The True Vine

The True Vine

Bishop Gordy, Bishop Hartmayer, fellow clergy, brothers and sisters in the Lord—Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and I understand some Episcopalians as well, perhaps even some United Methodists and others:

This is an extraordinary honor for me to deliver the sermon today and especially to preach in this Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist. I thank you, and I have prayed that the Holy Spirit would give me something to say that would help to build up the Great Church of Jesus Christ in spite of all our manifold sins against his Body.

I understand that the Lutheran-Catholic conversations have been going on for fifty years. That in itself is remarkable—a sign of patience, mutual forbearance, and above all, hope. Surely it is a sign also of generosity, not least of which is indicated by my presence here. I have wondered at being invited, since I am neither a Lutheran nor a Catholic, but a member of a particular hybrid. The seeds of the Church of England sprouted from the soil of the Reformation long before the eye of Henry the Eighth started to wander! The Episcopal Church has largely decided to bury that inconvenient fact, preferring to call ourselves the church of the via media, the middle way. The via media notion always reminds me of the famous statement of the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in his book called The Vital Center. He wrote, “The middle of the road is definitely not the vital center; it is the dead center.”[1] I should be very sorry to disappoint anyone, but like Mr. Schlesinger I am dubious about the desirability of offering a via media, and indeed, as this sermon progresses, I hope you’ll see that it’s about something quite different from a “middle way” between Catholics and Protestants.

Speculating a bit further, I sometimes think that Episcopalians may be favored for ecumenical events because, after three hundred years of being The Protestant Episcopal Church, my denomination has deleted the word “Protestant” from its official title, being now just “The Episcopal Church.” An ecumenical move, surely! However, the formerly Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States has now become substantially “Anglo-Catholic” (possibly with a small “c” to be duly respectful to our capital-c brothers and sisters who preside over this cathedral). Therefore (and this might be a little joke that God is playing on us), here you have an Episcopalian of a Protestant persuasion, very much in the minority in my own denomination, but determined nonetheless to try to do justice to what divides us as well as what continues in spite of everything to unite us.

So: following this somewhat tangled introduction, we will embark upon the significantly more tangled and sensitive, yet hopeful and indeed necessary work of reflecting upon where we stand on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Even on a gracious occasion such as this, I don’t think it makes any sense to pretend that there are no important divisions remaining among us. I’m not going to hide that. As I worked on this sermon I found plenty of evidence that we have some really serious disagreements that remain unresolved. One of the most basic differences between Catholics and Protestants can quickly be identified in the history of interpretation of the passage about the vine and the branches. Raymond Brown, probably the most illustrious of all Catholic New Testament scholars of the past century (and my teacher) states in his commentary that the passage is only secondarily about the eucharist, focusing rather on Jesus’ word.[2] Edwyn Hoskyns, another important interpreter of the Gospel of John, argues that the passage is primarily about the eucharist—and he was not a Catholic, but Church of England![3] Oscar Cullman, another important New Testament scholar, insists that the imagery of the vine is not about the eucharist at all, since neither wine nor bread are mentioned. [4] A number of interpreters, including Brown, emphasize Jesus’ saying that “his disciples have been made clean by his word.” So you see that there are some significant issues that remain unsolved right here in our gospel passage for this evening—and those issues are painfully obvious in this service because we cannot receive communion together.

But I think we can say this: although divisions among us about crucial issues such as the relative importance of the Word and the Sacrament are serious, they are not fatal. There is a divine unity in the Church that we cannot destroy, because it is the Body of Christ whether we act like it or not. So in that faith, let’s look more closely at the Gospel reading.

[Jesus said] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

On the last evening of his life, Jesus of Nazareth arranged a dinner in an upper room for his last night with his twelve disciples. Let’s try to get this setting fixed in our minds. The Master, so beloved yet so perplexing, is preparing the men who have followed him for three years to understand that he is leaving them. In a few hours, they will see him arrested, abandoned, stripped, scourged, mocked, humiliated, and nailed to a cross by the side of the road in the most degrading and dehumanizing manner possible. Humanly speaking, this extreme event would put an end to any movement—but Jesus is not “humanly speaking.” He is preparing his disciples for the future of his presence in the world. The words recorded by John the Evangelist in chapters 14 through 16 are called the Farewell Discourses because they are the final words of Jesus to the group of men that he gathered around himself and taught for three years. This setting for the words of the reading you have just heard is therefore of special significance. It’s so important to understand the context of biblical passages, isn’t it? We need to remind ourselves of the drama of this whole climactic scene as John presents it. First, Jesus takes off his clothes except for a loincloth, which is what a slave wears. Then, like a slave, he washes the disciples’ feet. Over many years of listening to Holy Thursday sermons I’ve noticed that the emphasis is often placed in the wrong direction. What John wants us to see is not just what we’re supposed to do for each other, and not simply the humility of Jesus, either. What’s really at stake here is the identity of Jesus. There’s a tight link, canonically speaking, between the footwashing scene and the saying of St Paul that “Christ Jesus…was in the form of God…but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6-7).

