May 3, 2023

The Vine, The Wine, and The Sign

Linda J. Adams, February 21, 2021

The Arbor Church, Spring Arbor, MI

Linda is a candidate for bishop and is introduced here.

Since I grew up in this church, you will understand why I know almost nothing about wine. So, for much of my life, some the most prominent symbols in the Bible have been invisible to me. My limited experience with vino blinded me for many years to some rich, beautiful, and powerful images in Scripture.

Let me put it this way. In my family, grapes were for eating, or maybe for turning into grape juice, which we almost never drank except once a quarter at church in a tiny little Communion cup. One time my Grandma Beardslee served me home- canned grape juice—it was brownish purple, unpasteurized, pulpy and not nearly as sweet as Welch’s.

My earliest introduction into how wine is made came from an episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy and another woman stomped grapes in a giant vat. Remember this?

I pastored for 10 years in Rochester, NY, near the Finger Lakes with their famous vineyards. Down in Naples, I learned the proper way to eat a Concord grape. Walking through the vines, you pluck a little cluster of grapes off the vine, hold one grape up to your mouth and squish it till that succulent little thing pops into your mouth. You suck the goodness out of the skin for a minute and then throw the skin on the ground. Now you savor the cool, soft, sweet ball in your mouth, move it around with your tongue, and then swallow it whole, seeds and all. If you try to chew it, you’ll crunch those bitter seeds. Never mind what your mom used to tell you about seeds in your stomach causing watermelons or grapes to grow there. They don’t. And then repeat with another grape, again and again. Delicious! During one such grape-eating lesson I asked my friend Paul if he knew the owner of the vineyard we were walking through. Nope! I guess in Naples they go by Deuteronomy 23:24, which says, “If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket.”

The Bible is filled with references like this. Grapes are mentioned 52 times, drink offerings 66 times, vineyards 108 times and wine 240! It’s obvious when you go looking for it that the cultures of the Old and New Testaments were vino centric.

Grapes, vineyards, and wine are the stuff of life—actually, they’re a picture of the good life. When you’re nicely settled into the land and living at peace with your neighbors, it’s said that you eat the grapes and drink the wine of your own vineyard.

So of course God uses this illustration from everyday life to describe his relationship with Israel. He is the owner of a vineyard, a vine dresser, and a cultivator of grapes. Over and over, he tells his people Israel through the prophets that he has tenderly cared for every detail of the success of his vineyard, preparing the ground, planting good vines in fertile soil, and protecting it from wild animals and thieves, but eventually the relationship has turned into painful disappointment.

Listen to God’s heartbreak in this passage, Isaiah 5:1-7.

I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard:

my loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.

2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines.

He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.

  1. 3  ‘Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
  2. 4  What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?

When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?

5 Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:

I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall,

and it will be trampled.

6 I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.

I will command the clouds not to rain on it.’

7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel,

and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

The Old Covenant draws to a close with the prophetic lament of God; his precious vineyard has gone to ruin. The early books of the Old Testament prescribe drink offerings to God; in Jeremiah and the minor prophets toward the end of the Old Testament, the people have forsaken the worship of the one true God and are pouring out drink offerings to the Queen of Heaven. God’s dreams for them are dashed.

I haven’t been to Israel yet, so I learned something a while ago from JD Walt in the Seedbed Daily Text. (I learn from him every day.) JD pointed out that as Jesus walked alongside the Temple in Jerusalem with his disciples, they could have seen vineyards in the Kidron Valley on one side, and on the other side, stone carvings of grape vines in the Temple walls. What a contrast! The real plants, fully alive in the moment, green, spreading vines absorbing sunshine and rain, the roots drawing nourishment from the soil, the whole vine filled with the essence of grape as the branches grow and bear new fruit. Or, stone carvings, a monument to the memory of a metaphor. No comparison.

We believe this is where Jesus and his disciples may have been walking when he spoke these words recorded in John 15:1-8:

“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

As Jesus so often does, he picks up an Old Covenant image and modulates it to a whole new level. He is now the TRUE and faithful vine…and (here is the unimaginable part!) WE, TOGETHER, have the privilege of being one with him, part of him, sharing in his essence, co-creating fruit through him! As we abide in Jesus and he abides in us, the Father’s dream of a fruitful vine comes to life. Without Jesus, we can do nothing. In our own power, we can be no more faithful and fruitful than the Old Covenant people of God, who had ended so lifelessly.

But if we remain in Jesus, and his words take up residence in our hearts and among us in our conversation and relationships, they create in us good desires that we express in asking for good things, and those things come to pass, glorifying the Father and confirming our identity as Jesus’ disciples. Of course, it’s clear from the context of this passage that the Holy Spirit is the member of the godhead who indwells us, bringing the presence of Jesus into our very spirits and consciousness. We abide in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As in the Old Covenant image, the Father is pictured as the vinedresser or gardener. This image blows my mind! Jesus’ Father, our Heavenly Father, is intimately involved in the process of trimming away dead and unproductive branches on his vine, and skillfully pruning the fruitful ones to expand their productivity. This implies both judgment and decisive corrective action for long- term gain.

