I just got back from Germany, and the main reason for my journey was to attend the confirmation of my nephew, David, and my twin nieces, Laura and Loreen. They are just over a year apart, so my sister decided to just have them all confirmed together. It was a festive event, and it was good to celebrate with the family back home. I even got to participate in the service! And all this made me think of the time when I was in confirmation class, more than 30 years ago, and how confirmation and confirmation classed have changed since then. For example, apparently learning things by heart is not as strongly enforced today as it was still in my confirmation days. As a matter of fact, when the presiding pastor two weeks ago recited the Apostles’ Creed with the confirmands just before the confirmation service, you know, to make sure people knew it and wouldn’t embarrass themselves during the service, there were still some who didn’t know the whole thing. Now I’d like to invite you to think back to your confirmation, or your confirmation classes. What were some of the things you had to learn (by heart)? The Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed, Psalm 23, the 10 commandments…?
Why do you think you had to learn these things by heart? Was it meant to be a foundation for you? Was it supposed to ground you in the faith, and give you something to hold on to during days of hardship or doubt?
The 10 commandments are very important. They are basically covering all aspects of life in community, to make it work. However, what is the first commandment? I am the Lord, your God; thou shalt not have any other God’s before me. I am. Now ‘I am’ happens to be the name as God reveals it in the scriptures we know as the Old Testament. Jahwe, I am, I was, I will be. The people of Israel are reminded that God is the source and the goal of all human existence. It is God’s love and provision of which we are reminded; the great I am gives us purpose, and in that light the commandments are an expression of God’s love and care for us. Without this base line, if we forget about God, the I am, the commandments become just another annoying and potentially optional to-do list.
But, rooted in God, with God as our focus, the commandments help us to be transformed – to be transformed into a true community of God in which we honor each other and hold up each other’s dignity. And this is good to remember that we are community, especially during these days, as we, again, deal with immense racial tensions in this country – as we watch hundreds of human beings drown in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to escape circumstances we cannot even imagine in search of a safer and better life – as we are confronted with suffering and injustice and sin and death each and every day of our lives.
Now John the evangelist picks up the concept of God, the I am. It is not by coincidence that he writes down all the things that Jesus has to say about himself and his identity. I am…what? Another confirmation class question. What does Jesus say about himself? I am…? Well, who remembers what Jesus says about himself in today’s gospel? I am the vine. What about last Sunday’s gospel? I am the good shepherd. I am the gate to the sheep. And Jesus, according to John, uses many more symbols to describe himself, like, I am the way, the truth, and the life.
And by picking up God’s ancient name I am, Jesus makes it very clear that he is one with the Father; that he is God.
So today the focus is on our being rooted in Jesus Christ. I am the vine, Jesus says. You are the branches. Without Jesus, the vine, we’d be nothing. Christ is our source. But now I’d like to look at an image of a vine (as is shown above or below). Beautiful, isn’t it? This is what we want to see, the vines full of juicy fruit. Why would we plant a vineyard if not for the grapes, which we either eat, or which we use for winemaking? That’s the purpose of a vineyard, to produce a good harvest.
I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide or remain in me and I in them bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. So there’s our purpose – to produce something, to give something essential, something that’s needed, to the world. We may think of grapes or wine as a luxury, something we don’t truly need, but in the ancient Mediterranean world, wine, more often than not of low quality, was an essential staple of the everyday diet.
But even more so was bread. Why doesn’t Jesus say: I am the wheat stalk, you are the ear? Look at the picture of the wheat stalk.
Well, first of all it doesn’t sound quite as poetic. And it looks a little different, doesn’t it? But maybe that’s an image that’s more fitting for our modern, Western society in which individualism and personal faith is treasured. One stalk, one ear. MY Jesus, MY savior. It is all about the fruit that I bring.
However, Jesus is not talking about our own individual spirituality – Jesus is talking about community. – which brings us back to the purpose of theTen Commandments. The image of the vine makes that quite clear.
Gail O’Day, a NT scholar, writes:” … the image of community that emerges from John 15 is one of interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling…In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops and another branch starts. All run together as they grow out of the central vine. What this vine image suggests about community, then, is that there are no free-standing individuals in the community, but branches who encircle one another completely. The fruitfulness of each individual branch depends on its relationship to the vine, nothing else. What matters for John is that each individual is rooted in Jesus and hence gives up individual status to become one of many encircling branches.”
So if you think about it, our being rooted in Christ and holding up each other makes us stronger. Imagine a single branch trying to bear the load of a cluster of grapes – doesn’t work! The fruit would end up lying on the ground, rotting away. Now take a look at the image of the vine again. Which branch is actually bearing the fruit? We can’t tell, can we? Jesus makes it very clear: it is not about our individual accomplishments. It is about our accomplishments as a community of faith. Think of a choir, or a band – it is the joint effort which bring the desired effect, or fruit, if you will.
But, sadly enough, this image and purpose of community is getting more and more lost in a day and age and society where privacy and individualism are held up.
We sometimes still see glimpses of the great strength of a community effort – sadly enough, often it happens after a disaster, like the devastating earthquake in Nepal this past week, when people pull their forces together and truly make a difference. However, often we neglect the ongoing disasters in our own communities and around the world, like poverty and inequality.
So what is the fruit we bring in a world where more and more people seem to on the move because circumstances in their home countries are horrendous? What is the fruit that we bring in a country where there is still so much inequality on so many levels? What is the fruit we bring in this city, where the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger each day?
God is. The great I am is the root of all we are and the focus of all we do. In God we all are gathered and called. We are baptized into God’s community, and said yes to this community, just as the young people in Germany said yes to God and God’s community two weeks ago in my hometown. It is this communion, this community with God and with one another which makes us what we are: the family of God, strong enough to bring the fruits of love in abundance. We don’t need to be discouraged, we don’t need to be afraid. God is. And God is for us, with us, and through us.