If you read through the gospels, one of the things you’ll discover is each of the four gospel writers had their own unique perspective. They had their own take on Jesus, their own way of presenting the story. Largely, that’s because each one had a different audience in mind. They made adjustments to the ways they told their stories for the sake of better reaching their own particular audience. As I said last week, Matthew was particularly concerned about convincing the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah they’d been waiting for. He includes lots of references to the Old Testament by saying, “as it has been written…” Still Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar in the way the sound and feel. That’s why scholars of the bible refer to them as the synoptic gospels. Synoptic means that they present a similar or common view of Jesus.
John’s gospel is strikingly different. In John, Jesus is very philosophical, and talkative. He’s frequently found making long speeches and he uses a lot of metaphors. There’s a whole collection of these metaphors in John that we refer to as the “I Am” statements. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the gate, the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way and the truth. And then, there is the one from today’s reading: I am the true vine.
All of these metaphors, one way or another, are meant to help us spell out the nature of our relationship with Jesus and God. They’re meant to help us understand our role as followers of Jesus and what the shape of our ministry is supposed to be. When Jesus says, I am the vine, he’s using an image that paints God as the owner of a vineyard. In this image, Jesus is sort of the central vine, and all of us are little shoots or branches that grow out of the vine and take off in all directions. Some of our growing is good and healthy and productive and some of it isn’t. So, God, being the good vineyard keeper that he is, comes through regularly with his divine pruning shears, and trims back whatever isn’t growing in the right direction. Whenever our growth isn’t producing good fruit, God just prunes us back.
Now, I don’t know anything about vineyards. I don’t know much of anything about gardening period. Houseplants have been known to begin shaking in fear whenever I get too close. But, from what I’ve read, I’m given to understand that John’s version of God’s vineyard is pretty much on target. I pulled this little statement about pruning off the internet. The parallels are pretty obvious.
In pruning a vine, two principles are generally observed: first, all dead wood must be ruthlessly removed; and second, the live wood must be cut back drastically. Dead wood harbors insects and disease and may cause the vine to rot, to say nothing of being unproductive and unsightly. Live wood must be trimmed back in order to prevent such heavy growth that the life of the vine goes into the wood rather than into fruit. The vineyards in the early spring look like a collection of barren, bleeding stumps; but in the fall, they are filled with luxuriant purple grapes.
Now, that’s all good and well if you’re growing grapes. But to be honest, I find this image a little challenging when we start applying it to people. Most of the folks I’ve ever known, myself included, can’t seem to generate much enthusiasm for the idea of being turned into “barren bleeding stumps,” even for the sake of a more productive ministry. If we take this passage at face value, it can sound like our being productive is all God cares about, and if we’re not productive, we’re going to be cut off and tossed into the fire. As harsh as that sounds though, we all know people who think like this; that productivity is all that really matters.
I once worked for a Pizza Hut in Great Bridge, Virginia. I was in the Coast Guard at the time and I didn’t need the money, but I had a lot of time off and I was bored so I took a job making Pizzas in my off hours. I was good at it too. I’m no kind of gardener, but I could turn out a beautiful pizza. At the beginning it was a lot of fun. The staff was friendly and my boss was a pretty easy-going guy. In my first few months there, we got the job done and we had a good time doing it. But then, there was a change in management higher up the ladder. We got a new regional manager who was intent on increasing sales, and I got to watch my boss go from friendly and relaxed to impatient and snappish as he began putting in about eighty hours a week.
It paid off at first. We had two months in a row in which our little shop in Great Bridge was the highest grossing store in the whole region. They took my boss to dinner. Gave him a little plaque to hang up in his office. And then they said, now we know you can do it, just make sure you keep it up. Of course, keeping up that kind of pace was way more than anyone could pull off for very long. Our income started falling off. The manager started breathing down my bosses neck, and two months later he stormed out and never came back. He stopped being sufficiently productive, so they cut him off and cast him into the fire.
Now, to me, this never seemed like a very effective approach. Maximizing profits by burning out your employees has never made much sense to me. Of course, I don’t know much more about business than I know about gardening. However, I do know a thing or two about God. I strongly object to the idea that God is only interested in how productive we can be. The God I know is loving and forgiving and graceful. The God I have come to know in Christ sees each and every one of us as a beloved child; deserving of endless care, encouragement and forgiveness.
That’s the problem with metaphors. We have to be careful to not stretch them too far or take them too literally. The message here is not that productivity is all God cares about. It is that we cannot be productive at all, if we cut ourselves off from the source of our strength and inspiration.
Clear back in my first church I was talking about this passage one Sunday morning. I wanted to make my point in a dramatic way, and it just so happened that there was a little vine growing right there on the pulpit. Someone had placed a little planter pot on the shelf at the front of the pulpit, and a vine had grown out around where I preached every week. On this particular Sunday, I was talking about how we can’t grow if we cut ourselves off from our source. To demonstrate, right in the middle of my sermon, I pulled out a pair of scissors, lifted the vine and cut it right off. Then I said to the severed vine in my hand, “Now, Grow! Be Productive!”
Well, it was dramatic all right, but not quite in the way I had planned. There was a sharp gasp from the congregation. The women of the local garden club were not amused. They made up a pretty big chunk of the church, and had, in fact, given us that little vine as a gift, “and not for me to butcher it either!” Next Sunday, the vine was gone. I think they decided to take it into protective custody. My reputation for being “not a gardener” was firmly established from that time on.
In my defense, it actually was a perfect illustration. The minute we begin thinking of ourselves as separate from God, then God becomes our “judge,” or “boss” or “task master.” We’ve been given a job to do, all by ourselves, and if we don’t do it well enough or fast enough we’re going to be fired, cut off at the knees and cast into outer darkness. But when we literally cut a part of a vine off from a larger plant, it should be obvious that the part we’ve cut off can only die. It can’t be productive. It can’t make itself worthy. It can’t win the bosses approval. It can’t earn its way into heaven. Without a connection to the larger vine, it can only wither and die.
The message of this metaphor is precisely that we must remain a part of the vine. We must remain connected to God in order to live. But remaining in God, all by itself, is not enough. Our spiritual growth needs to be tended. It needs to be shaped, and sometimes, it needs to be pruned back in order to remain healthy.
There’s a wonderful story that makes this point at the beginning of Jack Kornfield’s book, “A Path with Heart.” It goes like this:
At one meditation retreat, I encountered a man whose only child, a four-year-old girl, had died in an accident just a few months before. Because she died in a car he was driving, he was filled with guilt as well as grief. He had stopped working and turned to full-time spiritual practice for solace. When he came to this retreat, he had already been to other retreats, he had been blessed by a great swami, and he had taken vows with a holy nun from South India. At the retreat, his meditation cushion looked like a nest. It was surrounded by crystals, feathers, rosaries, and pictures of various great gurus. Each time he sat he would pray to each of the gurus and chant and recite sacred mantras. All of this to heal himself, he said. But perhaps all of this was to ward off his grief. After a few days, I asked him if he would be willing simply to sit, without all his sacred objects, without prayer or chanting or any other practice. The next time he came in, he just sat. In five minutes, he was crying. In ten minutes, he was sobbing and wailing. He had finally let himself take the one seat in the midst of his sorrow; he had finally, truly begun to grieve.
When Jesus said, I am the true vine, it was not, about our being productive under the threat of divine punishment. It was about our need for healing. It was about the tending of our connection to the true source of our lives. We are productive, not all by ourselves, but only when we abide in Christ and his Spirit. The more we understand about the truth of our lives, the more we realize the wisdom of what Jesus said. Apart from God, we can do nothing.