“I am the true vine”

John 15:1-8 (April 27, 2024)

knots, knots, knots.pngI don’t love knots. I find them frustrating: Knots in my shoelaces. Knots in my camping gear. Knots in ropes and strings and threads that have to be untied. Knots in the garden hose that need to be untangled.

I don’t have patience for them. I don’t know where to begin. They’re like a puzzle that I cannot solve.

What happened to my Boy Scout training? I have badges that tell me I can do this. Bowline, Clove Hitch, Sheet Bend, Reef Knot – I used to know them all! But that knowledge has morphed into a twisted tangle of incomprehension.

I know that knots can be a positive thing. And what I want to speak about this morning is the beautiful, intertwining of our lives with God. Something that connects us with God, and with each other, and with all creation – in one beautiful relationship of love.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus used the image of a vine. “I am the true vine,” he said.

It’s one of those “I am” statements in the Gospel of John, where Jesus uses the divine name to describe his own life and ministry. Last week he said, “I am the Good Shepherd.” This week he tells us, “I am the true vine. My Father is the vine grower. And you are the branches.”

We are invited to participate in this ongoing relationship between vine and branches: the Heavenly Father, Jesus and his disciples – all interconnected.

grapes and vine cartoon.pngImagine a grape vine growing from seed: The stalk comes up out of the ground, then it branches off in many directions. And these branches, in turn, split and stretch, and grow in different ways. They weave in and out amongst themselves. They curve around things. They sprout tendrils to hold onto whatever they can.

What we have here is a kind of knot. An inter-weaving of stalk and branch and tendril. The nutrients from the soil flow through the stalk, and into the branches. So the life-force is shared between them. There is a constant flow of energy. When one of those branches becomes separated from the stalk, its life cannot be sustained.

There’s another image that comes to mind. Maybe you’ve seen these Celtic designs, that have become so popular in recent years, in jewellery or pottery – with the twisting, winding patterns. They’re quite beautiful.

Ancient crosses that stand to this day in places like Ireland and Scotland, were carved from stone with that pattern imprinted on them. As if to say that, through the cross, life is flowing – from God to Jesus to us.

Here’s an example of a Celtic cross. The pattern you see involves a kind of fluid movement, without beginning or end.

In this way, it mirrors the life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, eternally existing as three and one, each with their own identity, yet joined together.

Jesus invites us to enter into this life, the life that flows through him, and reaches out to us, and ties us all together.

Celtic Cross.pnghttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Celtic_cross_in_Beechwood_Cemetery.jpg" width="171" height="65" />One writer says, “Such a close union between Jesus and the believer is not the privileged experience of saints and mystics alone;” In other words, not just for a special few. Instead, he says, “it is the core of Christian life.”[1]

Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” As if to say there’s a danger that we might not remain. That we might decide, foolishly, to cut ourselves off from the vine.

Why on earth would anyone do a thing like that? And yet we do. We have this freedom – this amazing and terrifying freedom – to go our own way. To take our lives, and separate them from the vine, either by neglect or wilful purpose.

And when that happens, our souls – the centre of our lives, the essential part of who we are – begin to wither. And as we wither, we lose our vitality, our fruitfulness. Our faith becomes dry and diminished. We end up being only a faint shadow of what we are intended to be. A little, shrivelled up bit on the end of a vine.

Have there been times when you’ve felt a disconnect between you and God? An emptiness, a loneliness? A great distance? Do you feel shrivelled up?

Maybe it’s part of the natural ebb and flow of our spiritual lives, as we move through different times and seasons. Yet, whatever season it is, God desires for us to experience the free-flowing life and goodness and love that comes from the very heart of God, and travels through Christ, to his disciples.

“Remain in me,” says Jesus, “and I will remain in you.” “Stay with me. Abide with me.” Did you count how many times that one single word – abide or remain (it’s the same word, translated two different ways) – is repeated in our passage of scripture?

Seven times in English! Eight in the original Greek text. Forty times in the whole Gospel of John, where it seems to be one of Jesus’ favourite expressions.

Don’t let your branch be separated from the vine. Remain in me.

Remembrance day monument.jpgI think of that hymn we sing near Remembrance Day: “Abide With Me.” It speaks of life and death, and prays that in every moment of change, in every sorrow and loss, that God would be with us.

Which is exactly what Jesus promises. “Stay with me. And I will stay with you.”

“Make your home with me,” is how one translation puts it. Wherever we live, our true home, our “abiding place,” the place where we are deeply rooted in God’s love, does not change.

