bad. To get drunk constantly was sinful and could be grounds to be ostracized by family and community. Our culture often revels in how much fun it is to get drunk. Jesus’ culture believed that drunkenness was an abuse of God’s gift. They were much more responsible in their attitude toward alcohol. So when Jesus talks about wine, he’s talking to them about something they considered a gift from God to be treated responsibly and lovingly.
When Jesus talked wine, people listened. And when he used vineyards and vines as a metaphor, people understood.
Personally, I find the art of winemaking to be very interesting. Diane and I first became interested in it when we went to California for our honeymoon. Neither of us had travelled much before then, so going to the West Coast was a big thing for us. We went to San Francisco, Carmel/Monterrey, Sonoma/Napa valleys, and then to Oregon and Seattle. While we were in the wine country, we learned a lot about the art of winemaking. We’ve continued to return there about every four to five years since.
Through our continued trips to California wine country, we’ve learned a lot about vineyards—lessons that have taught me about the spiritual life, too. From these trips I realized that Jesus was onto something in terms of using vineyards and wine as a metaphor.
One of the biggest lessons I learned, that relates to our spiritual lives, has to do with why the best wines are grown in places like Southern France, California, Australia, Chile, and Argentina. All of those wine-growing areas are similar in that they are arid areas. They get very little summer rainfall. Typically they are close enough to lakes, rivers, or oceans that thick layer of fog engulfs the vineyards each night, allowing the vines to absorb moisture. The fog doesn’t provide enough moisture, so their roots have to dig deep in search for groundwater. The roots can go as deep as 75, 100, 125, or even 150 feet down. It’s this digging deeper that gives the wines their character and complexity. It gives the grapes and the wines what the French call “terroir.” Terroir is the flavor that comes into the grapes from the soil, the rocks, the limestone, the chalk, and anything else that might be deep in the ground. Great wines become great because they face great stress, which forces them dig their roots deeper.
The table grapes in our kitchens come from soil-rich and water-plentiful regions like Lake Erie. These grapes burst with juice and are great for eating, but lousy for wine. Too much water. Too little stress. Great wines come from regions of great stress that produce great character.
What I learned from this spiritually is that often it is the crises and stress of life that causes us to dig deeper into faith and God. In fact, if you talk to people about when they experienced God the most deeply, they often talk about a crisis they went through when they had to surrender to God. It was then that they discovered God deeply in their lives.
I think that the lack of stress and crisis in their lives is often what’s responsible for younger people to not feel the need for God or church in their lives. I had a professor who often said that no one really grows till they get past age forty. The reason is that it’s not until we get that old that we experience enough struggling to actually feel a need for God. We don’t feel a need to dig deeper until life events cause us to realize how shallow we are.
Using vineyards as a metaphor, Jesus taught his disciples and us something profound about him, us, and our relationship with God. He taught three essential lessons in our passage for this morning:
- How God’s grace works in and through us.
- How God uses life to prune us.
- How we find Joy in life.
1. How God’s grace works in and through us: I have a quick quiz for you. Don’t look at the answer yet: What does a branch have to do to produce fruit?
If you guessed that the branch needs to bud, that would be wrong. Budding just happens. The branch isn’t in control of it. If you guessed that the branch needs to get sunlight, that too is out of its control. The branch can’t force sunlight to shine on its leaves. The vine is either planted in the sun or not. If you guessed that it needs good soil, that’s not the responsibility of the branch. Only the vinegrower can determine the soil of the planting.
The answer is that all the branch needs to do to produce fruit is to make sure it’s connected to the vine. As long as a branch is connected to the vine, sap flows freely through the branch and produces fruit. That’s it. Just keep connected to the vine and the branch bears fruit.
This is one of the messages of our passage. Our main responsibility is to remain grafted to Christ, and if we do, grace will just flow naturally through our lives. When that happens, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) grows plentifully in and through us.
The great 19th century mystic, Hannah Whitall Smith, has a great metaphor for this. She says, “The trouble with [most people’s faith] is simply this: they are trying to grow into grace instead of in it. They are like a rosebush planted by a gardener in the hard, stony path with a view to its growing into the flower bed, and which has of course dwindled and withered in consequence instead of flourishing and maturing... In order to grow in grace it is necessary to be planted in grace... [When] once planted in grace, the growth of the spiritual life becomes vigorous and rapid beyond all conceiving. For grace is a most fruitful soil, and the plants that grow therein are plants of a marvelous growth.”
Basically, she’s saying that our problem is that we are always trying to get grace to work in our lives, hoping that God will bless us if we just do the right things and act the right way. Instead, if we just make sure we are open to God’s grace, then we end up naturally doing the right things and acting the right way. It’s a reversal of the ways we typically think.
