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Prune, Prune, Prune

Easter 5B-18

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I am not a gardener, but I pretend to be one at home.  Raking out leaves and removing the dead sticks and bits of last year’s growth, I noticed the green shoots of this year have begun to form, despite the long cold spring we’ve had.

Growers tell me, good gardening is a ruthless task.  Pull out the weeds and uproot the weaker plants. Divide the thriving ones before they crowd everything else out. Pluck the heads from blooming flowers. Hunt for and destroy malicious bugs and prune, prune, prune everything down to the nub. Don’t worry about disturbing those root systems in the seedling packets: tearing, breaking, and chopping them stimulates their growth.

Of course, what seems like no big deal to do to plants is another thing entirely when done to us, but don’t say we were not warned.  The old Adam and Eve must be drowned in baptism.  We say it so casually. Yet if our gospel is to be understood, then death and resurrection is not something that happened only to Jesus, it’s what the Holy Spirit is busy doing right now—in us! Prune, prune, pruning us down to the nub.

Sooner or later, we realize that life is a pruner. The French composer Hector Berlioz once remarked, “Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.”  As the years and decades go by our failures start to go by the name, experience, an achievement that qualifies us to bear responsibility and dispense wisdom—truly!

We are rooted in the gospel, planted in the rich soil of Word and sacrament, nourished by tradition and fed by the community of faith. Probably, we don’t do enough to learn about who we are and what we’ve inherited in our scriptures, theology, and liturgy. Beneath the surface, our roots are deeply woven together, but above ground, today’s scriptures admonish us to prune, prune, prune back our expectations of what God is up to, what the future will bring, what it means to be the church and especially about who is included and who is excluded within the life of Christ.

We learn this lesson from Jesus’ follower Philip who was forced to quickly discern how to respond to the Ethiopian eunuch who was brought to him by the Holy Spirit. Philip mysteriously encountered a wealthy Ethiopian official seated in a fabulous chariot in the middle of the desert, in the noonday sun, reading aloud from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. He was a black man. He was in charge of keeping the treasury for the whole Ethiopian kingdom.  He was very powerful, and he was a eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).

Jewish purity codes required that a eunuch must not be allowed to enter the Temple.  In fact, no one was allowed to talk with him, or have a meal with him, or even touch him, no matter how rich, and powerful he was (Deuteronomy 23:1).  (Clarice J. Martin “A Chamberlain’s Journey, and the Challenge of Interpretation for Liberation)

Tradition taught Philip to label him as a “dead branch,” someone outside of God’s reign and revelation. And yet, God had other plans to which Philip was open. In Christ, Philip reassessed his answer to the Ethiopian’s question: What is to prevent even me from being grafted into the vine, the living body of Christ?

In this brief encounter, we find the first real test of the inclusive vision of the early church.  We hear council to be open to the mysteries of growth that God brings. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

In our gospel today the disciples are gathered around Jesus while they sat at the table, just as they had done on many nights. They sat around Jesus and celebrated the Passover meal.  It was a night they knew was special, but it’s true meaning and import was revealed to them only as later as they looked back and recounted the events of that night and remembered Jesus’ last words.

I AM, Jesus had said.  “I AM,” he said it in a way that made the disciples think of Moses’ encounter with God in the desert at the burning bush. I AM WHO I AM, God had said.  They remembered other times Jesus had said, “I AM the bread of life”.  “I AM the resurrection and the life.” “I AM the way, the truth, and the life.” “I AM the door.”  “I AM the good shepherd.”  Now Jesus was saying, “I AM the true vine.”

Gathered at his feet at the last supper on the night he was betrayed, the disciples would have understood Jesus was connecting himself to a familiar image of ‘The True Vine,’ a symbol for the nation of Israel.

The prophet Hosea described Israel as “luxuriant vine” (Hosea 10:1). Jeremiah had described Israel as “a choice vine wholly of pure seed” (Jeremiah 2:21).  During the brief period of the Jewish revolt against Rome that began in 66 A.D. and ended with the death of the last hold-outs at the rocky fortress of Masada in 73 A.D., the national symbol of the state of Israel affixed to its coins and emblazoned upon their flags was the image of a vine.

In his last words to the disciples before his arrest, crucifixion, and death, Jesus pointed to this familiar religious image and filled it with new spiritual wine. In a vine branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops, and another begins. The church is a community connected to the living Word through water and wine. We are nourished by God through faith in Christ Jesus.  We are called to be in the world and for the world but not of the world. As Jesus broke bread, so we are broken for others; as Jesus poured out the fruit of the vine, so we are poured out for all those who are thirsty now.

Jesus told the disciples and tells us the path to a fruitful life “…arises from connection to Christ and to one another, through interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling.” The communal life envisioned here raises a strong challenge to contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency. Rooted in grace, God can bring fine wine from flinty soil.  God draws blessings out of the most tragic of events.  God bring new vitality to tired lives.  We draw sustenance from the source of life that is in Christ Jesus.

Each Fall a vine must be cut down to the stub of its trunk to remain healthy.  Each spring, even the new growth must be pruned in order that it may bear more fruit. This is exactly what God is doing now to us as we gather here, as we feast at this table, and hear the word. God, our gardener, prunes away everything getting in the way of our proper flourishing as a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

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