So when, immediately after, Jesus sits down and addresses the disciples with this image of the vine and the branches, he is clearly speaking to them about who he is. Not just what he does, but who he is. So we need to focus first of all on the person who is saying, “I am the true vine.” This is the next-to-last of the “I AM” (ego eimi) sayings in the Gospel of John. The “I AM” sayings, taken together, add up to a uniquely staggering claim, best summed up in the scene just two or three hours later, on the Mount of Olives, when Jesus is taken into custody by a crew of religious officials and men with torches (torches, at night… that has a resonance nowadays, doesn’t it?)[5] The men declare that they seek Jesus of Nazareth. Most of the translations say that the Lord responds: “I am he.” But that’s not what the Greek says. In John’s original Greek, Jesus says, “I AM” (ego eimi)…and [the men] fell to the ground. This is the climax of the I AM sayings, and it really can’t be construed as anything other than a deliberate appropriation by Jesus of the name given by God to Moses from the burning bush. Therefore, precisely at the moment when his passion begins, Jesus unequivocally identifies himself as nothing less than the living presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the creator of the universe, the Lord who is and who was and who is to come (Revelation 1:8).

This matter of the identity of Jesus—the man who says in such a commanding way that he alone is the true vine that gives life and fruit to the branches—is of unique, irreducible, primary significance for Christian faith, and yet it is that very identity that has been called into question, not just from skeptics in academic circles, but from within the church itself. “Christology”—the study of the identity of Jesus Christ—has been seriously and systematically undermined for decades without a strong response from the churches until quite recently, and the results have been devastating. Luke Timothy Johnson has written that a “Christological collapse” has occurred as a result of the church’s capitulation to pressures from academic circles and from generically religious trends in the culture. Cardinal Avery Dulles, in his dying message, warned against this seductive line of thinking within the church that has led Christian people to lose faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Fr. Robert Imbelli has written that we cannot speak of evangelization and church growth unless we reaffirm the source of our life in the life of God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And Christian Wiman, the poet who has suffered from a particularly terrible form of cancer, comes close to the inner meaning of the vine imagery when he wrote, “Christ’s life is not simply a model for how to live, but the living truth of my own existence.”[6] What a wonderful phrase, “living truth”; John could have written that “Jesus Christ is the living truth of the existence of the church.”

Truth is a major theme in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” A few interpreters have speculated that the disciples might have seen vines, or an image of vines, earlier that day; vineyards were common sights in their environment. Not only so, but the vineyard was a major image in the Old Testament for the nation of Israel. So when Jesus says, I am the true vine,” he is emphasizing his singularity as the one and only source of the life of the community that comes into being around him. “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

I spend much of my time in the Massachusetts Berkshire hills. We are plagued by wild grapevines which can grow large enough to cover a mature oak tree. One day I noticed a vine that was strangling a young birch tree on our road, so much so that the tree was beginning to droop down from the vine’s weight in an alarming fashion. I started trying to pull the vine out of the tree, but very quickly it became obvious that that was a fool’s errand. I went back to the house and got our large lopping shears and took it back to the tree. I found the place where the vine was rooted and I cut through the trunk right where it was growing out of the ground. Within two days, the lush green vine began to wither and die. This recollection came back to me when I was considering Jesus’ words this past week. It is the Lord himself who is the life of the church, and when we no longer seek our life from him and from him alone, the church will begin to dry up. We don’t live from his teachings at second hand; we live from himself—crucified, risen, ascended, and reigning.

It is a fact that many prominent Lutherans and Episcopalians have become Catholics. You know who many of them are. I think there is one overriding reason for this, at least among those whom I know. It’s the magisterium, the teaching office of the Church of Rome. Some of us can only take so much more chipping away at the very life of the church, the unique identity of the one who says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Father Imbelli, who calls himself a man of Vatican II,  calls on four different popes to illustrate the Christological theme. Benedict XVI, he writes, underscores the fidelity of Paul VI and John Paul II to the “Council’s confession of the ‘Christic structure and heart of faith…a deep and complete convergence upon Christ as the center of the cosmos and of history…Jesus Christ is not only the object of the faith but, as Hebrews says, he is ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Pope Francis also, Imbelli writes, has urged the church to “put on Christ!”[7] Protestantism in our time doesn’t seem to have many effective guards at the gate of the gospel, so there have been some significant defections from those who want to commit themselves to a church that still stands firmly for the uniqueness of Christ our Redeemer.

