Homily for The Geneva School

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Jesus is the True Vine

Over 20 years ago now, before the turn of the century in fact, a book came out called Way of the Modern World with a subtitle something like “why it’s tempting to live as if God does not exit.” The author’s contention was that in the Western world of comfort and consumeristic materialism, we can actually live in 21st century America as if God does not exist. Hey, look around you in your neighborhood – there are thousands of people living and walking around with no knowledge of God, Jesus, or the things we speak about here at Geneva. Some of them appear to be doing quite well, yes?  They seem to live quite successfully as if God does not exist.

         In fact, I think one of the crazy things about life in America is this ethos that says, “I got this.” Self-sufficiency has always been considered a virtue in the American work ethic. Perhaps you have heard me say in the past that the opposite of biblical faith is not doubt. Doubt still asks the questions; doubt can still turn to belief and trust. Rather, . . . the opposite of faith is self-reliance. Faith requires that you surrender to another, you depend on another to do for you what you cannot do for yourself.  Self-reliance says, “I control my life, I got this.”  The first and most fundamental act of rebellion is “I will do this myself. I will be my own god.”

         But the Scriptures teach us something different – something, in fact, that remains a huge stumbling block for most people in our Western culture. Scripture teaches us that as created beings, we are profoundly dependent creatures. We cannot survive much less thrive on our own. Yes, there are those legends of the wilderness hermit who lived and survived on his own – but such people are also often severely broken psychologically.  We are made in God’s image. We are made in God’s image as relational beings – and the first and fundamentally essential relationship is that which we have with our triune God, then relationships with family, then with others.

         Jesus captures this idea of our fundamental inter-connectedness when He told His disciples “I am the True Vine and My Father is the Vinedresser.” It is a rich metaphor, with nuances often lost on most of us who have grown up away from any exposure to agrarian life. But it is one of those titles of God, names or metaphors of Jesus, that includes us in the metaphor. He is the True Vine, we are the branches. We have a lot to learn here.

         First, note that Jesus says He is the “True Vine” – which of course implies that there are other vines. I saw this as a kid in my parent’s home town in Pennsylvania. There were well tended winery vineyards – these are the true vines; then you could also find vines in people’s back yards – not as strong a heritage or product, passable maybe; but then you could also find wild grapevines in the woods whose fruit was positively sour and unsatisfying.

         Make no mistake, my young friends, there are many forces in our culture, many false vines, calling for your loyalty, your trust, your connection, and seeking your surrender. Some are rather banal and harmless, others frightfully dangerous and destructive to body and soul. Only Jesus offers true connection, true life, true hope and future.

         Second, note that connection to this vine requires pain and loss. Did you hear it? “Every branch in me that bears fruit he [God, the Vinedresser] prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”  Ouch. Some of you have heard me talk about this. I saw this in action as a kid when we lived in that town. In late winter, the vinedressers go into the vineyard and prune away last year’s growth and any parts of the vine not bearing fruit. These are living parts of the vine.  Sometimes God needs to cut away parts of us living parts that are not fruitful. Why? . . . So the essence of us can be more fruitful.  Left to ourselves, we grow all kinds of needless sucker vines, drawing life and richness away from the fruit. God wants our fruit to be rich, deeply satisfying, complex; . . . not watered down, weak, and tasteless.

         But third, and scary, note the other part of vs. 2: “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away.” And then in vs. 6: “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Again, the vinedressers cut away the unfruitful, harmful parts of the vine to allow the true vine to flourish. And those parts cut off are gathered – we called it “pulling brush” – put into huge piles and burned.

         Now let’s be careful here. Jesus was speaking to His people – those connected by covenant and family to God and His people. And this speaks to many of you here – born and raised in a covenant, believing home where faith is present and real. This is a warning to you – being born in a Christian home does not make one a Christian –it is only by faith in Jesus, God’s Son that saves you, not mom and dad’s faith. The warning is: grow up in such a blessed environment, and a time will come when God looks at the maturing vine to assess its fruitfulness – if it is not bearing fruit (that is, not believing and trusting), it … will be … cut off.

         Some of you right now might be thinking, “Well, my family are not Christians, so what does that mean for me?  Like you, I grew up in a family where faith was not real or meaningful. So God cut me off a wild vine out in the woods and graciously grafted me into His True Vine, the people of God and His Church. Perhaps that can be your story of grace and mercy too!

         But there is more! Fourth, note the offensive part of this passage in vs. 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” I remember hearing that as a kid in 6th or 7th grade and thinking, “Who does this Jesus think he is? I can do all kinds of things: play guitar, play soccer, I’m smart and pretty good looking, . . .” I really thought such things. I was raised to be self-reliant.

         Friends, we are not independent people; we are not made to be self-reliant. Rather, we are profoundly dependent upon God and inter-dependent upon others. It takes God pruning away your self-righteousness, your pride, and your trust in yourself to bring you to a place of surrendering to Him.  … But that’s when real life can begin.

Geneva’s faculty teach and mentor you all because we care about not only your present success but your future growth into faithful and faith-filled adults. Our collective affection for each of you grows from our deep desire to see you flourish as human beings. That only happens when you are connected to The True Vine. Jesus is our life! In Him we live move have our being. This faculty may have different convictions on many things socially and politically and personally — but on this, there is 100% consensus: Jesus is your only hope in life and in death.  

A sad reality is that some of you may shipwreck your faith.  It happens to some. Worldview, community, mentors in Jesus matter.  Don’t become cut off.  Suckers without fruit get cut off — we are saved by faith in Jesus, and that salvation bears fruit. If there is no fruit, it shows there is no root. We are not saved by what we do. It is by Grace alone through faith in Christ alone!  But what we do, the way we live, demonstrates the reality of Jesus as our life-giving vine. 

The World says, “Do your own thing, find your way, be true to your authentic self” . . . but Scripture says our authentic self runs from God, wants to be its own god, and the fruit it yields is weak, sour, or (at best) tasteless – it will not satisfy!

         Last week Haley Taylor spoke about the necessity of taking a genuine Christian faith with you to college. She said, “without intentionality it is easy to conform to the ways of the world.”  And I would add, without connection to the

True Vine of Jesus, you will inevitably be conformed to the world – the wild, uncultivated essentially poisonous vine. Remember, false vines don’t give life or richness; stability, health, or vitality. But life in Jesus is contra mundum –against the world. Today’s cultural worldview is driven by selfishness and self-centered-ness that erodes into immorality and fruitlessness. “Americans are softening in their practicing Christianity; social issues are recalibrating essential Christian convictions. These are gradual small steps away from historic faith.” Haley said, “With every choice we either move closer to God or father away from him.”

         Some in this room heard a sermon last Sunday where the pastor said the worst possible curse is to be left alone, left to ourselves – but God says He will allow this for those who are ultimately self-reliant and rebellious. Ps. 81 in yesterday’s morning prayer: says, “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts.”  Then Deuteronomy 28:68, “And the LORD will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” May God forbid that you are ever left ultimately to yourself with no one who even would want to make you a slave. The opposite of connection to the Vine is utter loneliness.

         My friends, abide in the True Vine. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Find life, health, future, hope, fullness of life and contentment in Jesus, the True Vine. Then you will flourish and bear much fruit.  May God give you and me the grace so to do.