Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends!
How are you? Isn’t this time of year just glorious in Seattle?
As a quick look at my bulletin letter will show, I am obsessed with Seattle’s flowering trees and plants lately. Their blooms, fragrance, and abundant beauty in our wonderful city overwhelms me. I get a similar feeling when I walk into a museum. There is just so much beauty around us right now that it is easy to become inured by it. But I do everything I can to resist that tendency. I am from Montana with a much drier climate and much shorter growing season, so all this incredible growth is miraculous to me. I cannot tell you how much work my mom put into her flowerbeds, garden, and our beloved lilac hedge which I absolutely adored as a child… but honestly our flowers and trees were much harder to grow in the Montana climate, so they never achieved the growth or height we see around us here. So, I almost reel in Seattle’s lush blooms and green! It is absolutely gorgeous here in the spring!
And while the growing season is, indeed, longer here in Seattle, make no mistake these beautiful trees, these glorious flowers, and vines—they don’t just grow by themselves. They need to be tended, they need to be pruned, fertilized, and cared for….They need a vigneron.
In today’s reading from John, Jesus is teaching his disciples – those he is growing, forming, and shaping into first generation Christians—using an analogy of a vigneron or one who cares for and cultivates the vines for wine and the growing of grapes. Because, just as our beautiful trees and plants in Seattle don’t grow themselves without the aid of the weather, sun, precipitation. and usually a horticulturalist, Christians don’t grow themselves either. Christians don’t grow themselves. Today’s gospel is also coupled with a reading from the Acts of the Apostles which demonstrates this reality through the story of the conversion of a high-ranking Ethiopian official. This official’s spiritual growth and conversion becomes possible when Philip “shows him” how to understand the passage from the prophet Isaiah in terms of its revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. Together both of these stories, tell us about two important aspects of evangelism – or the growing of Christians. The first is the seminal role that God plays in the growing of Christians, and the second is the way that God uses us to help form Christians too.
Now I want to take a little bit of time to build out this parable of the vine and the vine grower. Since we have some good vineyards here in Washington, this parable is probably a little more accessible to some of us than it is in other parts of the country. So, if you all know this, bear with me a little bit…and if you don’t bear with me… I want to start with a couple of things which Jesus talks about in this parable. The first is that the vine grower or vigneron needs to prepare, maintain, and tend the soil in order for the vines to grow, flower, and produce the grapes. Funny thing, however, is that as Wine Science notes:
A poor stony soil is often preferred for growing wine grapes. Due to the limited presence of water and nutrients in these soils, the grapes go to the ripening phase earlier. As a result, the aromas mature faster, the grapes get higher sugar levels, and the amount of acids drops earlier. A fertile soil with many nitrogen compounds, on the other hand, is less suitable for viticulture [because] the higher nitrogen levels result in more vegetative growth of the grapevine and grapes with less concentrated aromas.
What this means is that in richer soil, it is the leaves which do the work of photosynthesis that grow which benefits the vine rather than the grapes. Taking Jesus’ metaphor here it suggests that it is at the expense of the vine itself, or Jesus, that the grapes grow and mature best.
The second is that the work of the vine grower has to do with pruning the vine. Removing dead branches is important because then the vine does not keep sending nutrients, its own lifeblood, to the dead branches that will never again bear fruit. If a branch is dead, there is no need send it precious nutrients. It cannot, after all, help it be deader.
Now I wanted to elaborate on this parable a little, because it tells us a lot about how to grow Christians in a world where bearers of the good news are in ever greater need. First, I think it is important to note that being a good Christian can occur anywhere. It not only doesn’t take a perfect environment but, in fact, with the skill of a good vigneron the fruit can sometimes mature faster and grow sweeter in stony soil. And if we follow Jesus’ metaphor we know that our vigneron is definitely good. We have God in charge of the miraculous growth and sustenance of the vine. Which brings us to the second part of Jesus’ analogy which is the vine itself. It is the vine itself that provides us with holy nourishment. And it is the vine itself that supports the weight of the branch, its flowers, and its precious fruit. And we, in our role as branches, or Christians are just to be the connection and the support between Jesus and God’s children. We don’t need to come up with the nourishment for the fruit or even spend all our energy making lots of foliage—because the vine and the vine grower are working with us to grow Christians. So, while Christians don’t grow themselves, we are not in charge of growing them either. We are just to share our holy substance and the good news which miraculously grows them.
Looking at our story from the Acts of the Apostles, let’s see Jesus’ parable in action. Philip, whose job as one of the 7 deacons chosen by the Apostles was officially to care for the poor in the Christian community in Jerusalem so that the Apostles could carry out their great commission of spreading the good news throughout the ancient near East. However, it is Philip the Deacon we see today, being called by God to evangelize the Ethiopian official. The angel of the Lord tells him where to go and to whom he is going. And Philip does as he is bidden. He meets the Ethiopian, a foreign Jew, who he hears reading the book of Isaiah. And Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. And the Ethiopian tells Philip: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And Philip gets in the chariot, sits down with him and explains the passage to him and about Jesus. While we often are afraid of the word evangelism in the Episcopal Church because of its current cultural connotations, Philip’s simple explanation about this passage and his sharing of Jesus’ message led to this man’s conversion. And he asked, “What is there to stop me from being baptized right now?” And Philip baptizes him as they pass by the first bit of water alongside the road. And the Holy Spirit came down and filled the heart and soul of the Ethiopian, and transported Philip magically to Azotus where he began once more to proclaim the good news. So, you have to admit that was a no muss/no fuss Christian growing event right? And how many millions and millions of Christians have been nurtured and grown since then?
In this world, we often hear that we are facing the fall of Christendom. And while this might seem scary to us, there is no need to fear because Christ’s kingdom was never of this world anyway—and we have never been asked to hold the weight and the burden of the world on our shoulders. Our job as evangelists is found in connection and in love; in guidance and conversation; in word and deed. The vine grower and the vine do the rest. Christians don’t grow themselves. They need us to guide them to a gardener like the resurrected Jesus that met Mary Magdalene that first morning after his resurrection.