Fr. Ron Feister: A Vineyard of Love

Sermon delivered on Easter 5B, Sunday, May 3, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

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Lectionary texts: Acts 8.26-40; Psalm 22.24-30; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8.

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In last week’s Gospel, we heard Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd. He portrays himself as the Shepherd to whom the sheep belong, compared to someone who is a mere hired hand, with no personal interest in the sheep, in so doing Jesus is using a reference which can easily be understood by the people of his time and culture. He assures his listeners that like the good shepherd he will not abandon the flock when hard times and dangers come. This is a message that the early church needed to take to heart after Jesus appeared to have been taken from them in his crucifixion. The Risen Christ appears to his disciples after his death, in fulfillment of this promise. The wolves will come but Jesus, the Risen Lord will stand by them and not abandoned them. His disciples all were familiar with the role of the shepherd and while they may not have been shepherds themselves, they understood the importance of that r ole both economically and socially.

InToday’s Gospel, Jesus present himself in the image of the grape vine and his Father as the owner of the Vineyard, the grape grower. Again, Jesus is drawing from the experiences and understandings of the common person. If the Shepherd was a well-known and important profession in the time of Jesus, basically indispensable, so were those who provided the grapes. The vineyards provide grapes as table fruit. They also provided grapes for wine in its many forms and uses. Wine was used as a common table drink, it was used in making vinegar for both flavoring and preservation. It was often used as a form of disinfectant to clean wounds. Wine also played a significant role within the Jewish religious practices both in the home and at the Temple. In the first public miracle of Jesus, he turns water into wine so that a couple’s wedding celebration will continue and be remembered with joy and not disappointment or embarrassment. Even people not in the grape growing business understood something about grape growing so we can see and appreciate why Jesus would use this symbolic way of describing himself.

I grow grapes myself and thus I can very much appreciate much of this Gospel in a special way. Jesus says that he is the vine, the true vine, that is rooted in the Father. When you first plant grapes, the plant looks like a beaten, dried-out stick with no life. The shoot needs to be planted deep in the soil. This causes me to reflect on how the Body of Jesus must have looked as it was taken down fro the cross and carried to the tomb. It too was beaten and dried out. It had no life, but while his Body was planted within deep within the earth, Jesus always remained deeply rooted in the Father. Planted in the fall, the grape plant retains its death-like appearance until in the Spring when it takes on its vibrant nature. On Easter the Lord arose from his death and shown forth in his most vibrant glory. Over time the grape stem begins to become a grape vine. But before, it grows very much, the grape grower needs to immediately prune the stem so that the grape plant will have the most fruitful shape and energy and so that it will not in its first years be trying to produce fruit that I can not support.

This pruning process is done annually to ensure that the vines remain fruitful. Jesus tells his disciples that they have already received their initial pruning or cleansing by having heard the word that he spoke to them. We likewise, have heard the word of God preached to us in church and if lucky, in the home and definitely we “hear” the word of the Lord in the lives of those other Christians who give witness to it by the way they lead their lives of which their many examples in this Church family. The annual pruning is most often done in January and February, this is a time when the unproductive branches are removed and tossed into the fire. We as followers of Christ need to be aware that despite being initially prepared to serve with Jesus that there are parts of our lives that are non-productive. There are areas of sin that need to be removed and there are parts of our lives that while not sinful in themselves but do not help us to be fruitful and should we remove these we will have more energy and more vitality in which to serve. While this type of pruning can be done any time during the year, the Church has chosen the season of Lent, for most of us a time of the year not unlike the cold bleak season when the grapes are cut-back, but now that time of self-inspection and sacrifice is past.

Now is the time of Resurrection and renewal. Now is the time when we, rejoicing in the Good News of the Risen Lord are called to bear first blossoms and then fruit. We can only produce good quality fruit if we continue to remain attached to Jesus. In the case of the grape vine, those branches that are closest to the main vine are the branches that produce not only the most fruit but the best quality as well. So the closer we connect ourselves to Jesus through reading the Scriptures, receiving the Sacraments, and by Prayer the more fruitful we will be in bearing our fruit to the world. There is another characteristic of the grape vineyard that also helps the grape vine be fruitful and resistant to outside pressures. The branches of the grape vine interweave with each other and support each other. Each branch supporting those next to it. So it needs to be with God’s vineyard. Not only must we be attached to the true vine Jesus Christ, but we need to be intertwined with each other. We need to realize that we can only be our best when we are involved in supporting others. We also need to be willing to be supported by others when we are in need or distress. Fortunately again this Church family has showed itself as a vineyard of God in which the members, are well intertwined and are quick to respond to the needs of others.

So what then is this fruit that we are to produce? It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and which comes in many many forms but all from one source. We are called to be people in whom this fruit can be experienced by the people around us. As the wine at the wedding feast brought joy to the bride and groom and their guest, we are to be a source of joy. As a toast of the fruit of the vine often is a sign of people or counties making peace, we are to be a sign of the source of the only true peace – Jesus Christ. As wine was used as medicine to heal wounds, so we are called to help heal the wounds of this world by our kindness. As wine was used and understood to show God’s faithfulness in home and temple worship so we are called to show by our faithfulness that God still cares about the people of this world and especially of those who call upon his name.

As many wines grow richer with maturity, so we who have who have achieved a measure of human maturity are challenged to show the richness of God in our lives. The fruit we bear is not meant to be kept to ourselves. It is meant to feed the whole world. So we find in our first reading from Acts, that Philip the Apostle, not to be confused with our Father Philip, on hearing the Ethiopian reading from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant, is willing to share the good news of Jesus with him. This Ethiopian was not a Jew although obviously a respecter and student of the Jewish faith but still a foreigner. Philip was willing to take the time to share with the Ethiopian the whole of the Scriptures and in doing so to show how Jesus was the very fulfillment of those Scriptures. In doing this, Philip was letting the fruit of God’s Spirit, so abundant in his life, come into the life of another.

We also who are blessed by God’s fruitfulness in our lives must be willing to share that fruitfulness with others. If we were to sum up what the fruit we are to bear, it is in one word, love. In being part of the vine that is Jesus Christ, we are bound to the God of Love. This love is not something of mere emotion or sentimentality but rather is a love that is in action. It is a caring for our sisters and brothers. It is a compassion for those around us especially those in need be it physical or spiritual. It is a willingness to bring the the good news to foreigner and enemy as well as friend. Most fruit once picked from the branch begins after but a short time to wither and decay but the fruit that comes from the true vine of Jesus Christ remains fresh and nourishing. Of all God’s fruitful gifts the greatest of these are faith, hope and love and it is the fruit of love that will never pass away.

Christ is Risen. Alleluia, alleluia.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.