“I am the true vine, and my father is the vine-grower” (John 15:1).
My mother was, and my wife is, an inveterate gardener in the English mold that I call “out messing in the yard.” My earliest memories of my mother are of her dragging the hose around the house to water her various bushes and flowers. When my sons were preschoolers, I often came home to find them decked out in sun hats and gloves, pulling a little plastic gardening wagon, following and imitating their mother as she puttered about tending to flowers and bushes in the parsonage lawn.
Unlike my mother and my wife, I do not have a green thumb. Whatever the opposite of a green thumb is—that’s what I have. But, I have paid attention to their gardening, and I have grown fascinated with their methods of plant rotation. They tied some plants to stakes. Upon inquiry, I learned this was to force them to grow in a certain way—pea vines, rose bushes, tomato plants and certain other flowers and vegetables.
They planted other flowers and vegetables in pots so that they could be rotated in the sun, were left free to grow in the direction of the light. These plants were shaped by being pulled toward the light. Their growth in a certain direction was not forced, it was encouraged. This growing in the direction of the sun is called heliotropism.
In verse 1, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” In verse 5 he says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” The words “vine,” “branch” and “fruit” are used frequently in our text and, combined with the word “vine-grower,” build an image of plants growing in a garden and producing fruit under the expert care of a gardener. This is intended as an image of God’s relationship with God’s people, tending, pruning, feeding, nurturing us, leading us to produce what are elsewhere referred to as “the fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23). Here’s a question for us to ponder: What horticultural method has our divine vine-grower used to shape our lives in imitation of Christ? Were we forced in a particular direction, or were we allowed to freely respond to the light of God’s love?
Conformity seems to be the world’s way. Conformity to the world eventually becomes what the Prayer of Confession calls being “captive to sin.” (ELW, p. 95) The prayer in the old “green book,” the Lutheran Book of Worship, says we are “in bondage to sin.” To be conformed to the world is to be staked out on the altar of popularity or acceptability, to lose one’s soul in the effort to go along to get along, to live a life in imitation of what others think you should be and should do. You will be alive, but you will not live; you will not be free. Instead, you will find yourself a slave to the will and way of the world.
Here’s a question for us to ponder: What horticultural method has our divine vine-grower used to shape our lives in imitation of Christ? Were we forced in a particular direction, or were we allowed to freely respond to the light of God’s love?
On the other hand, God’s way is the way of heliotropism, transformation brought on by being bathed in the light of God’s love—daily turning our faces toward the source of life and love itself. Martin Luther said that in sin, the human will becomes bent; it turns away from God and in on itself. In a powerful little book on the Lord’s Prayer, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon say that, “The Lord’s Prayer is a lifelong act of bending our lives toward God in the way that God has offered.” (Lord Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life, 1996) In the hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” we sing about this bending toward God in the line: “Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, praising thee, their the sun above“ (ELW 836).
One of the great temptations of the church is to make other folks conform to our ideas of what they ought to be doing if they are “true Christians.” We attempt to tie them to the stake of our preconceived ideas of how they should respond to the gospel, and we are disappointed when they resist and pull away. We are invited instead to a ministry of heliotropism. We are encouraged to shine the light of Christ in such a way that others will be drawn to it and will begin to conform their lives to it. That is all.
Most of us, if we think about it, can figure out who God’s assistant vine-growers were for us.
We can look back over our lives and see the people who lived out the gospel, who acted in a Christlike manner in such a way that we wanted to be like them, wanted to be the sort of person, the kind of Christian, they were. That is who we are called to be this day, assistant vine-growers, exposing people to the bright sun of God’s love in Christ.
Amen and amen.