This sermon was preached for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Murray, KY and for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Anchorage, KY for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B 2021. A video recording is attached at the bottom of the post. Photo by Stefano Zocca on Unsplash
I speak to you in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus says, “I am the vine— you are the branches.” A straightforward simile; something we don’t usually say about the Gospel of John. Abide in him just as he abides in us. Ask for what you wish, and it will be granted unto you: haven’t those words been misused before.
There are many ways to look at this morning’s gospel passage. It may be helpful to begin with personal application. Where am I growing lately? Where have I borne fruit? Where might I need to prune? Are there habits, or behaviors that I should cut back on that get in the way of my relationship to the true vine? Or perhaps my life is bearing good fruit; I can lean into rest, abiding in Jesus knowing my good works have been rewarded.
Certainly, there is something appealing about this approach to the passage, and certainly, there is merit to our self-reflection. However, Jesus is saying something more radical than “check yourselves.” There is much more mystery here.
I am the true vine.
My father is the vine-grower.
I am the vine.
You are the branches.
First, we are dealing with creation. It is God who is the gardener, God who creates in this story. God is the one acting to prune the vine, not you or me. The branches do not prune themselves; the gardener does that.
Furthermore, there is the incarnation of the Son.
God creates and God tends the Earth; yet it does not stop there. I am the true vine, Jesus says. God is not just a distant gardener, pruning away when things become bad. Somehow, in the mystery of God’s incarnation, God became one of us. Jesus walked with us, talked with us, died like one of us, and experienced resurrection. He promises we will do the same.
We are created in God’s own image, so united with God and so like God that we, all of us together in our common humanity reflect something of the divine. And as we sin, and stumble away from God, he does not cast us away at all. He sent Jesus Christ to save us; to offer a path of resurrection, to give us that hope that there is something more than life as we struggle through it. We are growing, reaching out to something greater than our individual selves. We are transformed by our Baptism, dying to sin and rising to new life with God. We abide in Jesus, and he abides in us. We are grafted onto the true vine, the vine that connects all of God’s children through his son, Jesus. He is the true vine.
So, how then are we to orient our lives, knowing that we are not at the center of them? How are we to grow towards God, knowing that we are not the gardener at work delicately fashioning them? How are we to abandon our desires for power over our circumstances, knowing that we cannot control them?
In our self-help, pull up by our bootstraps world, it’s easy to prune; but it is harder to step out into the unknown and grow. It is painful, even. But it is possible. And I want to suggest this morning that we can grow; but growth requires two things.
First, growth requires nutrients.
In Acts this morning, we see Phillip meet an unnamed Ethiopian eunuch, a servant of the queen. This anonymous person, soon-to-be Christian, is already reading the scriptures; they’ve already received God’s Word. They know who God is in the story of Israel. Now, they are about to receive a dose of God’s Spirit. Phillip teaches them, opening the scriptures just the same way Jesus opened the scriptures to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Then, Phillip baptizes them. This isn’t Phillip’s, but the invitation of the Eunuch, driven by the same Spirit.
The Word of God.
Growth requires nutrients.
Second, growth requires guidance.
Phillip wasn’t in control of this encounter; he didn’t set out to grow the church by one member, or teach a class, or improve his standing with God. He followed the voice of the Spirit out into the wilderness road (a dangerous place) up to a stranger (a dangerous person), crossing cultural lines and the bounds of polite conversation. He acted on God’s behalf, not to better himself, or to grow his church, but out of faith, and in the end, for the spiritual advancement of his sibling in Christ.
God is ahead of us on every step of our Christian journey.
God meets us in our churches, on the roads.
God’s work happens before we can see where it is going.
God is with us.
The further we walk in our Christian journey, the more we realize that our spiritual growth is so often out of our hands and in God’s hands. We find out later that we’ve been fed and sustained in ways we could not imagine, and learn to lean into uncertainty, connecting our lives to the Risen one, and abiding in him just as he abides in us. We find that we ask for what we need, not what we want, and we see our desires bend towards communion with God. We learn to take our nourishment from God’s Word, from our liturgies and prayers, and we begin again and again, right where we’ve been planted.