“Make your home with me, and I will make my home with you.” Let the love of God flow from me to you to neighbour, to stranger. Let it be always present, in all of life.

This image of vine and branches has to do with being connected. Not living in isolation from God, or others. But living and growing in God’s love. Discovering that is what holds us together. Knowing that common source of life.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, speaks of a “deep human disconnect from self, neighbour, earth, and God” that is widespread in our society.

Disconnection.pngAs I reflect on these past few years, it seems to me that our world is becoming more disconnected. More isolated. More separated into camps that don’t know how to communicate. Even within our families, within our churches.

Rallies in the streets, chanting slogans, disparaging our neighbours. This is not what God desires for our lives. When we are rooted in Christ, growing deeper in the life and love he gives, we are drawn closer to one another. Connections are strengthened.

Storm of Galilee.jpgIt seems to me that this is exactly the message God has for us at this particular moment in our lives! These next few months our congregation will be discussing future directions. We are living through a time of change. We may be grieving loss. We may be fearful, uncertain where God is taking us.

Well … welcome to the world of Jesus’ disciples! Who also lived through these same sort of things. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for them.

Text Box: Rembrandt (1606–1669), The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.“Stay with me!” Jesus said. Stay close to me. Abide with me.

This is what the community of faith is meant to be: an “abiding place.” A community that, every day, is soaking up the nourishment that comes from Christ.

I am the vine. You are the branches. Whatever happens, stay close to me. Let my life be in you!

hand prints.pngLiving with other branches is never easy.

One church I know of had a lovely idea. They had an artist hand paint a vine on one of the hallways. And all the members of the church put their handprint somewhere beside the vine. Whenever anyone new joined the church, their handprint would be added to the mural.

It’s a great illustration of how our lives are joined together as disciples of Jesus.

But the pastor of that church also acknowledged that living together can be a challenge. One member, whose handprint is right next to another, may say something offensive. They may gossip behind their back. They may act in a way that is harmful and threatens to tear that community apart.[2]

Only when we are rooted in a gospel of enduring love and tender mercy are we able to be God’s people.

grapes on the vine.jpgThe goal of living on the vine, being connected to Christ, is always to bear fruit. It’s not just about knowing Jesus, and receiving his life within. It’s about allowing his life to work through us to bear fruit in the world. When God’s love takes hold of us, all kinds of good things can happen!

Travellers from Thailand may be welcomed. And some may catch their contagious enthusiasm for the gospel. Small donations may be offered to support the work of restorative justice. Comforters may be crafted with care. Young people may commit themselves to one another in marriage. Seniors may find companionship and support.

Do you know any place like that? Could we be that place? When the Spirit of Christ is flowing in us and through us, the kingdom of God becomes real, more than just a nice idea. It takes on flesh and blood in the world we live in.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If anyone remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.” Nothing.

When we’re disconnected, we wither. But when we’re joined to the vine, we live! We are fruitful. And God’s good creation flourishes.

Remain in me. Stay connected. Hold together. Let my life and love be in you, and flow through you to others. May it be so! Amen.


[1] JOHN R. DONAHUE | MAY 13, 2000 in “America: The National Catholic Weekly,” http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=2081, Accessed May 3, 2012.

[2] Thom M. Shuman, Transitional Pastor Galloway Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio, Associate Member, Iona Community, Midrash, April 26, 2018.

“I am the good shepherd …”

Psalm 23; John 10:11-18 (April 21, 2024)

On Canada’s East Coast there is an island called Grand Manan. When our children were young, we used to vacation there. It was a long drive from Ontario, where we lived. It’s even farther from Saskatchewan. It’s been years since we’ve been back. But we have fond memories of that place. And one of them has to do with hiking along the coast. There’s a network of trails around the island.

white rocks by shoreline.jpgOne section of trail goes past this natural feature: Can you see the white rocks scattered above the shoreline? The locals call it “the flock of sheep” - so named by fishers on their boats because, from a distance, they resembled sheep grazing at the edge of the water. Of course the giveaway, the thing that tells you these really aren’t sheep, is they never move. They stay in the same place day after day, year after year.

They’re not like the flock that God shepherds, the flock which is you and me. The stones are not living. They don’t get hungry – they need no pasture. They have no enemies – they need no protection. No guidance, no rest, no comfort, no care.

People of faith know God’s loving care in their lives each and every day. In fact, we cannot live without it. We need God’s love especially when we walk through dark valleys: Whenever we feel lost, or afraid. When we are tired. When we are grieving. We need to know that God is with us.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …” We sang the words of that Psalm just a few minutes ago. They’ve been set to some lovely melodies over the years, but the one we just sang, “Crimond,” may be one of the most familiar.

