Jesus Is the True Vine, John 15: 1-8(Andrew Wai Man, sermon delivered at the closing Eucharist, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, Triennial of Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion, May 25, 2011)
1. The true vine crowns and adorns the unsightly and lowly.
Jesus is the true vine. Yunnan has red wine. You may not hear about Yunnan, but surely you should have heard about Shangri-la, not the hotel, but the ethnic Tibetan county of Yunnan. Yunnan is the remote mountainous south-western province of China known for its ethnic minorities. Fifty one of the national fifty five minority groups are found here, of which fifteen are exclusive. But what has Jesus being the true vine to do with Yunnan producing the red wine?
The graves of the missionaries in the remote mountainous regions. As early as eighteenth century missionaries risked their lives through the forests and mountain ranges and came to Yunnan. The missionaries built churches, schools and because of similar climate, they taught the aborigine minority groups how to plant vine and made wine. They invented alphabets, characters and writings in order to give them their own Bible. Many of these minority groups began to put on clothes, learn to read, grow crops, and make wine. Today dots of church buildings are found in these outlaying hilly areas, so are dots of graves of the missionaries and their families.
The nature of vine best befits the harsh relief of the mountainous regions. Vines tend to climb on any available vertical wall, post, or even another plant close to them. The greatest asset of vines is the small amount of ground space they require. Vines may be selected to cover an unsightly feature and crown it with bountiful green foliage. Unseemly wooden fence is usually adorned with climbing vines. Today if you visit the minority villages of the cultural centre in the capital Kunming, you will see the daily services of hymns and prayers and dances of these once humble and unsightly Christian minority groups, all in their colorful ethnic costume, as tourist attraction.
When affluence is found along the coastal seaboard and cities at the confluences of inland rivers, these forgotten minorities living in the remote mountainous regions are left on their bare subsistence and poverty. Illiteracy is high and life is miserable. But the arrival of the Gospel made a phenomenal transformation. The lowly is elevated. Those in bondage are liberated. I am told that at one time President HU Jintao asked the local officials: “How come the missionaries could do so much in the past but we communist party can do so little now with these minority groups?”
The grave of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey. A month ago thousands of millions of people around the world watched the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton at the Westminster Abbey. We noticed that the wedding procession had to give way and diverted before they came to a plaque beneath which laid the body of the unknown warrior died in First World War. On the surface of the grave we read: Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior unknown by name or rank brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land…Thus are commemorated the many multitudes who during the great war of 1914-1918 gave the most that man can give life itself for God, for King and country for loved ones home and Empire, for the sacred cause of justice and freedom of the world. They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward His House. Around the main inscription are four texts: (top) The Lord know them that are his. (bottom) In Christ shall all be made alive. (sides) Greater love had no man than this and unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live. Last year the CUAC trustees had the privilege to be given an exclusive tour when we met in London. I stood in wonder as I looked up to the imposing high rising ceiling of the Gothic structures and was drawn to God’s majesty. I stood in awe as I bowed down to read these comforting words that speak of the embracing love of God. God remember those who died for the noble cause of justice and the freedom of the world. The lowly and forgotten do not come into oblivion. The true vine crowns and adorns the unsightly with its gracious foliage.
2. Who abide in me will bear fruit “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abide in me, and I abide in him, bears much fruits; for without me you can do nothing.” (John 15: 5)
We all want to be truthful to our calling of Christian higher education and bear fruits. But truthful and fruitful may not come together easily. As Harry Lewis, the former Dean of Harvard University observes in his book entitled Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, many competitive colleges and universities only pursue after excellence. They forget the goal of education being the nurturing of undergraduate students who will take responsibility for society. They seek excellence at the expense of the soul. If it bears fruit, they prefer dot com (commerce) than dot edu (education). They are drawn to the kings and the illustrious, leaving no room for the unknown warrior. They have no room for the unknown because they are so concerned with their name and ranking. They are attracted to the wealthy seaboard and affluent cities along the rivers and neglect the hard soil of the remote regions.
But the church of Christ keeps sending out missionaries to cross high mountains and thick forests to sow the seeds of the true vine. On the part of the missionaries may be they are so drunk of the good wine from above and feel led by the aroma of the wine that they are able to risk their lives for the mission. May be they understand that these minority groups are unknown warriors too fighting for their own survival, for the sanctity of life. They are unknown yet known to Christ. They are dying because of scarce means. But they turn out to be good dancers for the Gospel once they have tasted the eternal wine brought to them. They can dance and sing because now they know with Jesus even plain water can turn into choice wine.
The first time when I ponder about theme of sustainability I think of the survival of Christian college itself. In terms of resources and funding Christian colleges and universities cannot compete with our national counterparts. In terms of ranking we are far behind. In light of this dire reality can Christian colleges and universities have a sustainable future?
We surely has a sustainable future because we are abundant in love if we abide in Jesus and truthful to our calling of Christian higher education. Mother Teresa once remarked: “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” That is the hunger and poverty of love.
What the world need are not talented and smart graduates that institutions striving for excellence may produce. We have many of them in Wall Street. What we need are responsible and honest men and women who do not easily succumb to the temptation of greed that has sunk us down causing millions out of jobs.
After all what is fruitful? In the eyes of the world, gaining good ranking and becoming more competitive are certainly fruitful. We agree too. However striving for excellence is only necessary, but not sufficient. For the colleges and universities bearing the name of Christ, it is fruitful when we produce graduates who want to be unknown warriors for the cause of justice and freedom. It is fruitful when our graduates are willing to risk their lives in crossing mountains and thick forests to care about the miserable and the forgotten.
The vines crown the humble and adorn the unsightly, as Jesus the true vine uplifts the lowly and sets the captives free. Amen.