Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2015

It is safe to say that most of us are connected today. We are connected by cell phone talk and text and by email. We have Facebook friends and Twitter followers. This connection to our various devices is so prevalent and so all-consuming that one of the meetings I go to includes in its format not only a request to turn off your cell phones or anything else with a noise, but also to please refrain from texting and emailing during the meeting. Even health care, which used to be a face-to-face experience, is being taken over by virtual exposure. You can email your doctor a question and get an answer based on your symptoms; you can check Web MD for drug side effects, you can look for new developments in medicine, you can examine your test results on line. Doctors often spend more time on the computer during a visit than with patients, says the Washington Post. It makes for a less personal visit.

With all this interaction with the computer, we may feel great about being so connected. But we have to be careful – being connected is not being in relationship (David J. Lose). Liking something on Facebook does not mean you are there to be with that person. A post on Twitter is no substitute for talking about something important with someone. Jesus is not talking about being connected to the vine. He is talking about much more than that. Jesus is talking about being in relationship with the vine – a relationship that is close and intimate, a relationship that connects the branches to their source of life, the vine and the vine grower.

Jesus first talks about his relationship as vine with God the vine grower. The vine grower needs the vine just as much as the vine needs the vine grower (Karoline Lewis). God needs the vine to produce good fruit, to spread the message of the kingdom. To get good fruit, the vine grower must tend to the vine. God takes a knife and prunes the vine heavily so it will produce more fruit. God cuts off the fruitless branches and cuts back the fruitful ones. It is painful to be pruned, and sometimes pruned plants look like they will never grow again, but in reality energy is building in what is left of the vine so that more good fruit can be produced.

The vine branches also have a relationship with Jesus, the true vine. If the branches are not part of the vine, they cannot produce good fruit and will wither and be burned. Jesus’ term for the relationship between him and the branches is abide. Abide conjures up images of reading a good book, taking long walks, being comfortable just sitting quietly. To abide is to have shalom – to have peace. And not only do we have peace in Jesus, Jesus has peace in us. Jesus longs to be with us in the closest relationship possible. But abiding does not mean inactivity. If there is a healthy relationship between the vine grower, the vine and the branches, good fruit is produced. As with all graceful acts, good fruit does not make one a disciple, good fruit is the evidence of discipleship. (Sarah S. Heinrich)

One of the things that the branches have to give up to be part of the community of the vine is independence. They cannot act on their own because they cannot produce any fruit apart from the vine. The vine is the sustaining source of their lives, providing the energy to do what they have to do to produce good fruit. The branches also have to rely on the vine grower for pruning so that their yield will be increased.

What exactly does one do to bear fruit? The vines have been cleansed by the word of Jesus and told that Jesus glorifies God by obeying his Father’s commandments, so the disciples can assume that if they do the same, they will produce good fruit and glorify God.

There are three things you get from being in the vine. You get to be your authentic self (David J. Lose), you get to serve others and you get to be part of a community of love.

First, the branch is not asked to become a different branch when it becomes part of the vine. It is encouraged to be real, just as the vine is real. It is encouraged to come with all its strengths and weaknesses, knowing that it will be loved and cared for. Its purpose is to be thankful for its life and its salvation and to bear the best kind of fruit it can. One branch’s fruit will look different than other branches. Branches need pruning because there is fruit that is not ripe enough or well-shaped enough to be useful. The branch’s need for pruning is a mark of its burdens that it needs to lay down (Fred Craddock) or of its sins. Branches can be sure that their sins will be forgiven and the loads that they need not carry will be cut off so more attention can be paid to the good fruit. Branches are not perfect, but they are saved by grace and as such are more than suitable to produce good fruit.

Branches of the vine that is Jesus can experience the joy of serving one another. Obeying God’s commandments means loving God and neighbor and service is one big way we do that. There are all kinds of service, just like there are all kinds of branches. My dad told me after he retired that he just didn’t think he could work with the elderly so he didn’t. He served one term in the House of Delegates in West Virginia and worked with high school students in Junior Achievement, an organization designed to help young people develop business skills. You may feed the hungry, work on events to help raise money to cure diseases, tutor students after school, or visit the elderly and shut in.

Most importantly, branches of the vine that abides in Jesus become part of a new close-knit community. This was a very important concept for John’s readers to understand. They had been thrown out of the synagogues and separated from their homes and families. They needed something to belong to and with this spiritual and actual community, they had all sorts of relationships available to them.

We all need to be parts of communities. Ana Bonilla-Gomez is a social worker from Virginia who has been named the 2014 National Social Worker of the Year for her efforts to keep kids in relationship with their school community, to make them “available to learn”, the Washington Post reports. My job is to get the resources,” she said, “by any means necessary”. She deals with issues from poverty to absenteeism to keeping teens from drifting toward gangs. She is truly a community builder.

We are in relationship to our church community here at St. John’s. Here we have a major connection point with Jesus, our vine, and God our vine grower. It is here we are pruned through confession to bear even better fruit. It is here we are fed by Jesus’ body and blood. Because we are a community that wants to abide in Jesus, we must continually ask ourselves the questions: Are we producing good fruit and enough of it? Are we an inclusive, welcoming community, accepting all the potential branches where they are? Are we a community that is involved in service, in obeying God’s commandments to love God and neighbor? Is there more we could be doing for our neighbors near and far? We come to worship to get the energy we need to bear good fruits in the world. We are on a mission to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to all those who need to hear it. How are we doing that? What is it that distinguishes us from other branches, other than our size? Do we have something to offer that is special to our branch or could we do that? Where could the energy given to us by Jesus best be used? To abide in the vine is to ask and answer these questions faithfully. We are in close relationship with God and Jesus and we are at this moment being called to bear more fruit. Pray for God’s guidance, for ideas, for the strength to plan them and carry them out so that we may bear even more fruit for the kingdom.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited:
David J. Lose, Getting Real, “Dear Working Preacher”, blog post April 29, 2012
Karoline Lewis, The Risky Business of Bearing Fruit, “Dear Working Preacher”, blog post April 26, 2015
Sarah S. Heinrich, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 2, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 277
David J. Lose, ibid
Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B, (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993), p. 250