Grumpy Raisins

John 15:1-8

In today’s Gospel, like last week, we encounter one of Jesus’ “I am” statements. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he said last week; and today, “I am the true vine.”

So, last week I offered an exploration into the image itself. If Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are disciples of Jesus, then it follows logically that we are sheep.

And thus we imagined together what it means to follow a good shepherd and not a hired hand; what it feels like for Jesus to know each of us by name; and, particularly, what the other sheep might look like about whom Jesus says we know nothing.

Admittedly, my homily was playful and enlightening, in part because it’s easy to personify sheep. They’re living, active creatures with a kind of collective personality.

Today, however, not so much. I mean, how do you personify branches; or grapes; or raisins?

So, instead of putting ourselves into the skins of grapes this week, I want to look at the bigger picture, the historical and cultural contexts in which Jesus speaks.

To begin, do you remember the story from the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel about a man born blind?

Jesus is walking along the road with his disciples. They see a man blind from birth; and the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus says, no, you’ve got it all wrong. And to show them, he stoops down, spits on the ground, makes a little mud, spreads the mud on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash. Once he does, he comes back seeing. Incredible!

That’s the part of the story we usually remember anyway. But there’s a lot more to it.

Next, some of the man’s neighbors see him walking around with his sight restored. So, naturally enough, they ask him, “What happened? How is it that you now see?”

He explains that this man named Jesus put some mud on my eyes and told me to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

Well, in disbelief, the neighbors bring the man before a group of Pharisees.

Now—a brief aside; I want to offer a word of caution—when we hear the word Pharisees, we should not automatically think “bad guys.” Pharisees were (and are to this day) something like an order in the Jewish religion—Benedictine, Franciscan, etc. Pharisees are generally devout people and highly respected in their community.

So, when the Bible mentions Pharisees, this is the image that should come to mind first and foremost: influential community leaders; and not (automatically) the opposition.

Returning to the story then, the healed man is led before a group of Pharisees—i. e., influential community leaders—and he tells them his story. And, curiously, the group is divided.

It happened on the Sabbath. So some of them say, “This man Jesus cannot be of God, for he healed on the Sabbath.” Yet others say, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”

Some of the Pharisees—presumably those who feel that Jesus cannot be of God—only some of them—then confront the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they ask. Yes. “Was he born blind?” they ask. Yes. “Do you know that he now sees?” they ask. Really? Incredible!

“Well, yes,” they admit, reluctantly, “I guess it is actually kind of incredible. But that’s beside the point! How is it that he can now see?”

And the parents answer, “We don’t know. But he is of age. Why don’t you ask him?”

And what comes next really is incredible. But it comes fast and furious and is gone before we know it; and thus is a detail we all too often miss or forget about: the reason why the parents answered as they did.

“His parents said this,” the Gospel narrates, “because they were afraid of the Pharisees; for the Pharisees had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

The healed man’s parents were afraid! They did not want to be put out of the synagogue. They feared excommunication.

Another way to say this: they were afraid of being cut off from the vine of Israel—a point to which I will return shortly.

But, first, to finish the story, the Pharisees—or, to clarify, that part of the group of Pharisees who did not like Jesus—again call forward the healed man, now charging him with a solemn oath to give glory to God and tell the truth! “We know this man Jesus is a sinner!” they exclaim.

“Whether he’s a sinner or not,” the healed man replies, “I don’t know. But one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see.”

And at last the story concludes with these chilling words: “And they drove him out.”

Those influential community leaders drive the healed man out of the synagogue because he trusts in Jesus. He is effectively excommunicated, cut off, in their minds, from the vine Israel.

Yeah—so to return to that point—the vine Israel!

Jesus is not the first person to use this vine-and-branches metaphor. Israel is often described as a vine in the Old Testament.

Psalm 80 says: “O LORD God of hosts . . . you brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.”

Isaiah 5 sings of God’s relationship with Israel, beginning with these words: “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning his vineyard.”

And Ezekiel 19 says: “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard . . . fruitful and full of branches from abundant water.”

No doubt this metaphor was quite familiar to John’s audience.

And John’s audience—those to whom John had initially written his Gospel—like the man born blind, had been cut off from the vine Israel. And the reason they had been cut off was because, like the healed man, they trusted in Jesus as their Messiah.

Even more profoundly, the vine Israel had cut off Jesus himself; or, to tell it from John’s point of view, Israel cut itself off from Jesus.

Do you see what John is doing here? Jesus is the true vine, John proclaims to his audience; Jesus is their true source of life.

Contrary to what those grumpy community leaders intended—to cut off Jesus’ followers from their source of life—they had instead cut themselves off from Christ, the true source of life. Followers of Jesus are the alive ones in this story; it is those who have rejected Jesus who are cut off from the true vine, left to languish, wither, dry up, and become raisins.

And they did it to themselves! God didn’t cut them off; God can’t be blamed here. They pruned themselves. They cut themselves off from Jesus, the true source of life.

Today Jesus tells us that the vinegrower should be the one who removes fruitless and withered branches; the vinegrower should be the one to prune.

But remove and prune—these words suggest pain. And we don’t like the idea of someone else inflicting pain on us, even if that someone else is God. So, instead, like those grumpy Pharisees, we try to prune ourselves.

The trouble is we’re not very good at it.

Maybe this is where personifying the metaphor could be helpful. For how adept could a branch ever become at pruning itself? Branches, certainly, have very limited manual dexterity. And the older a branch grows, we all know, the more hardened and gnarled it becomes. Really, how could a branch, young or old, ever prune itself?

And yet we still try.

Just like those grumpy Pharisees!

And we know what happened to them: they cut themselves off from Jesus, their source of life, leaving themselves to become raisins.

Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Let God be the vinegrower. Your job is to bear rich, plump, abundant fruit; not raisins.

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