a sermon for April 29, 2018, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on John 15:1-8 and 1 John 4:7-21)
Well, to begin with… let me just say that no matter how many times I return to this particular passage from John’s gospel, I’m never really expecting what I find there!
I don’t know; maybe it’s because last Sunday we heard from Jesus all about his being the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” (John 10:11) – and yes, we are those sheep (!) – or maybe it’s simply because it’s finally springtime around these parts, and the idea that very soon now there will be leafy, fruitful vines bursting forth all around is just exactly how I want to think of Jesus when he tells his disciples and us, “I am the vine, [and] you are the branches.” I mean, it does fit; it’s an image that green and life-filled, it’s pastoral in every good sense of the word and it speaks so beautifully of resurrection as we move through this Eastertide.
So why is it that I never seem to remember that it’s only two verses into this 15th chapter of John when Jesus states, quite ominously that God who is the vinegrower, “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit” and even prunes the branches that do (!); and if that’s not threatening enough, Jesus then goes on to say, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch that withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Now this all sounds more than a little bit judgmental, don’t you think; as I said before, not at all what I was expecting from this passage of scripture! I was expecting, wanting, dare I say needing to hear about the blessings that come in abiding in Jesus, this one who is “the true vine,” but what I’m getting here is an image of myself akin to all the dead leaves and fallen branches that these days are being hauled out to the curb to be taken away truly only God knows where! Actually, go back to the reading from that perspective and “I am the vine and you are the branches,” ends up kind of feeling like less of a blessing… and more of, well, a threat!
And in all honesty, that’s how sometimes these verses have been read throughout the centuries; in which Jesus basically announces to one and all that they are to “abide in me,” staying loyal and faithful in all things (that is, “bearing fruit”) or else face the fire, and die; which, if that’s the case, ends up a rather bleak prospect for any of us! But I ask you, how that kind of interpretation reconcile with everything else that Jesus says here: his acknowledgement that we are, in fact, connected to him in the same manner as branches are attached to the vine; the fact that even those branches that bear fruit and even more fruit (as is stated over and over again in this 15th chapter of John) are subject to pruning; and what about the fact that Jesus says to his disciples that they’d already been cleansed by the word that he’d spoken to them? No, for all the claims of judgment we hear in Jesus’ words, there’s something else at work here… not judgment, but instead a promise.
And we know this, friends, because of what Jesus says to them in the middle of all this talk of vines and branches. You see, it’s not simply that he says to them, “Abide in me;” it’s that he says to them, “Abide in me, as I abide in you.” And that changes everything.
It’s important for us to remember, you see, that in this Eastertide season we are well aware of the truth and significance of Jesus’ resurrection; and thus everything you and I look at in scripture, in particular the words and acts of Jesus himself, we view through a different set of lenses. In other words, we know how the story of Jesus is going to come out, but as Jesus was speaking these words about to those closest to him on that Maundy Thursday night, they did not! Moreover, Jesus knew what was about to happen, both to himself and to the rest of them. As David Lose puts it, “They [the disciples] are about be cut down by his crucifixion and death,” and so now with this imagery of vines and branches and the need to bear fruit, “he is assuring them that it will not be mere, senseless cutting but that they will survive, even flourish.” It may well seem as though you’re about be thrown in the fire – because after all, branches don’t do well when they’re not connected to the vine; without connection to a life source, life is not possible – but, says Jesus, “Abide in me, as I abide in you,” and you will have the connectedness with me not only to endure and to persevere, but to have life, and to have it abundantly, even in the face of everything that’s about to come. And what’s more, Jesus adds (and as is translated by The Message), “But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.”
It’s worth pointing out that by the time John recorded all of this for his account of the gospel, the members of the early church – the first generation of those who would have known how the story came out – would nonetheless have heard Jesus’ words in the context of their own struggles: remember that by that time, many of these early Christians were scattered or in hiding for fear of persecution at the hands of Roman soldiers, most thrown out of their synagogues for the sake of confessing faith in the risen Christ, and almost all of them feeling fairly well abandoned and cut off from what had inspired them to “abide” in the first place! So even all those years later, Jesus’ words about the connectedness of vine and branches might well have sounded as confusing to them in the distress and uncertainty of their own lives as it did for those first disciples some years before!
