Vineyards are beautiful. The ordered rows of vines, trained to grow their branches along wires that stretch from plant to plant, row after row. If you drive by a vineyard in winter, what you see is the architecture—the gnarled vine, pruned back, and all those stakes and wires with no growth on them. And you wonder how there could ever be wine from that!
But then spring comes, and those gnarled vines that look almost dead, sprout and begin to run their “branches,” their tendrils, their growth out along those wires, in both directions, up and down. The wires provide guidance, for those branches as they twist and grow—and eventually they provide support, as the branches become heavy with grapes that can then ripen “on the vine.”
In fact, if you think about it, vines and branches are involved in a complicated process. You need a vineyard owner, who buys land, and who plants vines. You need solid, healthy vines that are able to live through your particular climate (and you need them to have aged enough to bear fruit). You need branches to come out of the vine and grow into the open spaces, away from the vine, yet still attached, still being fed from the roots. You need fruit from that branch (grape in my example), and you need sun and rain and time for the fruit to ripen. And then you need the vineyard owner (or workers hired by the vineyard owner) to come and harvest the grape, which then is pressed, and fermented, and given more time, until it brings forth wine—wine that is special to that year, that place, that circumstance, that owner, those vines, those branches. (Special, but not unique—for the whole process starts again, after the branches have been cut back, almost to nothing, and in the spring, they begin to grow again).
Jesus proclaimed, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Here are some of my musings on this verse.
1) We are not lone actors. We were not created to be “all by myself.” We have the “freedom” to grow, to go out on a limb, to spread ourselves far and wide—as long as we stay connected to the vine, to Christ. If we disconnect ourselves, then we no longer have access to the root system, no longer get fed nourishment from the earth, no longer draw water from the internal arteries. If we are separated from the vine, our source, we shrivel and dry up, and are no good for anything other than the fire. “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
2) We are the branches; we are not the vineyard owner. Or, in more common terms—we should stay in our lane. It is not our business to try to prune other branches, spiritually—that task belongs to the vinegrower. Sometimes, I think, we as humans believe we are the only things in the universe. Sometimes, I think, we as individuals think we are the only ones who matter. Sometimes, I think, we make pronouncements, or worse yet, act as if we know who is in God’s favor, who is connected to the vine, who needs to be lopped off.
Jesus starts off his imagery of vineyards not with the verse that is most famous (“I am the vine and you are the branches”)—but with “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” It is God who removes branches that bear no fruit. It is God that prunes to make even more fruit come. It is a message similar to the one we hear in the shepherd imagery when Jesus says, “There are other flocks that you do not know. But they hear my voice.” God is bigger than we are. God’s ways are not our ways. We are the branches, not the vine, not the vinegrower. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…I am the vine, you are the branches.”
3) We might be branches, but we are an important, an essential part of the process. The vine is the source. But the vine without branches could produce only a meager amount of fruit. It is because the vine puts out branch, after branch, after branch, and each of those branches grow out, that there is more fruit. It reminds me of Paul’s vision of us as the body of Christ. We are the hands and feet. We are the eyes and heart. We are individually members of something bigger than ourselves. But each is important. And Paul even suggests that those “members” who might be seen as weak, might be hidden away, might never get top billing—they are to be honored above all.
We are not made to bask in the sun, from spring to fall and not contribute something to the community. That is what “bearing fruit” is all about. Taking the gifts we are given, gifts like sun, and rain, and soil, and being tended to, and support wires, and connection to the vine, taking all that, and making something of it—our fruit. Not just for ourselves. Not just for our little community. But to go into this year’s wine from this vineyard. “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
Put all together) This is an interconnected world. Branches are tied to vine which is tied to the vinegrower. We see an example of this interconnection in our other reading for today from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. The Seasons of the Spirit commentary suggested something that I’m not sure I’ve ever focused on in this familiar passage about Philip and the Ethiopian.
[This passage] narrates an encounter that recalls Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Ethiopian … reads Isaiah 53:7–8 from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. In their interaction, the two figures question each other. One is not exclusively in possession of answers; understanding comes via mutuality. This exchange is holy dialogue. (Seasons, May 2, 2021, p. 154)
Do you see the interweaving? The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. The meeting of a man from Israel and a man from Ethiopia. The willingness of the two to overlook whatever differences there were—of skin tone, of status (the Ethiopian was a high official in charge of the treasury for the Queen!), of means (the Ethiopian was riding in a chariot)—Philip was walking (when not being transported by the Spirit). The openness of both to conversation, to asking one another questions, to sharing knowledge, to suggesting action based on this shared experience. Holy dialogue, says our commentator. Learning in mutuality. Branches bearing fruit. And at the beginning and the end of it all, the Spirit whispering directions, nudging us down pathways, even snatching us away to do more work, at another place.
This intertwining, interweaving, interconnectedness, is captured in the phrase (also suggested by Seasons of the Spirit): “Beloved, Be Loved, Be Love.” It starts with our status—beloved of God. Once we know that, once we truly believe that, we can fight all kinds of fights, we can weather all kinds of storms, we can grow into our best potential—all under the brightness of God’s love.
But this beloved thing isn’t like a flower in its own terrarium—there is a give and take, there is an ebb and flow, there is movement between us and other. Be Loved and Be Love is that horizontal part of our axis. Be Loved--Allow others to love you; to ask questions, even pointed questions of you; to press you about next steps; to encourage your growth. Be Love—is the flip side, love that is given freely; love that is willing to take a chance; love that is willing to give up some of what is ours; love that is grounded in the source of love itself.
Beloved, Be Loved, Be Love—a circle without end, a trinity of relationship, a pathway for life.
Jesus reminds us, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
He adds, “Abide in me and you will bear much fruit—for the good of all.”
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.