This week we’re beginning a new worship series entitled Sanctuary. Sanctuary — the word brings to mind a place of refuge or safety. We even use the word for nature reserves, which are safe places for animals. Of course, in our context, we think of the worship space that we call the Sanctuary. In this series, we’ll be looking more closely at our beautiful worship space, seeing the symbols there, and tying them in with scripture.
This Sunday, our theme is “Connection.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus compares himself — and us — metaphorically to a vine and its branches: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.”
Look around in our Sanctuary and you will find grapevines everywhere: on the cross at the front of the sanctuary, in the plaster crown molding across at the ceiling above the chancel, on the Communion table, and intertwined throughout the beautiful needlepoint kneelers at the communion rail.
Grapevines, their branches, and the fruit they produce are of course common images in scripture because they played an important role in the culture of Biblical times. But why did Jesus choose this metaphor from all the other cultural icons to describe this aspect of his nature — and the nature of our relationship with him?
I think it all comes down to rootedness and connectedness. Branches cannot exist if they are not connected to the vine. It’s what give them life and the ability to bear fruit. That’s how they draw their nourishment.
As people of faith, we’re really big on connectivity — being connected to God and to one another. In fact, what connects us is God. We yearn for connection and throughout this past year we have tried every way we can to connect while at the same time maintaining “social distancing.” With this image of branches connected to the vine, Jesus is describing our connection to him and to one another.
There’s another aspect of this metaphor that seems important to delve into. It’s about how when branches are pruned, they produce more fruit.
What in the world does that have to do with Jesus? Let me explain what I mean.
On my first trip to Israel I was really surprised at what the vineyards looked like. There were common vineyards that had been there for a long, long time, owned most likely by individuals.
These vineyards were almost startling. They were big, thick, obviously very old vines. Almost like stumps, because they had been pruned back to their very connection with the main vine.
These vines were also propped up on rocks. No wires, or trellises like you see in most vineyards. They looked like a bunch of dead stumps. But by fall, someone there told us, they would be lush and full of grapes. “If you don’t prune the branches back like that each year, you just mainly grow branches and leaves,” he explained. “They have to prune the vines so they will be productive.”
Going back to our scripture with that image in mind, we get a whole different sense of what Jesus means when he says, “You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you.”
For us as Christians, you see, the process of pruning — trimming away our old life and habits — is what prompts new and fuller growth as we continue learning from Jesus. In other words, sometimes what may feel like a loss may ultimately be a gain.
To be fruitful in this sense is to learn and to follow. More than just a matter of being connected as branches and connected to the vine — branches that aren’t pruned may look full, but they aren’t fruitful — being fruitful as Christians comes from regular pruning. It’s not just a matter of growing and looking good, but of also using that growth to do good in your life and in the world.
What does it mean for us to be connected to Christ? What does that say about our connection to one another? What does it look life in your life to bear fruit? What could you prune in order to bear more fruit?
I look forward to exploring these ideas of connectedness with you this Sunday — live in person and online from the Sanctuary at 11:00 am.
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster
John 15:1-5 Common English Bible (CEB)
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. 2 He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. 3 You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.