“The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want,
He makes me down to lie
in pastures green, he leadeth me
the quiet waters by.”

My earliest memory of this Psalm (which, by the way, lies behind the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading,) is sitting at the breakfast table with Aunt Jean and Uncle Donald. I spent summer holidays with them on the farm. And they thought it would be good for me to learn this Psalm.

So in the morning, when breakfast was finished, I would say to them as much as I could by memory. And they would correct me. And the next day we’d do it all again. By the end of the holiday I had it down. And I’ve never, for a moment in my life, regretted it!

Do you recall when you first heard it? Or a special moment when it was used? Perhaps you overheard others. Or maybe you said it yourself – as I have,shepherd_and_sheep.jpg on so many occasions. At a funeral service as mourners try to make sense of death or find a source of consolation in their hour of need. In the hospital, when I go to visit and, if it seems the right thing to do, I will ask if I could read scripture. “Anything in particular?” Often it is this. And once or twice it’s been me, lying in that hospital bed, searching for words that remind me I am not alone. That the one who made me is with me, even in that lonely place.

The Psalm has been especially significant when I have had big decisions to make, and I’m searching for the way and cannot see it. Yet I am called to trust that the Shepherd is there to guide me. One who leads me in right paths for his own name’s sake. One who wants only what is good for me, and all the sheep who are part of God’s flock.

I have a hunch that the 23rd Psalm may be the most beloved passage in the whole Bible. Even for those who never step inside a church. This may be the only scripture they can identify. It speaks to us. It speaks to them. They’ve heard it somewhere before.

There’s something good about simple repetition, isn’t there? Hearing it over and over. In this place and that. Like memorizing a piece of music. We go over it until it becomes internalized and imbedded within us. This Shepherd God finds a way to dwell within our lives. And to stay there. So that when we need God, God is not far away.

Do you know what’s at the very centre of the 23rd Psalm? I’m speaking, first of all, about the literary centre of it. What do we find there, at the heart of this familiar passage?

It’s this line: “You are with me.” There are 26 Hebrew words before it, and 26 that follow after.[1] But there, precisely in the middle of the Psalm, we find this line.

Our Shepherd God provides for us in many ways: green pastures, still waters. A table set before us. A cup that overflows. All these wonderful promises! And each one is worth holding onto, pondering and treasuring in our hearts. But the line at the very centre is this: “You are with me.”

And it strikes me that it’s not only the literary centre of the Psalm, but the theological one as well. God is with us! Is there any greater assurance than that? Wherever we are – whether our pasture is green and lush – or dry and spent. Whether our cup is filled to overflowing – or completely empty. Whether the valley we’re walking through is bright with sunshine and optimism – or dark with clouds and despair. We will fear no evil, “For Thou art with me.”

You’re with me God! I’m not alone. There is no place in our lives – either individually or collectively – that our loving God is not present. God is right here with us. Even through the valley of the shadow of death. That valley comes to all of us. Jesus walked there too.

There’s something else I want you to notice about that line. The voice of the Psalmist changes. Up until this point we’ve been learning about God: “The Lord is my shepherd.” He makes me lie down. He leads me. He restores my soul.

The Psalmist speaks in the third person. (For those of you who have forgotten your rules of grammar, “third person” means we’re talking about someone or something else.) The Psalmist is speaking about God. And we are being instructed in the ways of God.

But now there’s a change that takes place. So the language is no longer “third person.” It addresses God directly. (I always wanted to be an English teacher – can you tell?) But why is this significant? Here’s the thing: This is the place where the 23rd Psalm becomes a prayer!

Now the Psalmist speaks to God. This is the language of conversation, one on one. This is the language of intimacy and love. This is not about a God out there. But a God right here. “You are with me; your rod, your staff, they comfort me.”

Charles Laughton.jpgFred Kane tells a wonderful story about a British-American actor name Charles Laughton. He was famous for his ability to recite biblical texts. He had a beautiful voice and his timing and intonation were impeccable.

At a dinner party one evening, Laughton was called upon to recite the 23rd Psalm, which he did. Then they went around the room and others were invited to offer something as well.

There was an older woman sitting in the corner. She was nearly deaf ,so she hadn’t heard what had gone before. She stood up and started to repeat what the actor had just performed. It was embarrassing, an awkward situation.

Yet before she finished, those in the room were swept up by the power of it. Some even began to weep. Afterwards, someone asked the actor why her reading was so moving when she didn’t have any of the skills that he had. His answer was simple: “I know the psalm,” he said. “But that lady knows the shepherd.”[2]

She knows this God who “is with us!” There’s a difference between knowing about God, and knowing God. Living with God, conversing with God. Praying. “You are with me.”

