Last Sunday we compared Jesus to a shepherd. Today we compare Jesus to a grape vine. Actually, Jesus made these comparisons himself. And it got me to thinking... I know, I told you a bit about how my brain works last week but here we go again. I wondered, is what Jesus does in these examples a metaphor? Or is it a simile? I knew it would be somewhere in this mix so I went on-line. On “masterclass.com” I got this: “A simile is saying something is like something else. A metaphor is often poetically saying something is something else. An analogy is saying something is like something else to make some sort of an explanatory point. ... A simile is a type of metaphor. All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes.” So we all understand now, right? And I thought about studying it some more, maybe getting a teacher's perspective and decided it is not that important. What is important is seeking the truth in these similes/metaphors/analogies Jesus uses in John's gospel.
Jesus as a vine though? Maybe not so clear. But perhaps it helps if we look to the rest of his metaphor, he's the vine but the Father is the vinedresser. Other translations say gardener, farmer, vintner. The Passion Translation puts it this way, “the farmer who tends the vine is my Father.” Now we get the living, breathing part of the comparison. There is action taking place in this little parable. God is directing the action while Jesus seems to be inactive. After all, what can a grape vine do? Well, green plants absorb sunshine from the sun, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air, they absorb water from the ground. (I feel like we've just moved from English class to Science class). The plants then produce glucose which they use for energy to grow and produce fruit; grapes in our metaphor. Oh yeah, green plants also give off oxygen in this conversion process! Pop quiz—what do we call the process of converting those elements into glucose and oxygen?
OK, I've gotten myself in a little deeper than I'd intended here. Let's see if we can now connect all this science into what Jesus may have been getting at in his metaphor. I start with a short link to the shepherd metaphor. Sheep follow and are cared for and are fed and nourished by their shepherd. We could say that branches are nourished by the vine. Water and nutrients from the ground are delivered to the branches, leaves, and grapes through the vine. Jesus said that we are the branches. Our purpose is to bear fruit. The final verse in today's gospel, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit.” We cannot do that apart from our connection to the vine, Jesus. And this comparison is made even fuller if we expand the “you” in the statement from individuals to the church. You, the church, cannot grow and thrive without a connection to the true vine. Our connection is to Jesus through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, through the word of God in scriptures, in prayer and in fellowship.
Jesus talked about pruning; for fruit production to be the most fruitful, some branches are cut, or shaped to maximize production. Pruning in the sense that Jesus talks of it may be judgment... but I think more likely it is about training the plant. Think of Bonsai trees, pruned regularly to make them conform to the plan of the designer. (the bushes around church, shaped by Rosie and Steve, pruned to shape.) Closer to home for most of us, here in Minnesota we prune our apple trees to make the fruit more available, to give more exposure to the sun, and to get rid of deadwood. In like manner, we are “pruned”, trained if you will, by the word of God. Jesus said, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” Pruning is done for our own good. But this only happens as we are revealed to God's word. And as a vine has many branches, the members of the church, our church, are many connected in the body of Christ.
Our Acts reading comes from the very earliest days of the Christian Church. We are studying the book of Acts in our Tuesday Bible study. We learned there that this Philip that we heard Amy read about was one of seven men who had been set apart as deacons in the church in Jerusalem. Another deacon, Stephen, was preaching about Jesus when the Sanhedrin—the Jewish leaders—determined that he was teaching heresy. They forbid anyone to teach that Jesus was the Messiah. And when Stephen offended their understanding of the faith, they stoned him to death. And this seemed to open the door for the persecution of these earliest Christians. And the persecution forced the Christians to leave Jerusalem. Philip ended up not far from Jerusalem in the province of Samaria. There he met a member of the Ethiopian's queen's court. This man could have been a member of the Jewish faith since we know he had been to Jerusalem to worship. But he may have been a spiritual searcher as well and was seeking divine wisdom wherever he could find it. Anyways, Philip found him and they discussed this passage in Isaiah for the Ethiopian wanted to know who was like a sheep. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer,” Here we a have (I think) a simile, the description was of one who was like a sheep. We know in retrospect that Isaiah was prophesying about the Messiah and we know that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy when he went to the cross mostly willingly. Philip explained Jesus to the Ethiopian and the man found the truth he'd been looking for. He was baptized as a new believer in Jesus Christ.
This is an example of the very earliest expansion of the church; the spreading of the vine and branches from it's roots in Jerusalem to other parts of Israel and eventually throughout the world. The spread of the gospel was not the result of strategic church growth plans or books about the purpose driven church. It grew because individuals left Jerusalem and spread throughout the world and shared the fruit of the knowledge of their Lord and Savior.
We continue in the spreading of the gospel. We are to live our lives in such a way that the worth and dignity of all of God's creation shines forth in our words and actions. The Ethiopian Eunuch would have been an outcast due to the color of his skin and his sexual condition. Philip showed us that there is no room for prejudices against other groups; no room for judgmental attitudes in the body of Christ. We don't bring condemnation but light and joy and hope. This is best shared by living lives of light and joy and hope; bearing fruit. And our life of faith is best nourished by our connection to the vine—Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd.
There, I just did a mixed metaphor (again, I think)-- the vine is the shepherd is a sheep is Jesus. Jesus revealed himself to us as both shepherd and vine and sheep; he revealed his obedience and sacrifice as the Lamb who was silent as his life was given for the life of the whole world.
As his church, we grow and thrive as we remain connected to one another through our connection to the true vine. One way we connect is the sacrament of communion we celebrate this morning. Paul wrote of our connection in 1 Corinthians, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Likewise we are one in the vine, the grape, the cup. In a way, the bread and the cup are metaphors for Jesus—this IS the body of Christ, this IS the blood of Christ. But a sacrament is more than metaphor. This is the means where the risen Christ is truly present in our midst. Not magically in the bread and cup, but in the Spirit's work in the sacrament. And we are nourished. The sheep nourishes the flock, the vine nourishes the branch, the Holy Spirit nourishes all who come to the table and partake of the fellowship of the bread and cup.
May we take these many and varied representations of Jesus into the world with us. Focus on the ones that bring you closer to the Lord. And as we as a church memorize and contemplate the meanings of the 23rd psalm, recognize how the good shepherd leads you and how we are nourished to grow and yield fruit by our connection the true vine, Jesus our Lord, our Savior, our friend. Amen.
Hymn: Jesus Loves Me