I spent a lot of years picturing this arrangement in my own individual life and my personal relationship with Jesus. But really, Jesus is speaking in the plural—the disciples, plural, are the branches (plural) which bear the fruit of the vine (singular). We, plural, are organically connected to one another since we are “in Jesus” and together, produce fruit. We can easily see implications for a church, an organism that collectively receives the Father’s careful attention, trimming and cutting either to dramatically improve its quality and quantity of fruit, or even, as Jesus says, being judged and cut off as useless.

“What is the fruit?” We might think of new people coming to Jesus, multiplication of ministries, or the fruit of the Spirit, or other good biblical word pictures of fruitfulness. But we know that to understand the text well, we should look first at the immediate context—so, from Chapters 13 through 17 of John’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching on the primacy of love and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Our love for one another is the primary deliciousness that brings glory to God and shows others who Jesus is. We are to be an appetizer, full of the flavor of Jesus, whose fruit we are producing by the power of the Holy Spirit in us.

To return to our Old Testament lesson for just a moment, let’s consider some of the description of good grapes from the Isaiah 5 passage:

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

The good grapes are justice and righteousness, which are often presented as twin traits. The bad grapes, maybe sour grapes, are described like this: amassing houses and fields to the detriment of the poor; arrogance; ironically, drunkenness; disregard for the deeds of the Lord and the work of his hands. Calling evil good and good evil; putting darkness for light and light for darkness; putting bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter; being wise in our own eyes and clever in our own sight; acquitting the guilty for a bribe but denying justice to the innocent. These descriptors of bad grapes, judged so by the owner of the vineyard, should give us pause. How do we measure fruitfulness? Do we value the twin virtues of justice and righteousness as much as God does? Or do we use a false scale to weigh fruit?

This year I’ve often wondered if God is accomplishing a major pruning in his Church through the Coronavirus pandemic. It has been painful—it still is painful—and we’re experiencing many losses—in addition to what everyone has lost—lives, livelihoods, security, our normal way of life—specifically, the Church has felt hindered, thwarted, in some cases, battered. For a while, we had to abandon use of our church buildings altogether, and even now, far fewer people are attending in-person services. We’ve had to cut programs and budgets and cancel all sorts of plans. It’s been frustrating! Simultaneously, the pain of racial injustice has reached a tipping point and the church in America has had to do some pretty deep soul searching, so a certain level of nostalgia for returning to what we used to call normal has been sacrificed on that front. We’ve realized that “normal” was in need of some major improvement. On top of all that, our politics have become more polarized than ever. That’s all I’m going to say about that!

Could God be using this disruptive season to lovingly prune his Church for greater fruitfulness? I know this season has also coincided with your church’s process of reexamining your mission, vision and values. Although it might feel like an inconvenient time to consider the possibility of more change, it’s actually just the right moment. I encourage you to really lean in to what Pastor Kaye and your leaders have been discerning. They’ve been seeking the Lord and asking what the Spirit is saying to reorient your church during this long season of disorientation. I’m praying with you for a brand new crop of luscious fruit to come from the painful pruning as you hold fast to Jesus and one another and abide in the Vine.

While we’re thinking about the Vine, let’s also consider the Wine. In Luke 5:37-38, Jesus says,

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.

In 1975 our own Spring Arbor-born Free Methodist theologian Howard Snyder explored this parable in his book The Problem of Wineskins. (By the way, on the first page, he also admits that he has very little knowledge of literal wine or wineskins, as I confessed at the beginning of this sermon. Call it the teetotaler’s disadvantage.)

Howard Snyder writes that the new wine of the gospel will constantly require new wineskins—new forms, structures, and human-made “containers.” Just as Jesus’ life and ministry couldn’t be contained by Judaism, in every passing generation, this fermenting, expanding, renewing life in Jesus will require expandable new models, traditions, and patterns. That which is essential and primary, the wine, requires constant renewal of that which is secondary, but also necessary and useful—the wineskins—traditions, structures, and patterns.

For example, in The Problem of Wineskins he advocated selling our church properties and giving the money to the poor, and then gathering in small groups in homes or rented or outdoor spaces! I guess outdoors wouldn’t work too well today, would it! But in 2021, some missionally-minded church leaders are re- evaluating their church’s programs and building uses. Watching their large church complexes sitting empty for months, they’ve started dreaming about how they could be turned into shared ministry and outreach spaces, maybe shared with several churches and even other community groups, 7 days a week. Of course, all over the world in the places where the church is expanding rapidly, it’s doing so through models like Community Church Planting and other home-based structures. Our Free Methodist brothers and sisters in Latin America have planted several hundred new house churches during the Pandemic! I’ve seen amazing videos of zoom-service baptisms. It’s so exciting!

Here at The Arbor Church, you have this awesome asset, a huge, beautiful and multipurpose building. You are also located right on a university campus and have found ways to use the space for the spiritual and educational benefit of students. I have attended some amazing chapel services where the power of God fell on students in this very room. I was on staff here at the church when the gym—what’s it called now?—was added, with very missional intentions to become a welcoming space for families in the community, whether or not they were a part of the worshipping body. So, during this season of disorientation that the pandemic has brought, I pray that you will take this opportunity to reorient to whatever form God’s “new normal” will take as you head into the future. I pray that God will pour new wine into new wineskins.

Of course, in the most remarkable and well-known application of the metaphor of wine, Jesus fills the image with ultimate meaning. As he inaugurates the New Covenant, which surpasses the Old, he gives his disciples a Sign:

Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:27-29)

Jesus’ last meal with them ended with a last cup of wine. Never again could they taste their ordinary beverage without the very tastebuds in their mouths recalling this sign, this sacrament. Notice the graphic image he gave them—buried right here in the words we’ve read and heard a hundred times: his blood will be POURED OUT. Spilled. It will no longer be contained inside his body where blood belongs, but will be poured out at the flogging post; on the Via Dolorosa; and on the cross.

It wasn’t until 2019 that I finally internalized the connection between the crushing and pressing of grapes to make wine and the bruising and piercing of Jesus to spill blood. It came about because of a song—you know it, Hillsong Worship’s New Wine:

In the crushing In the pressing You are making New wine

In the soil, I Now surrender You are breaking New ground

So I yield to You and to Your careful hand When I trust You I don’t need to understand

Make me Your vessel
Make me an offering
Make me whatever You want me to be I came here with nothing
But all You have given me
Jesus, bring new wine out of me

So, 2019. Remember that year? It was so long ago! After a process of nominations and interviews, nine Free Methodist elders were being considered by the Bishops Search Committee for an eventual slate of five nominees for three positions. The nine of us got on a Zoom call to pray together for God’s will to be manifested in the process of winnowing the group down and eventually, the election. We expressed our mutual respect and love and pledged to pray for one another throughout the process and to gladly serve the church under whatever new Board of Bishops would emerge. I believe we all meant it. Maybe that seems like an unusual posture for nine competitors to take. It was. It was a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. Then we started texting songs to one another. Is He Worthy? was the first one I remember. New Wine is the next. Another five or six songs joined our playlist.

The process got painful, as several controversies developed. For months, this song became the soundtrack of my life. Daily, hourly, moment by moment, I experienced what it felt like to be crushed and pressed. Passages like Paul’s description that he had learned how to abound and how to be abased came to mind. I remember telling my husband, I finally know what it feels like to be abased. Paul’s description of his life as a drink offering being poured out became my lived experience (“Make me an offering.”) It’s hard to describe. I lived in cycles of surrender, continually yielding to the careful hand of the Winemaker. New wine. Bring it. Do it. (“Make me whatever you want me to be.”)

The process took me back almost 50 years, to my calling as a teenager right here in this church, which was followed by 12 years of verifying and clarifying my call, because I’d never seen a female pastor and knew plenty of people who thought it was against God’s will and God’s Word. Yet the Holy Spirit persisted. I remember so vividly the Lord’s drawing me, wooing me, inviting me to serve him in his church. Eventually, my reply was Mary’s, “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be done unto me according to your word.” That became a daily prayer again in 2019 and continues to this day.

And now, in 2021, after a year of great disorientation, perhaps we can all sing this song, pray this prayer. “I came here with nothing but all You have given me. Jesus, bring new wine out of me.” Can we pray this corporately, for Jesus to bring new wine out of this church? My prayer is that this church, my home church, the church through which I was dedicated as a baby and baptized by Uncle Dunck in Lime Lake as a teenager, the church where I took my wedding vows and my ordination vows—this beloved church, will undergo the loving hand of the Vinedresser for a new harvest of good grapes. Then imagine the place that’s always gone by the lovely name of The Arbor as a grape arbor, like the one seen here. It’s not wild grapes; the arbor shows the handiwork of an artistic cultivator and a skilled gardener. Grapes can’t grow like this without some pruning and redirecting, some new structures to support the growing vines. I’ve got a new image for The Arbor now. It’s alive!

On the Day of Pentecost, the believers were accused of being drunk, being filled with new wine. Oh, I yearn for that renewal in the church, where the presence of the living God in us is so effervescent, so overflowing its containers, so in danger of bursting the old wineskins that nobody around us can miss it.

Our Savior, Jesus, continually calls us to his table, to taste again his sacrifice of love for us.

Hear the Good News! He was bruised for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. The chastisement that brought us peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed.

Hear the Good News! Behold, I make all things new!

To watch this sermon on video click here.