In our Gospel reading, Jesus says a most remarkable thing: “I am the good shepherd.” Do you recognize the words of the Psalm that lie behind it? Those same words about a God who shepherds us. A God who promises goodness and mercy and a dwelling place forever.

“Goodness and mercy all my life
shall surely follow me,
and in God’s house forevermore
my dwelling place shall be.”

4th Century Jesus with sheep.jpg

https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47679 [retrieved April 9, 2024]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Good_shepherd_m2.jpg." width="187" height="128" />


I know you’ve heard these things before! Many times. You do remember, don’t you? The astounding thing is that Jesus takes those familiar words and applies them to himself: I am that shepherd who cares, guides, and protects the flock from harm.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for you and me. “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:14-15)

We are not rocks on a hillside overlooking the sea. Rocks that have no feelings or needs.

We are living beings. We grow tired and we need rest. We are hungry and we need to eat. We get lost and we need someone to show us the way.

We need that Good Shepherd. We need Jesus. We need that promise that he will always be with us. Well I do, anyway. And I guess maybe you do too.

[1] James Howell, Pastor, Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1# Accessed April 27, 2009

[2] Fred Kane, PNCL listserve, April 28, 2009.

“As the Father has sent me …”

John 20:19-29 (April 7, 2024)

Tomb and sunrays.jpgOur scripture reading today continues the resurrection story. Which is important for us to hear in this season of Easter stretching all the way to Pentecost. Easter is certainly more than just a single day. The resurrection of Christ is an ongoing reality in our world. But it can take a while for disciples of all sorts to catch up.

Early, on the first day of the week, the Lord appeared to Mary Magdalene. She, in turn, announced to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” But where do we find those friends of Jesus at the end of Easter day? Are they celebrating? No. Are they full of joy? They are not! They are huddled together like a flock of frightened sheep. The room is dark, the doors are locked, the atmosphere is suffocating.

angry face cartoon.png

Do you remember those very early pandemic days when we entered “lock-down”? Aren’t you glad we’ve moved beyond that? It was necessary, I suppose, given the arrival of a deadly virus that we knew nothing about. No one wanted to catch it, or to spread it. So we stuck to our own little cohort, staying indoors where it was safe. We rarely ventured out in public places except for good reason: to pick up some groceries or other essentials.

The disciples in our story are stuck inside. And this really is a lock-down, because we’re told the doors were locked, for fear of the Jews.

Disciples.jpgThe disciples were afraid. They thought if Jesus was killed, who knows – maybe they’d be next. Wouldn’t the authorities be looking for them too? So best to keep a low profile. It’s not the time to announce your presence to the world.

Ah yes, the world can be a scary place. Think of all those things that make us uneasy or feel insecure. Think of danger in the streets: crime, drugs, theft. Think of scammers that make you afraid to answer the telephone. Think of wars and rumours of wars. And problems everywhere.

But don’t think too much about all of that. Because when we do, it makes it even worse. And we become like little children, scared of all the monsters hiding under the bed. Or maybe we become like these disciples, shivering together and trying to hold the world at bay.

Thomas the doubter.pngAnd then, perhaps, we may come to an astonishing realization: That we are not as alone as we thought! There, in that locked room where the disciples have propped up furniture against the door, and shut the windows and pulled the blinds … suddenly they sense there is a presence.

“How many of us should there be? One, two, three … hold on! Who are you, and what are you doing here?” No one thinks for a moment it could be Jesus.

You want to know the Good News of Easter? All the padlocks and latches and dead-bolts in the world cannot prevent the risen Lord from entering our lives! Didn’t Jesus say he’d come like a thief in the night? So there he is, standing in the living room.

But how many of us want Jesus to be so close? Consider these disciples: Things have not gone well in their relationship with Jesus these last few days. Peter, has denied him – not just once but several times. Truth be told, none of the disciples were all that courageous. When it came to the crucifixion only a handful remained.

Now suddenly Jesus appears, and what are they feeling? Embarrassment? Guilt? Shame? How can they face him? What will he say?

Risen Lord.jpg

Having the risen Lord in our midst should set us all a-trembling. It is an awesome thing! The one who made us and calls us – right here in our midst? Yikes!

I think the disciples were afraid, not only of those hostile authorities outside the house, but of the supreme authority inside the house! Some fall on their knees, perhaps. Others break out in a cold sweat. But do you know what Jesus says to them?

