The single, most important sentence I ever heard

This Sunday, the lectionary invites Christian communities to read John 15:1-8. Most Bibles, including the English Standard Version which we use in Bangsar Lutheran Church, group verses 1-17 together and give them the heading “I Am the True Vine.”

Last Sunday we were invited to reflect on Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18) – and therefore, us as sheep. I wrote about it in a column which I titled “Jesus caused division. How about us?” and on Sunday, I preached Psalm 23.

As I said in my column and in my sermon, the Bible invites us to think of God, rulers, and pastors, as shepherds; as persons who care for their charges, work very hard to feed them, heal them and protect them. And keep them living and moving together.

The Bible offers us many other pictures to help us relate to God. John, as I’ve said in previous columns, is the theologian[1] among the gospel writers. His account of Jesus is, in many ways, different from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. His account is less chronological and more thematic.

John places great importance on the “I AM” statements Jesus made. He tells us Jesus made seven “I AM” statements.

In these statements, Jesus referred to himself as the Bread of Life; as the Light of the World; as the Door for the Sheep; as the Good Shepherd; as the Resurrection and the Life; as the Way, the Truth and the Life; and finally, in our text, as the True Vine.

It’s partly because of these “I AM” statements that we shudder when people claim that Jesus was “a great moral teacher.”

Someone who made “I AM” statements like the ones Jesus made, is more lunatic and devil than morally good, unless he is who he claimed to be, “the Son of God” – a claim which is initially incomprehensible to us.

C S Lewis said it best. To call Jesus “a great moral teacher” is patronizing nonsense. This is what Lewis wrote:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

I return now to Jesus saying, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser.”

Just as we know little about sheep and shepherds and need to have them explained to us, we know little about vines and vine dressers and need to have them explained to us.

A vine is a plant. It cannot wander away or go and eat or drink things which are bad for it. Unlike sheep which have the agency, or ability, to make wrong decisions.

In the Bible, “vine” nearly always refers to the creeping plant which bears grapes used to make wine.

Branches of vines must be cut often. The cutting is called trimming or pruning. If branches are not pruned, diseased or decayed parts will prevent the vine from flourishing. Also, if branches are not pruned after they bear fruit, in the next harvest they won’t have produced as much fruit as they’re capable of.

The person who does the pruning is called a vinedresser.

Now I come to the crux of the matter: what does it mean for us to relate to God as branches of the Jesus vine?

We feel we’ve become attached to Jesus like iron filings drawn irresistibly to a magnet. Sometimes, being a Christian is very hard. People don’t like what we say, what we refuse to do. We try to stop being Christians. But we just cannot. Like iron filings which simply cannot free themselves from a magnet.

God tells us to think instead of ourselves as branches on a vine. The vine which is Jesus.

We just know there’s something amazing about Jesus. We know our hearts are strangely warmed when we think about him, when we sing about him, when we hear about him. We’re attracted to him. We stick to him. We just can’t free ourselves from him.

We know he calls us to be his disciples. But how do we know we’re his disciples?

Last week, we saw that we recognize his voice; his right over us; his care for us.

This week, we see that we rest in him, we abide in him. Our roots are in him. Our nourishment comes from him. Our life is in him. The rhythms of our lives come from him. We bear fruit for him. We’re pruned by him, so that we might bear fruit for him.

Jesus, through his new body, his churches, continues doing what he did before he was crucified. Through his churches, through us, he casts out demons; heals the sick; confronts the authorities. The Apostle Paul summarizes it as the fruit of the Spirit, and starkly describes what has been pruned as crucified. Listen to Galatians 5:22-24

22 … the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Our identity comes from Jesus.

Fred Craddock,[2] one of the humblest and greatest of American preachers, tells a story he once heard from Ben Hooper, a man who had twice been elected Governor of the state of Tennessee in the USA.[3]

Hooper was raised by an unmarried, single mother. He didn’t even know the name of his father. Everyone gave him a hard time about this – at school, on the streets, in restaurants. Everywhere. As a teenager, he felt drawn into a church to listen to the Sunday morning sermons. He would sneak in before the sermon began and sneak out right after the blessing.

He would sneak out because he didn’t want anyone to ask him “who’s your father?” He knew their faces would twist when he couldn’t name his father. He knew they’d be thinking a person born out of wedlock shouldn’t enter a church.

But he loved the sermons. He came repeatedly. One day, he was too slow to sneak out.

The preacher caught hold of him. Put his hand on his shoulder and said “Son, whom do you belong to?” Hooper didn’t answer. After a moment, the preacher said: “I see the family resemblance. Son, you belong to God. It’s a striking resemblance. You’re a child of God. I can see it so clearly in your face.” Then he patted Hooper on his back and said, “Now, you get out there and claim your inheritance.”

Decades later, Hooper ended his recounting of that incident with these words:

“I left that church a different person. It was the single most important sentence I had ever heard. It changed my life. After all those years of not knowing, all those years of wondering, all those years of stares, he told me who I truly was.”

Are you in the vine? Enjoy him. Rest in him. Resemble him. Bear fruit for him.

Peace be with you.

[1] The Serpent, the Son, and Nicodemus; Jesus, the light of men.

[2] I warmly commend this sermon, titled Witness to the Resurrection, by Dr Craddock.

[3] I’m drawing from “Identity,” a sermon preached by Shannon J Kershner, Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Sunday April 29, 2018. I’ve condensed it and imagined some details.

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