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Sermon for Easter 5

Jesus the True Vine - The Reverend Charles Royden

The I am sayings — what do they mean ?

We have today the last of what are known as the ‘I am’ saying in John’s Gospel.
These metaphors each tell us something of Jesus and what he believed about himself.

There are seven ‘I am’ sayings.

  • I am the bread of life 6:35
  • I am the light of the world 8:12
  • I am the gate 10:7
  • I am the good shepherd 10:11
  • I am the resurrection and the life 11:25
  • I am the way and the truth and the life 14:6
  • I am the true vine 15:1

The fact that there are seven is important, remember seven was a number of completeness in Judaism.

The Gospel of John is very carefully compiled and the author uses these seven miracles as companions for seven miracles or signs.

So it is that

Jesus supplies bread to the 5,000 and he says ‘I am the bread of life’
Jesus opens the eyes of the blind man and says ’I am the light of the world’
and so on…..

It is interesting that there are also occasions when Jesus simply says ‘I am.’ Some have seen again that there are seven specific occasions

The best occurs in John 8:58, when Jesus says,
‘Truly, truly I tell you, before Abraham was ‘I am’

We read that after Jesus said this the Jewish leaders tried to stone Jesus. It would appear that his use of the words were interpreted as blasphemy 8:59.

The reason I mention all of this this is because clearly in the use of these words there is more going on than coincidence. The Gospel writer is drawing very special attention to Jesus and who he is. The point which is being made is that In Jesus God is seen to be alive in the world.

The history of the true vine

Jesus speaks of himself as the true vine.

It is important to remember that when the disciples heard Jesus speak of himself as the true vine, they would have previously thought of the nation of Israel in this way. Israel is frequently represented as a vine in the Old Testament.

Hos 10:1-2, Is 5:1-7, Jer 2:21, Psalm 80:8,

The vine was an important symbol of national significance, frequently found on coins and ceramics.

The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there was a large golden vine at the sanctuary entrance in the temple built by Herod.

However in these instances when the historic life of Israel is depicted as a vine or a vineyard, it is not a particularly positive thing. The nation is set under judgement for its corruption and failure to bear good fruit.

So there is set up the possibility of a contrast.

Israel is the vine, God’s chosen, yet she has disappointed and failed to be worthy of the honour bestowed upon her. In contrast Jesus is the true vine, one who is faithful.

The two are set apart and so the scene is set for the failure of the Old Covenant and the obedience of Jesus in the New Covenant. Unlike the previous shepherds of the Old who cared little for the sheep, now there is a true shepherd who will give of his life for the sheep.

The last discourse - The context

I want before we go further in thinking about this passage to just remind you of the scene where this is set. This is Chapter 15 of John's Gospel, the context is that of moments before the arrest and subsequent crucifixion of Jesus. He is about to die and Jesus wants to comfort his disciples and leave them teaching which will help them to understand that his death is not the end.

In only hours Jesus will be dead and so he delivers important words which will stand the test of time and reassure his followers that his death is not the end of their relationship. Jesus has just spoken the now famous words ‘in my father’s house there are many mansions.’

He wants to tell them that they need not fear. How can these disciples be assured that his words are true when he promises that God has rooms for them? Jesus tells them that he has the authority to make these kinds of promises because 'he is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father without him'. These are words of reassurance for his followers. They are not. as has been the case, words used by Christians to frighten the hell out of unbelievers.

Jesus wants to tell his disciples that whilst they will lose physical contact with him, nevertheless they can never be separated from him.

If we can capture that mood, then we can perhaps understand what Jesus is saying when he talks about pruning. There are those who see some of the teaching in these chapters as threat, bear fruit or you will be thrown into the fire. This is not what Jesus is saying, he is encouraging his believers, his disciples, trying to tell them what life will be like AD.

I make something of this because there are those who still hold a medieval idea of God bringing upon humans terrible calamities as a means of purifying them. It is the idea that God sends torment upon those he loves because ultimately it will be good for them. It is like one of those old war films where the nasty sergeant punishes the trainee soldiers in training camp just before they go to war, because he knows it will make them stronger and they will be able to stay alive when they get into real combat. The good master has to be cruel to be kind.

We nee to remember that this is Jesus speaking, not Clint Eastwood. Do not think that when hardship comes along God is pruning you. That is not a gardener that is a monster. Christians have struggled with such concepts as they wrestled with trying to understand where God was.

  • In Auschwitz
  • or apartheid
  • or in the genocide in Darfur. etc

Thankfully we have understood that God is not at work in bringing evil upon his children.

Through such atrocities believers came to realise that God was using the torturer to make them into better people. God was not doing the pruning, such an idea is an abomination, God was rather on the side of those who were led to gas chambers, starved and cremated, beaten for being black or the wrong tribe. Christ is with the victims, he does not empower those who carry out war crimes. The challenge for us is to ask whether we will be with them also.

Elaine V. Emeth said that the pruning metaphor works for her only if she thinks of God as a gardener who grieves while watching a violent storm rip through a prized garden. Afterward, the gardener tenderly prunes the injured plants in order to guarantee survival and to restore beauty and harmony. Pruning is not to be confused with the tragedies that overtake us; it has more to do with clearing away the debris they leave behind.

Desmond Tutu said,

“Our God cares, for this God is Immanuel, God with us, who joins us in our dumbfounded speechlessness and bewilderment and this God does not give advice from a safe distance but enters the fiery furnace of our anguish and God wipes away our tears, this God who knows us by name, from whose nothing, not even death can separate us.”

So it is with this understanding that we should read this passage. This is Jesus last chance to tell his disciples how much he loves them, wash their feet and encourage them to love one another. This is the time when he will tell them that he is going away but through the gift of the Holy Spirit he will be with them in their hearts and minds.

What does it mean to ‘abide ?

Connectedness

The Greek word which we have heard historically translated as ‘abide’, is well translated as ‘remain.’ We could use the word ‘dwell’. There is a long understanding of God dwelling with us and in John 14 we have heard that we will dwell with God.

The principle which is most powerful is that of closeness. Immediately that we understand Jesus to be the vine and we are the branches, we begin to know that Jesus is talking about relationship. We are a part of him, we are dependent upon him.

It is about living in the presence of God’s love, trusting in God in spite of the terrible hand which life can deal and knowing that sense of connectedness.

Apart from the vine we cannot survive. This is an important lesson for our times. We are constantly being urged to get connected in all sorts of ways. Connected to each other by mobile technology and phones and texts, connected to the information superhighway, the internet. Yet so many are utterly disconnected from each other and from God. There is no connection of the spiritual side, some even denying that it exists.

We are created with a need to be connected to God, without that we lose purpose, our lives become disorientated. That is why Jesus says that he is the source of true life, hope, happiness and fulfilment.

Faithfulness

To remain in Jesus means keeping his commandments. In these last hours of his life Jesus had washed the disciples feet, given them tangible examples of what their lives towards each other should be like.

The point is that if we dwell with Christ, and Christ dwells with us, then we will share in his risen life. The Holy Spirit will cause a Christian to bear fruit by default.

There was a husband who professed his love for his wife, so much so that he would die for her. She said that wouldn’t be necessary, but he would have to do the dishes.

It is a simple story, if we love Christ then we will want to follow his commands and be obedient to him and his will for our lives.

This means loving God, but also loving one another. We are sheep of the one shepherd, we cannot be a single sheep following Jesus we are part of his flock. So we are to be prepared to lay down our lives for one another.

This fruitfulness is the infallible mark of the true Christian.