“Peace be with you.” That’s right, the first word spoken by the risen Christ to the gathering of his brothers and sisters is a word of peace. “Shalom,” in the Hebrew language. It can be a simple greeting. Or it can be packed full of meaning, if we care to remember the biblical witness.

Shalom means inner peace – peace of heart and mind. A gentle breathing out of all the accumulated tensions in our lives.

Peace! Close your eyes, relax your body, breathe in deeply. Now let it go. Give it a try. I mean it! No one’s going to think you’re weird. What do you come to church for anyway? Isn’t it to let go of your worries? To know the peace of God which surpasses understanding? (Philippians 4:7)

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. And still says.

But inner peace is only the beginning. The peace we read about in scripture is full-fledged. Shalom. Not just inner peace but outer peace as well. A peace that makes life good for everyone, bringing plenty to all. So that no one is in need. And there is no cause for conflict or battle or argument or war. Can you imagine?

This is God’s kingdom vision, that moved Jesus to give his life for the world in sacrificial love. The vision that God now affirms by raising him from death to be Lord of all creation. “Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess …” (Philippians 2:11)

Am I preaching to the choir? Do Mennonites know everything there is to know about peace? Or do we still have more to learn? At the very least, I think we can be reminded.

“Peace be with you.” Three times he says it in our scripture reading for today. So how can we forget?

Stone carving.jpgJesus shows them his wounds, confirming that he is real. The disciples respond with joy! And then … he sends them out.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” It’s time to put your jackets on! You’re not meant to be cooped up inside. Somebody, please, open the door!

The church is not meant to be stuck in this place. Though I’m afraid that’s often what we end up being. We prefer the company of one another over strangers. We get comfortable in this place. Where all is familiar. And we know exactly what to expect. No surprises. No challenges either.

We domesticate the church. We build it, inhabit it, and rarely venture from it.

But when the church is at its best, it’s a scattered church. It’s a church engaged in mission. It’s a church that’s “out there” beyond these walls. Caring for neighbours. Loving, befriending, serving, bearing witness to Jesus our risen Lord. Holding up a vision of God’s amazing kingdom life.

“As the Father has sent me …” You know that Jesus was sent. He came from God’s very dwelling place to be here among us. He came from heaven to live on earth.

He came to bear God’s light. To give sight to the blind. To feed the hungry. He came to serve with compassion and care. He came to bring forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. Most of all, he came to love.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples ….” (John 13:34-35)

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is what the risen Lord is saying to us.

So now, let me ask a difficult question. I don’t expect you to have an answer right away. But I’d like you to think about this: When people see us, do they see Jesus?

running.jpgAre we living in his image? Are we walking in his way?

I ask because the church does not always have that reputation. We think we’re warm and friendly. But why, then, have so many been wounded, disillusioned or are just plain indifferent to the life we live in the community of faith?

The truth is it’s hard to live his way. Really hard. I mean it. I’m thinking of myself now and the mixed messages I send to others. To people who know me and to people who don’t. I don’t always reflect an accurate image of my Lord.

“As the Father has sent me …” In the same way we are being sent by Jesus. Every day our lives are meant to glorify God. We are meant to bear his light and embody his love. And I want to do that. I really do. I hope that you do too!

Dove in flight.jpgAs Jesus sends his disciples into the world, there’s one more thing he does. And this is what gives me hope. “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

It’s like a mini-Pentecost, I think. Jesus knows what a challenge it will be for us. But now the risen Lord sends us in the power of the Holy Spirit. We do not go alone. There is a presence and power that will be with us. It is the same Spirit that enabled Jesus’ ministry.

“The advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:26-27)

The Spirit strengthens us. The Spirit transforms us. The Spirit gives us life. The Spirit make us into God’s new creation.

celestial stars.jpgThe image of Jesus breathing the Spirit upon his disciples reminds me of the creation story in Genesis, when “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)

So once again I invite you to pause, right where you are, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Breathe in the life of God. Let Jesus gift you with the Spirit.

We need that Spirit. Without it we are nothing. But with it we are agents of God’s new creation.

open doors.jpg

So now, in a few minutes, when our service is finished, the doors will be open. And we will be sent by Jesus into the world. Your world, my world.

Well, what did you expect? We can’t stay here. We’re not in lock-down. We are disciples of Jesus, called to follow his way.

We are sent by the risen Christ. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit. We are invited to be God’s people in the world. Believing, loving, forgiving, serving.

We are not afraid. We live boldly in God’s kingdom way. That will look different for each one of us. But if we are faithful, it will always look like Jesus. May it be so!