Stemming From Love
May 10, 2009
The songwriter Paul Simon tells about his song Mrs. Robinson – you remember,
the theme song for the movie The Graduate. There‟s a line in the song that goes like this:
“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What‟s that
you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin‟ Joe has left and gone away.”
In case you're too young to remember, Joe DiMaggio was one of baseball's biggest stars back in the 1940s and ‟50s. He played center field for the Yankees, and his
56-game hitting streak in 1941 still stands as a record. Then, of course, after he retired he married Marilyn Monroe. A legend in his own time.
Paul Simon was interviewed on 60 Minutes, and when he talked about Mrs.
Robinson, he said that after the song was released, he got a letter from Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper wrote, “What do you mean, „Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?‟ I haven‟t gone anywhere! I‟m still around – I‟m selling Mr. Coffee machines.” Paul
Simon gave a wry smile to Mike Wallace as he remembered this. “Obviously,” he said,
“Mr. DiMaggio is not accustomed to thinking of himself as a metaphor.”
Fortunately for us, Jesus didn‟t have that problem. Here in the Gospel of John there is a series of seven “I am” statements, rich metaphors in which Jesus tries to help
the disciples understand what it means to abide in him; what it means to continue to be his disciples even after his earthly life is over. And one of the richest of these metaphors is this one: “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
It‟s an image that would have been familiar to his listeners. Wine was one of the few cash crops in the ancient near East, and everyone knew what grapevines looked like and how vineyards worked. For us maybe the image is less familiar – when was the last
but as we work with this metaphor, we‟ll time you looked at a grapevine close up? –
discover just how rich it is, how great a source of inspiration and understanding it can be for us.
So this morning I want to tease out three aspects of Jesus‟ teaching in John 15.
They are these: Jesus as the source of our strength, the necessity of pruning in our lives, and what this all means for the community of faith. Strength, pruning and community.
Maybe strength is the easy one here – this image of us as Christians drawing our
life force from God‟s strong rootstock as we know it in Christ. It‟s an image that is a little at odds with the idea that God is up there and we‟re down here, the traditional top-down
model of how God relates to us. That top-down model can be useful, but for some people it gets all wrapped up with issues of power and how power can be used to hurt or subjugate people. It can be hard to separate those issues from our relationship with a top-down God.
John instead gives us an image of nourishment and strength, of God‟s power
coming to us from down below, right where we live. It‟s an image rooted in relationship, which is really important to the Gospel of John. Our relationship with Christ is what matters, and how we live is determined by that relationship, what flows from it.
Branches depend upon the vine for their very life. The vine provides all their nourishment, and a healthy vine holds nothing back. It‟s an image of profound closeness as well as interdependence. It suggests a relationship that couldn‟t be closer or fuller.
You wouldn‟t even have a branch if there were not a vine in the first place! And not only that, once the branch grows from the vine stem, it will never outgrow its need
for that same stem.
It‟s different for human beings. When a child is conceived, she is totally
dependent on the nourishment of her mother‟s womb for nine months. For a while after that she may well be dependent on breast milk, too. But children get weaned eventually. They get independent. And it pains me to say it on Mother‟s Day, but their physical well-
being and ability to flourish won‟t depend on Mom any longer. They can get along fine without depending on the one who was their very source of life.
But it‟s not like that with branches. A branch off a vine stem will be as
completely dependent on the nutrients coming through the vine when that branch is fifty years old as when it was one year old. There‟s no such thing as a weaned branch or an independently minded section of a vine that shuts itself off from the main stem. The stem is the only part that has roots in the ground, and so it‟s every branch‟s connection to water. If you‟re a branch, it pays to stay really tight with your stem.
And so it is for us, John says. The only hope we have to get close to God, and stay there, is to stay connected to the living Christ. What we‟ll experience is flow – a
communion with divine energy that flows through Christ and into our lives just as the sap flows through the stem and into the branch.
Think about how deeply countercultural that idea is. Everything in our culture tells us that we‟re in charge of our own success, that old American bootstrap ethic that says hard work and brains will always make for a good life. That can be exciting, but it can also feel like a great weight. But the good news here in John is this: It‟s not up to us
to dig deep down inside and make happen what needs to happen. Instead, if we stay close to Jesus, we have a source for all the grace and strength we need in our lives, and the result will be joy. The result will be fruit that blesses the world and reveals us as the followers of Jesus, a community of love.
Now, let‟s talk about pruning. If you‟re a branch on the grapevine, pruning is a reality in your life. Because the vine-grower‟s job is not just to plant the vines and let
them grow wild. Left to themselves, the branches will grow and grow and grow. The plant is so busy sending energy to the farthest tips of these branches that there‟s nothing left to make grapes with. So the vine-grower has to curb their enthusiasm. He cuts away the unfruitful branches and the extra foliage, so that more of the plant‟s life force goes into making grapes, which of course is the whole point of a grapevine in the first place. There would be no wine without the pruner‟s knife.
By the way, this works for tomatoes, too. My neighbor Joe, who pretty much runs a truck farm in his back yard, came over one day with his knife and gave me stern instructions on how to prune the Early Girls.
Again, this kind of goes against our grain. We like to think that we can do it all and then some, and I see lots of folks running themselves into exhaustion on just that theory. The world is a smorgasbord, and it‟s hard to stop sampling.
But we can get carried away. We channel a lot of energy into things that may not be fruitful. Think about how much we say and do every day, activities and words that
simply are intended to fill up the silence of our lives. John‟s Gospel is pointing out that
we do too much of that. What we need to do is be quiet, be still, shut up for a while, stop buzzing around with busyness and needless activity, and think about what really counts. Being plugged in means to stop and listen for God‟s voice and to look for what God is
doing, so that we can make ourselves part of that. This we can do through prayer, by reading the Bible, by paying attention to the natural world.
To prune the distractions out of your life may feel like a loss, but remember the grapes. Our lives don‟t yield fruit unless we focus our energies on fruitful things. But
when we trim away the excess, you‟ll find amazing strength for the ministry to which God has called you.
This all sounds pretty individualistic, and so I want to conclude with some thoughts about what this scripture says about the faith community.
When you look at a grapevine, you‟ll see that the branches are almost completely
indistinguishable from one another. It‟s impossible to determine where one branch stops
and another branch starts. As they grow out of the central vine, they all run together.
What this suggests is that there are no free-standing individuals in the community of faith. We‟re all branches, and we are part of one another. This is not just intricate, it‟s intimate. We‟re together in our common dependence on the One who sustains us. And
just as we recognize Christ as the head of the church, we know that he is among us – right
here, right now.
The author Scott Peck tells a story called “The Rabbi‟s Gift” that speaks to how that kind of intimate relationship with Christ and with each other bears fruit.
A monastery had fallen on hard times. There were only five monks left. In desperation, the abbot went to a neighboring rabbi for advice. The rabbi said, “I have no advice to give you, really. The only thing I can tell is that one of you could well be the Messiah.” The abbot brought this thought back and told the other monks, but he said he didn‟t know what to make of it.
In the months that followed, they all pondered that thought: One of them could be the Messiah! And without realizing it, they began to treat each other differently. There was a new sense of love and respect. Others were attracted to their order. The monastery took on new life.
And so we who are the branches, we bear fruit when we can see Christ in each other, when we recognize that our common dependence on God‟s divine spirit as we know it in Christ makes us one. Christ abides in you and you and you, in each of us. When we start to recognize that, it makes a difference in our life together. It makes us Christ‟s church.
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” We know that most deeply when we see it in each other. We abide in Christ, we draw our strength from that relationship, and there we find new life. The gifts of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God! Amen.