Of course, we know all about that, don’t we? Truly, there are so many of us, maybe even some of us here, who do understand in their lives what it is to feel cut down, cut off and abandoned. The people who work day in and day out in dead end jobs – if they have a job at all – all the while simply struggling to make ends meet for the sake of themselves but especially their families; the children and youth who are the victims of an ever increasing spiral of bullying and abuse, to the point where they’ve begun to believe what they’ve been told about themselves; the ones who suddenly find themselves having to cope with “the new normal” of their own debilitating illness, or else of finding themselves in the role of caregiver to a family member who can’t do it for themselves; or countless others who “feel cut down – maybe mowed down – by life and its circumstances:” if you’ve been there, or if you are there, then you know very well what it is to face the fire.
And that’s where Jesus’ words have such power. Quoting David Lose one more time, when Jesus says, “Abide in me, as I abide in you… This is more than good advice. More than an invitation. This is a promise, that no matter what happens, Jesus will be there with us. That not matter what happens, Jesus will hold onto us. And no matter what happens, God in Jesus will bring all things to a good end.” And it doesn’t mean, Lose goes on to say, “that everything happens for a reason,” and that into every life some rain must fall. “Rather, it is to say that that no matter what happens, we have God’s promise in Jesus to work for good.” And it means that whatever is going on in our lives right now, as much as what feels like a death cut “is mere pruning” and the assurance that growth is coming, new life will come and soon enough there will fruit in abundance; just wait and see. Because this is Jesus’ own promise to abide, and it is grounded in the infinite love and care of God, who is ever and always the Vinegrower.. As the writer of our Epistle reading for this morning proclaimed it, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
This is who God is, beloved… and, might I add, because of this promise to abide, it’s who we are as well.
The author and Episcopal priest Suzanne Guthrie is, as it happens, also a passionate flower gardener; and I came across a piece by her this week that seems to be pretty appropriate for this time of year, in which she writes that “you have to be ruthless to garden successfully. Out go the weaker plants and weeds, divide the thriving ones before they crowd everything else out… hunt for and destroy slugs in the buggy evening… and prune prune prune down to the nub.” Guthrie actually goes on to compare this process to the season of Lent, and says that this why so many people love Lent, because “you are busy ‘rooting out the vices and planting virtues’ as the old monastics say.”
But there’s another lesson to be learned about gardening, it’s “about the life source in the soil, in the air, in rain and moisture in the ground, in the mysterious process that transforms an ugly brown tuber into a glowing scarlet dahlia.” And spiritually speaking, she concludes, it’s a reminder that even though in life we also are so often “pruned, pruned, pruned down to the nub,” and are part of a community that helps make it happen !), we are also “inseparably grafted to the Vine – the source of [our] deep and enduring happiness and love.”
I read this, friends, and it actually got me to thinking about these couple of months we’ve shared here at East Church. On the one hand, together we went through the season of Lent; making our yearly journey to the foot of the cross and looking very intently within ourselves to perhaps recognize why we were there when they crucified our Lord. Lent, by its very nature and intent, is a season of penitence and fasting and prayerful reflection, and if we’re honest and deliberate about it, it does represent something of a spiritual “pruning;” if not down to the nub then certainly to the heart.
But I think you’ll agree with me when I also say to you that this year Lent was a bit different, wasn’t it? This year, Lent included a pancake breakfast open to anybody who happened to be passing by; we had a Murder Mystery Dinner on St. Patrick’s Day that featured corned beef and cabbage, a few bad accents and lots of laughter; and then there’s the ongoing and, I might add, fairly significant (and reasonably healthy!) competition between the “Apple Crushers” and “Sunday Shooshers,” with all the pennies, coins and game-changing dollar bills that will benefit the ongoing ministries of our congregation; and this is to say nothing of all the rest of the mission outreach that were at least, in small part, inspired by the desire for a few extra points for your team!
All this to say that this was not, at least not in my pastoral recollection and experience, a typical Lenten season! In fact, rather than being a somber 40 days leading up to Easter, it was actually rather… festive! But not festive in a frivolous, disrespectful, sacrilegious kind of way, but rather as Guthrie describes it: just as any good gardening requires a connection to the life source in the soil, in the air, and in the rain and the moisture, what we were doing here at East Church – what we’re continuing to do in this place in this Eastertide – is about connecting to our life source; to the act of embracing anew the promise that Jesus has made to each one of us to abide, and as branches determinedly cling to the vine, we also decide again and again to abide in his presence, his power and, above all, his love, so that we may have life and have it abundantly.
The world, yes, and the life we live within it can be an overwhelming and fearful thing. But as we abide in God’s love, personified and amplified in Jesus Christ, we discover as once again the Epistle proclaims it, that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear… [and that] we love because he first loved us.”
So let us abide; and as we do, let us bear the fruit that God desires from us. Let us love as we have been loved…
… and let our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry