(listen along for a more enhanced sermon experience!)
1 “I am the true vine, and God is the vinegrower. 2 God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 God is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Good morning, Our Redeemer’s! It feels like it’s been a year. But it’s been two weeks.
If you’ve ever spent more than a little time with me, you know that I love personality indicator tests – the Myers Briggs (I’m at ENTJ), the Enneagram (I’m a 3), the Strengths Finder (positivity and input!), and even just those social media ones that tell you if you’re a cat or a dog person, or what character you would be from the Wizard of Oz. When I was a child, I loved reading the horoscopes in the newspaper, and fortune cookies and eight balls – searching for any kind of insight about myself or what my life would be like. I like to discover things about people: Where do you get your energy from? How do you make decisions – with your guts or with facts? When you have a day off, do you like to schedule activities, or do you like to just wait around and see what happens? I love uncovering the things that connect us. I want to know what makes you tick, and how your ticking correlates to my ticking. It’s all just so fascinating!
One of the indicators I mentioned, the Enneagram, is a little less well known and a little more complex than its famous cousin, the Myers Briggs. The Enneagram consists of 9 types, and within each type it moves from healthy to unhealthy. And then from your initial type, you can have “wings.” So it moves and changes with you – lots of options. It can be a little difficult to discern which type is your type. My friend Peter, who taught me about the Enneagram, told me this key: You’ll know which one is you when you hear the description, and as you’re listening, you’re filled with a sense of dread, or of being (quote unquote) stabbed in the chest by a type. “Oh no! That’s totally me!” A sense of conviction. Because the Enneagram moves from healthy to unhealthy, often the descriptors of the unhealthy behaviors resonate within us before we might see the correlation with the healthy ones. In my type, when I’m healthy, I’m a natural leader, bringing people along with me in my quest for doing things to the best of our collective ability. When I’m unhealthy, I become shallow and narcissistic, doing the bare minimum to achieve something that looks good as long as you don’t get too close. ….ugh! I’m the worst!!
Think for a minute about the ways you like to learn about yourself, or about others. Think about the ties and connections that link you not just to your people, but to your own deeper sense of identity. You have one right? Right?
In our passage today from the book of Acts, we meet a person who is not like anyone else in the Bible. Here are the marks we are given of his identity: he is an Egyptian (African!), wealthy, important, sexually altered man, rolling along in his fancy chariot, reading the book of Isaiah – like you do. Phillip – one of the disciples, is told by God’s Spirit to run up to the chariot, and ask this man how its going. I imagine Philip lifting an eyebrow, but then coming up to jog along side the Ethiopian. “Whatcha reading?” he asks. “Does it make any sense to you?” And instead of looking at this random guy with less than half his social status with distain, the Ethiopian says to Phillip, “How can it, with no one to help me understand it? …Get in.” Philip grabs his chance and tells the Ethiopian all about Jesus and his work of sacrificial love for us on the cross. The Ethiopian is moved, and demands to be baptized on the spot.
Perhaps he heard in the story, a moment of connection, of recognition. “Oh, that’s me! That’s totally me.” His desire to find out more about who God is and who Jesus is and how to be identified and connected within that story was so strong that this man stopped the chariot at the first water he saw, and was baptized right then, in the moment, into a new being. His insight being: Who have I have been up to this point and who I will be from here forward can be different. My ideas of family and future – which were severely limited as a eunuch, are now changed with my adoption into the spirit and family of God. I am newly connected into the communion of saints. I am a new, whole, loved person – I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life.
So perhaps one of the indicators – one of the ways that we can find out more about who we are – is through our baptism, through our identity as a child of God. Jesus today says to us, “I am the vine.” I am the great connector. I am that which gives life. In my head, the first image I thought of when I read this passage to prepare for this message was that of an umbilical cord. Jesus is the tether that gives us air and nutrition and LIFE. Jesus is the thing that makes sense of our being God-breathed stardust and love – way beyond any indicator. Jesus is the deep adoptive connective tissue that binds us to our creator. See, look what comes next:
Did you notice how many times Jesus uses the word “abide” in this passage? I mean, this passage is only 8 verses. But he uses it eight times. Four of them are in verse four: Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. The word abide is kind of funky to our ears in modern English, and isn’t used very frequently. The only instance I can recall is someone saying “I can’t abide his lies anymore!” and that usage implies “put up with.” Abide can also mean to go along side of someone. Even further, I love that abide has the same root as “abode” or dwelling. The abiding that Jesus is talking about is to take up residence or to pitch a tent. This abiding isn’t temporary, this abiding is coming with you, setting up camp in your backyard, and grilling some s’mores. Abiding for Jesus is ‘choosing to be with’ over and over again – like a marriage. It’s taking connectivity to a different place than just a metaphor.
So what does this mean? Is Jesus like a mother-in-law that comes to stay and just won’t leave? Is Jesus like that one college roommate who has failure to launch and won’t get off your couch? Is Jesus monitoring your every action with a naughty and nice list like some divine creepy elf-on-the-shelf? No. Unlike the newspapers I would read as a kid, hoping for some kind of sign, Jesus abiding with us and in us is the ultimate horoscope – showing us without fail deep insight about who we are, and what our lives can be like.
So if we are abiding in the vine, and the vine is abiding with us, what kind of fruit do you think we can we bear if we are connected to a vine like his? And conversely, when the pruning comes, which Jesus says it will – and he’s right, what does that look like? Pruning is cutting back extraneous things to make room for new growth, yes? So what if our pruning reveals the truth of who we are as beloved, whole, wanted, intentionally-made children of God? Maybe the things that are pruned away from this vine are insecurity and worry, despair and self-loathing. Maybe the fruits that come from this vine aren’t things at all, but instead selflessness and joy. I think deep down we have an expectation that when Jesus talks about pruning that it’s going to take away something, or toughen something up on us, that life will become more rigid and constrictive. But what if that’s not the case? What if pruning gets rid of the things that hold you back? That keep you from living with insight and meaning and depth? What if pruning frees you from the weight of your own doubt?
When we disconnect from the vine, when the dude does not abide, we become shallow, flimsy, discontent. Isolation from God and from each other is death. We need to be rooted in our creator. Like the Ethiopian man in our reading from Acts, I want nothing more than to discover my identity and what makes me tick in the love of God, and being named and chosen and sent. I want my identity to include all of what makes me who I am – healthy and unhealthy, broken and whole. And that identity is being baptized in the name of the creator, redeemer, and sustainer. It is my prayer that we choose to abide in that name, and live in connectivity to God, and to one another. Thanks be to God.