The Christian writer, teacher, and found of Liberty University, Elmer Towns, tells of a time when he discovered this grace working in his life. He says that, “My wife and I went through college by faith. If we had not prayed together daily through all our difficulties, I don't know how we would have made it. I earned $1 an hour for driving a school bus, which was just enough to pay for our necessities, but there wasn't even a dime left over for a Coca-Cola.
“One evening the only thing in the kitchen cabinet was a can of tuna, so my wife served a tuna casserole. As we clasped hands to thank God for the food, I prayed, "God, you know we are broke. You know it's two days until payday. You know we are willing to fast until we get money, but we ask you to please take care of our needs."
“As we finished praying, the laundry man came to the door. Ruth met him to say, ‘No laundry today; we can't afford to have anything cleaned.’ But he had not come to pick up our cleaning. The laundry man explained, ‘A few months ago your landlord asked me to pass along $20 to you to pay for having thawed the pipes for him. I had forgotten about it until today.’
“Some might say this was a coincidence, but Ruth and I say that our prayer together reminded the laundry man that he had $20 for us. He had been sent by God.” This is the kind of thing that happens when we remain grafted to the vine.
2. How God uses life to prune us: While fruit is naturally born in branches connected to the vine, any good vinegrower knows that the branches need to be pruned back. If not, too many leaves are produced, which prevents the flow of air through and around the branches. Also, branches are pruned back so that you can create a more limited number of great grapes, rather than a great number of mediocre grapes. The more a branch is pruned back over the winter, the more energy can be devoted to a smaller amount of fruit in the summer. The pruning of what’s unnecessary allows for the growth of what’s necessary.
A similar principle of pruning is part of our lives, too. I believe that God has created life in a way that offers the conditions for us to have to decide whether or not we choose God. Life is full of difficulty, and I think that this may have a purpose. Our struggles force us to prune back our lives, or let God prune back our lives. Prunings are the difficult experiences we have in life that push us to make a decision either for or against God. These are the experiences that push us to make hard life decisions to give up ways of living that both interfere with a healthy life, and with a healthy relationship with God. The reality of becoming mature is that we often have to give up attitudes, behaviors, and habits in order to live a better life. The same is true spiritually. To form a deep relationship with God requires that we give up everything that interferes with this.
What’s hard is that the real pruning of branches and vines, and of life, can be harsh and feel like it takes so long. For instance, do you know how long it takes for a grape vine to even be allowed to grow fruit? When a vine is planted, the farmer lets it grow the first season, and then cuts it back almost to the root. The next year it grows again, and then is cut back almost to the root. Each year, for anywhere between four and six years, the vine is cut back. It is only in year seven that it is allowed to bear fruit. By then the vine itself is large and thick. And all those prunings force the roots to dig deeper for moisture.
The reality is that most vines don’t produce fruit good enough to turn to wine until it has been there for at least ten years. The best vines are often between 30 and 60 years old, and have gone through so much pruning that it no longer resembles a young vine. We are similar. It takes us a long time to grow spiritually mature, and often we have to be pruned back many times by God before we are ready to really produce truly great fruit in our lives.
3. How we find Joy in life: One of the problems of our culture is that we consistently confusing happiness and joy, and the result is that we think that it’s the temporary things of life that give us a sense of contentment. Real joy doesn’t from collecting stuff, buying stuff, or owning stuff, or from being entertained. It comes from a sense of connection with God that flows through everything. It comes from a deeper sense of what matters in life, and living that sense throughout our lives. Let me give you an example of what I mean?
Would you want to be a professional athlete? Do you think being one would bring a sense of real joy to life? Most people think that if they had the opportunity to be an acclaimed professional athlete, musician, actor, or something similar, their life would be filled with joy.
Grant Desme found real joy by giving all of that up. Do you recognize his name? He was a second-round draft choice of the Oakland A’s in the mid-2000s. In 2010, he was on the verge of stardom. In AAA baseball he had done something few in any league could do, which is to hit 30 home runs and have 30 stolen bases. He was about to make the major league team and become a star. But in 2010 he retired from baseball to become Brother Matthew at St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California.
He walked away from millions of dollars and the opportunity to live everyone’s dream. But in doing so he also found real joy. As he said, in a 2013 interview with the National Catholic Register, “I still don't miss playing professionally, but I've come to enjoy the game of baseball itself more. When I let go of it as my idol, I was enabled to enjoy it for what it's worth. When you're projecting your own designs on something and taking it more seriously than it should be, you don't get what God intended you to get out of it. When you simply accept things for what they are and don't expect more than what they can give, you experience the satisfaction you're supposed to.”
This is the kind of joy we can have if we are willing to live life connected to the vine. You are meant to be a branch that is grafted to Christ. You are meant to flow with grace. You are meant to be filled with joy. I’d like to you reflect on your life: what are you doing to be grafted to Christ, flow with grace, and live a joyful life?