Fifth Sunday after Easter

Fifth Sunday after Easter

John 15:1-8

[Jesus said] ”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Imagine being born into a pandemic and having the same pestilence return when you are 18, 28, 39, 42, and 44. These outbreaks are particularly nasty and can easily kill 1 out of 5 in a community. As you would expect, each episode comes with quarantines and restrictions. