A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Jesus the True Vine: A Ballsy Challenge to Herod
May 18, 2003
Easter 4 John 15:1-8
I remember being shown around Chicago a few years ago by a well-intentioned local. As we toured he offered a running commentary on the city. At one point he pointed to a building and told us it was the largest butterfly museum in the world. He wowed us with the figures of the numbers of butterflies, the amount of money spent etc. That was fine and interesting, but as the tour went on we realised that everything he referred to was either the tallest, the largest, the most expensive, or the most powerful in the world. I eventually got so annoyed that I felt like saying to him, "You may well be the biggest pain-in-the-butt in the world'.
You may have met people like that. When we drove to his home and he pointed out Michael Jordon's house we realised the nature of the universe we were entering. Everything in this world was measured by its outward value. Each would work harder and harder to keep up or even better outdo the one next door.
Perhaps you have heard the story of the two brothers in the US, one of whom lived in Rhode Island and the other in Texas. The brother from Texas went to visit the brother in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island brother was a gentleman farmer. He put on his tweeds and he took the Texas brother to the top of a hill. There he pointed out the borders of his farm saying, "I own all the land to the creek, to the tree line, to the hills and to the highway." Then the Rhode Island brother looked at the Texas brother who was dressed in old blue jeans and cowboy boots and he asked, "How big is your place?" And the Texas brother said, "Well, I'll put it like this. If we ate breakfast at my ranch house, which is at the center of my place, and then got in my old truck and drove until we were ready for lunch we would be about halfway to my front gate." And the brother from Rhode Island said, "Don't feel too bad. I once had a lemon of a truck like that."
It seems to be human nature to compete. We so often confuse greatness with size and wealth. The results can be devastating.
There are many examples of this in the world today; none are more frightening than the display of opulence from Saddam Hussein whose properties fronted a regime of hatred and tyranny. He has built his main palace modelled on the style of Babylon's palace of Nebuchadnezzar, including his throne room. Hussein has built on the exact spot where Nebuchadnezzar directed his oppressive regime. We can only imagine what violent decisions, what acts of brutality were planned by Hussein in this very throne room! And it was here that Nebuchadnezzar consigned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to the fiery furnace.
We have been recently inundated with images of this opulence as well as some of the mass graves, the fiery furnaces in Iraq. Of course the media has offered a limited perspective on the complexity in Iraq, and of course the US and the UK have their own demons to address. But it seems clear that in Hussein we have witnessed a tyrant hell bent on destruction while he displayed his wealth as a medal of honour.
He comes in a long line of tyrants, including Nebuchadnezzar, and more relevant to our text this morning, Herod, who ruled in the time of Jesus.
The gospel text is one which we need to revisit as it has been domesticated and turned into a comfort text. The usual take on the image of the vine has been something pithy along the lines of "You won't bear fruits if you don't have roots." It has been said to be about unity, and doing good and finding your roots in Jesus. All quite true and fair.
However we need to keep in mind that most likely these words were spoken in the context of the Last Supper, as Jesus prepared for his demise at the hands of Herod and others. Whatever the intention of the words, they must be speaking profound truths about death and struggling against violence. They come from a man on the brink of the ultimate act of tyranny. We can expect they are anything other than comfortable.
Herod, like Hussein, wore his wealth like a badge of honour.
First century Jewish historian, Josephus offers this description of Herod's handiwork:
"The whole structure (of Herod's temple), was lower on each side than it was in the middle, so that they were visible to those dwelling a great many furlongs off in the country, and especially to those living close by and to those that approached. The temple had doors at the entrance, and lintels over them, of the same height as the temple itself. They were adorned with embroidered veils, with their flowers of purple, and pillars interwoven: and over these, but under the crown-work, was spread out a golden vine, with its branches hanging down from a great height, the largeness and fine workmanship of which was a astonishing sight for the vastness of the materials and the great skill of the artisans. He also encompassed the entire temple with very large cloisters, designed to be proportion to the temple; and he laid out larger sums of money upon them than any had done before him, till it seemed that no one else had so greatly adorned the temple."
Did you notice in the midst of that description the golden vine? Could it be, could it just be that when Jesus said, "I am the true vine," that he was putting out a direct challenge to Herod? Could it be that he was scorning the golden vine, Herod's claim at greatness, declaring that Herod's greatness was an illusion? If this was his intention, what courage the night before the execution!
I don't doubt that Jesus was also picking up on the ancient use of the vine imageto describe Israel, and was referring to infidelity and judgment, nor that he wanted to unify the disciples at this frightening hour.
It is just possible that it was also a ballsy challenge to Herod. Jesus was offering his own life, this man who was superficially unimpressive, had no possessions nor status, as the greater life. He was offering his inspiration for non-violence and compassion as the greater way than Herod's opulence and supposed power.
Just maybe he was offering a message to the disciples, even a coded message, that they must challenge Herod and all that he stood for. His death would not be in vain if they did.
And so it will be for us. As we celebrate our communion, we take of the true vine of Jesus. As we do so, we drink of the vine as a direct challenge to power politics and to violence. The true vine is the way of non violence, compassion and justice, and there will inevitably be struggle, even death along the way.
As we drink of the vine, we do so only too aware of the tyrants, and the tyrant within. We drink in direct challenge to tyranny.
The hope of resurrection is that these deaths will find their new energy in the persistence and courage of those who stand up as Jesus did, and count the cost. As we drink of the vine, we affirm all those heroes, and the hero within who has stood up when it counted.