rowing up, I lived in a quiet neighborhood, a cul-de-sac. There were a lot of kids who lived on our road and we did everything together. One of the ways we passed the time was to sit underneath a neighbor’s grapevine that grew above a picnic table in their back yard. We helped ourselves to the grapes before they ripened. The problem was, the grapes were green and sour. We didn’t care. We had contests to see who could eat the most grapes. Nine times out of ten we left the picnic table, slowly making our way home with upset stomachs, headaches, and a tart mouth. But, that never stopped us from returning to that yard and doing it all over again before the grapes ripened.
When I first read this morning’s gospel, IT left a sour taste in my mouth, like those grapes. The idea of Christ dwelling in me is something that leaves me very comforted. On the other hand, I do not enjoy thinking that if a branch is not bearing fruit it will be lopped off and thrown into the fire. That is a little scary….. It’s scary because I do not consider myself an A-One Christian. I’m not even an average one at times. I have had some very difficult moments in my life and have experienced doubts, and my faith has been shaken. During those, times not only have I stopped bearing fruit, but I have to say that my abiding in Christ needed a serious re-set! I have watched while others close to me have had to deal with suicide, addiction and deep uncertainty about the future, leaving people raw and vulnerable. Every so often I begin to wonder, like others, “Where is God?”
In the gospel reading this morning it appears that the same feelings may be found in John’s audience. He is writing late in the first century when a specific Christian community was undergoing a painful separation from the Jewish society to which their members had belonged. If this community even mentioned that Jesus was the Son of God or the Messiah, then disciplinary action would take place. So, many Christians remained in the synagogue in secret, actually hiding their true beliefs.
John is aware of all of this and because he believed so firmly in the new Christian movement that is going on, he writes this gospel in hopes of encouraging those who are feeling persecuted. John’s account of the one and only Son of God is shown in the metaphor Jesus uses to describe who he is, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” Jesus goes on to say that if we do not abide in Christ then we cannot bear much fruit, just like a branch that cannot grow by itself unless it abides in the vine.
So, I now think that early on, when I first read this passage, maybe I missed some significant details. Maybe Jesus is not warning that God will remove them from the vine if they make a mistake, have doubts, or periods of fruitlessness. Any one of us have had these feelings at one time or another, and some people have had them to the extreme.
There was an extreme example of fruitlessness and one not abiding in Christ at all—at least for a while. John Profumo was a British politician in the early 1950’s and early 60’s. He was Secretary of State for War, the UK equivalent to the Secretary of Defense in the US. He enjoyed a very comfortable life with a successful career, social benefits and a devoted wife and family.
In 1963, however, a scandal broke out involving Profumo. He had illicit affair with a British actress who was also dating a Russian diplomat. It tore apart everything Profumo had worked for up to that point. His prestigious career, social position and reputation—all gone just like that! And, as you can imagine, the press had a field day with this revelation and he and his family were shamed and ridiculed. And, then almost overnight, Profumo and family disappeared from sight. In time, the scandal and all that went with it had faded and life got back to normal.
Over the next four decades Profumo’s name came up with a snicker and a joke, but the man and his family were still out of sight. Not until his death were people aware that during those 4 decades, Profumo had devoted himself to Toynbee Hall—a charitable mission in the East End of London. Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever visited this part of London. If you haven’t then just think of the toughest neighborhoods in Hartford, New Haven or New London, and you have imagined where Profumo worked. Here at Toynbee Hall, Profumo washed dishes, helped with play groups and collected rents. He wrote ceaselessly to benefactors, raising money for the impoverished. He did this for 40 years and no one knew!!
Now, you might think that Profumo’s selfless work was really just a way to get on the good side of God, to make sure that God saw that he was bearing more fruit at the end of his life so as not to be judged too harshly. And, there could be some merit to that way of thinking, I guess. But ten or twenty years of this kind of service, I believe, would have been all that Profumo would have done if rehabilitation was all that he had in mind. But keep in mind that no one knew this was going on. No press, no cameras, no attention to this work at all. For me, forty years is a testament to the devotion of humility and love Profumo found in this grimy, violent and shabby place that he came to love. I believe that Profumo did bear fruit and did abide in Christ after all. And he did those things for impoverished neighbors, for the malnourished children, in feeding the addicted and alcoholic men and women in the soup kitchen. He did this until his death at 91. This man was abiding in Christ—perhaps repairing a branch that had been cut off and trying once again to bear good fruit in a way that he came to love.
For me, Jesus doesn’t pull nourishment away from a fruitless vine. Jesus doesn’t withhold life from a dead branch. Jesus speaks life into death. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with having to be fruitful, perfect, or righteous. It doesn’t have anything to do with God’s judgmental pruning shears. We see and hear people toting that kind of thinking in our everyday lives. The message of the gospel is that Jesus conquered death John Profumo stopped bearing fruit for a while, when he was caught up in something that was not of God—something bad. But that was not the end of his story. Profumo needed God’s unending love and care and Profumo gave that love back in his work with the poor. As the theologian, Gale O’Day suggests, “With a grapevine, it is impossible to determine where one branch stops and another begins. They are completely indistinguishable from one another. All run together as they grow out of the central vine.” I love that image because it reinstates for me that we all dependent on Christ and on each other.
God is the central vine and Jesus is surely the branches. We are not cut off when we are confused, acting negatively or feeling untrusting. Thomas was not cut off because of doubt, Peter was not cut off because he denied Jesus three times. John Profumo was not cut off because he made some terrible decisions in his life. God breathed new life into their branches and they were all able to abide in Christ once more and bear much fruit.
The most important thing we can do to bear fruit is to love one another as Christ loved us. And, love cannot just be in words and talk—not even in the most lovely sounding prayers. Love is shown in actions and that is what Jesus was all about. If we are open to each other, leave the judgment to God, and abide in Christ then his death will not have been in vain.
Let us pray:
O Lord, you are the vine and we are the branches. Help us abide firmly in you, so when we have moments of doubt, grief and confusion we will remember that you are always there, reaching out with your loving hands. Amen.
Preached by Ann Perrott