Acts 8:26-40, 1 Jn 4:7-21, Jn 15:1-8
Isaac S. Villegas
May 6, 2012
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says to the disciples, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (Jn 15:5). There are some grapevines that grow in a little plot of land on the side of the road across from the campus of Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. I noticed it again when I was there a few weeks ago. The vine stretches out through a trellis, growing up and down and around, twisting and turning, without any logic of direction that I can discern, just a mess of branches.
This is the image that Jesus uses for the Christian life; this mess of vine branches is what the church looks like: a grape vine, not a tree. Trees make sense. The olive or fig trees that Jesus talks about elsewhere reach up, growing toward the sun. Vine branches, on the other hand, move here and there, sometimes up, sometimes down. There’s a freedom of movement with vines; the branches can grow in all direction, depending on the trellis. An olive tree, on the other hand, only goes up, higher and higher. Trees are more stable; they have deep roots and a strong truck. Trees can grow without support. But not vines. Vines need the support of a trellis in order to thrive. They are unstable, precarious, easily cut down to the ground.
The church as a vine, rooted in Jesus, is a lively image. It can speak to us in all sorts of ways, as it twists and turns in our minds, sparking our imagination, as we find ways to connect our lives to the vine. Here are some ways that come to my mind, just to get us started. You may come up with others.
The church is like the vine in that none of us tries to be the highest, the greatest, the closest to the Sun. Instead, our lives are entangled, supporting each other, nudging some branches up into places of authority for a time, and wrapping ourselves around others when they need to be sustained.
Or the church is like a vine in that we are a mess, a mess of branches, a mess of lives trying to keep ourselves together, as one, trying to figure out how we are united even when we branch out in different directions. The church as a vine makes sense of all the diversity, the push and pull of the various branches, all somehow drawing life from Christ, even as we turn on one another, as we turn against one another for a while and sometimes come back around in the end.
Or the church is like a vine in that it always defies our structures. Once an organizational structure is adopted, the branches start growing in the wrong directions, wrong according to the vision and mission that everyone already decided on. The church as a vine is always changing, depending on the environment, depending on the trellis, the weather, the path of the sun.
Those are just a few ways the image can help us imagine the Christian life. But what interests me is Jesus’ call to abide in the wildness of the vine. What does it mean to abide in a mess of tangled branches, to find a home in vines that are always on the move?
For me, life feels more like a vine than a tree — full of twists and turns, without any apparent reason. Some of you may feel the same way. Where you are now wasn’t part of the plan. This job, this home, this town, that relationship — so much of it just happened, and now you are left trying to make sense of where you are and where you are supposed to go. The direction is not always clear. For trees it’s clear, but not for vines.
Ten years ago I wouldn’t have predicted that I would end up becoming a Mennonite, let alone a pastor of a Mennonite church. It just happened. I came to North Carolina for school and someone invited me to church, this church, where I was asked if I wanted to read one of the bible passages during worship; I said yes and the next thing I knew some people had the crazy idea to turn me into a pastor. And I’m still trying to figure out what all of it means.
In the story we heard from Acts, chapter 8, Philip is also left trying to figure out what it all means, after a series of strange twists and turns. An angel shows up and tells him to get up and go south, down a wilderness road. “So he got up and went,” it says in verse 27. Philip really doesn’t know where he is going, or why. He doesn’t know where he will end up, or what will happen to him along the way.
As Philip walks, he sees an Ethiopian, riding in a chariot, reading from the book of Isaiah. Now, this man doesn’t belong with God’s people. He’s a foreigner and he’s a eunuch. Ethiopian eunuchs aren’t supposed to be invited into the family; the eunuch part is especially problematic, if you care about the authority of the bible. Listen to Deuteronomy 23:1, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
We don’t know how Philip came to his decision to baptism this man. We don’t know how he was reasoning with the Scriptures, with God’s command in Deuteronomy, when the Ethiopian eunuch asked him, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:37). Well, I can think of at least two reasons, based of the bible. Why didn’t the bible keep Philip from baptizing the eunuch? We aren’t given the answer. All we know is that for whatever reason, Philip decides to welcome a foreigner, a Gentile, into God’s people — and not just any Gentile, but someone who God expressly forbids from entering into the assembly of the Lord, according to the book of Deuteronomy, a eunuch.
This episode does not follow the plan, Israel’s plan for faithful growth and stability. This baptism happens beyond the bounds of the rules — Philip is like a vine, straying from the other branches, trusting that another arm of the trellis will catch him and this gentile eunuch, and keep them as part of the true vine; Philip is boldly trusting that he and the eunuch will be enfolded by the other branches, as they follow the leading of the Spirit, the path of the Sun, on the wilderness road, where anything can happen.
There is a wildness to what it means to be God’s people. The church is a bit unruly, with branches heading out in all sorts of directions. And Jesus doesn’t say that God will cut off the wild branches, if they stray too far from the others. No, the only reason why God prunes the vine is for the sake of fruit: Jesus says, “The Father removes every branch that bears no fruit” (Jn 15:2). There’s nothing wrong with wild branches, with experiments in faithfulness, with baptizing a eunuch into God’s family and never hearing from him again. What matters, Jesus says, is that we bear fruit — that, as we grow, we bear fruit wherever we are, even in places that we never planned on staying, even if we feel like life has become a tangled mess of branches and we’re stuck, at a loss of direction.
Mennonites have been people who end up living in places that they never planned on, and in situations that they would not have thought ideal. We inherit this tradition, of being forced to branch out into foreign places, being called to travel down wilderness roads, like Philip in the story from Acts. Yet, our Mennonite ancestors, wherever they might have found themselves, took comfort in a verse from the Psalms: Psalm 24, verse 1, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”
The good news is that God is already where you are and where you may be going. The whole earth is the Lord’s, not just this corner of it, or the part of the world that you call home. New life is possible, even when it looks like we are in the wilderness. Wherever God calls us, we are still branches of the vine, bearing fruit. To bear fruit is to give life, to provide for what people need to live: fellowship, meals, friendship, gestures of love, of care, of solidarity, of prayer. To find out what it means to love someone is to begin a conversation, to ask, to listen, to let someone tell you what counts as love. Because love is not something we have possession over; love can’t be imposed on others. Instead, we learn love through asking and listening, as we form relationships, as we give and receive counsel, as we share our stories, our experiences of love and our experiences of rejection, of abuse. This is the messiness of love, of a love that looks like Jesus, the true vine, with branches holding up other branches. These are the places where love happens in our lives, this entanglement of vines that we call the church, where we are able to grow into God’s love, into the God who is love, to abide in the vine. Because, as it says in First John,
if we love one another, God lives in us… By this we know that we abide in him and he in us… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.