You’ll notice that I’m not mentioning any of the presenting symptoms of the ills of the Church of Rome, or in the zillion and one varieties of Protestantism either. Our focus tonight is the Lord of the Church, the very life blood of its existence. There are many things that continue to divide us. Episcopalians are set against other Episcopalians, and Lutherans against Lutherans. But “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8), and although our divisions and errors are grievous to him, he remains the true Vine who gives life to the branches so that we will bear “much fruit”—for without him, we can do nothing.

There is a fashion today for exhorting us to “live into” various things: live into our baptism, live into our calling, live into our mission. I think that’s a very 21st century humanist do-it-yourself way of speaking. We don’t “live into” the vine who is the life of the church and of each Christian; the vine lives into us. We live from the vine, from the Word of God, from the body and blood of Christ, from the tireless work of the Spirit, new every morning. Thank God I don’t have to be responsible for “living into” anything. I had a great deal of trouble putting this sermon together and I still don’t really know what I am doing. I throw myself upon the Holy Spirit of the one true Vine, from whom I live, and trust him to speak to you here tonight, our Master and Redeemer, the living Lord Jesus Christ, of one substance with the Father.

I’ve quoted a lot of Catholics this evening. It’s my impression that Protestants read Catholic scholars a lot more than Catholics read Protestants. I’m going to bring this to its climax by referring to a couple of Protestants. Rudolf Bultmann, who was wrong about many things, was right about the main thing. He puts it this way:

“Faith is the unconditional decision to base oneself on the act of God, at the cost of giving up one’s own ability”… This is “not primarily a continued being for, but a being from…” (535)  …”not the holding of a position, but an allowing oneself to be held” (535-6) …. “his word is…the free word of revelation that makes alive and that establishes anew one’s whole existence”[8]

And here, dear Lutherans, is that towering Protestant doctor of the church, Karl Barth, quoting Brother Martin as he writes of the Church’s being with Christ, the true vine. Let us listen to this with open hearts:

Luther maintained that in the incomparable grace of faith the soul and Christ are coupled together in a marriage far surpassing the tenuis figura [fleeting image] of what passes for such among [human beings], since in [the grace of faith] the soul may possess and glory in everything that belongs to Christ, i.e., his grace and life and salvation, whereas Christ makes his own everything that belongs to [us], i.e., [our] sin and death and damnation.”[9]

Do you hear that? This is the Great Exchange. Christ, the true vine, has given us everything that belongs to him, and in his passion he has taken into himself everything that has belonged to us since the Fall of Adam—sin and death and condemnation. He has taken all of that into himself, into hell, and has borne it away.

There cannot be any union of the church tonight in the Supper of the Lord—not yet. God willing, the union that perhaps we sense moving among us tonight is the union of the church in the Word. “You are made clean by the word I have spoken to you.” For tonight, that is enough. The Lord has spoken the word, and he is The Word. “The Word was in the beginning with God, and the Word was God.” He is the vine, we are the branches. In spite of our sad divisions, here we are for this one moment in time and eternity, here together in this space, “made clean by the word he has spoken and by the Word (the Logos) that he is.”

In closing, let us hear the words of Jesus himself as he prays for us, for you and me, for the branches of his vine in this place, here, and now:

Father, the glory which you have given me I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as you and I are one; I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that you have sent me, and that you love them even as you love me. Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory…, [for] I made your name known unto them, and will make it known; that the love with which you love me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:22-26)


[1] Emphasis added. The original quotation was in Schlesinger’s 1949 book The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, but it was often appropriated in a way he never intended. In his introduction to the second edition of his book, he protested against the common misuse of the phrase  “vital center” to mean “middle of the road” (Cambridge, Mass: Da Capo Press, 1988, xiii). A decade later, he was still protesting, in an indignant rebuke of President Clinton’s use of the term “vital center” to mean a pallid “middle of the road” (Slate (1/10/1997). This complaint of Schlesinger’s could equally well be lodged against the use of the term via media by Anglicans/ Episcopalians to describe their tradition. By “vital center” Schlesinger meant something more like “beating heart.”

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol. II (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 673-4. Brown also insists on “love and faith” as central to the vine-branch mashal

[3] Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (London: Faber & Faber, second edition mcmxlvii), 479.

[4] Brown, reference to Cullmann in The Gospel According to John, Vol. II, 673-4.

[5] This is a reference to the recent scene in Charlottesville where a number of neo-Nazis, neo-KKKs, and other white supremacists, some of them armed, marched at night with tiki torches and hateful slogans on the Lawn of the University of Virginia.

[6] Various examples from R. P. Imbelli, Rekindling the Christic Imagination, Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 2014.

[7] Robert P. Imbelli, “55 Years after Vatican II, the Task Remains the Same,” America: The Jesuit Review, October 16, 2017.

[8] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (New York: Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 535-6.

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.2, 549. I have changed the wording very slightly in the interests of clarity.

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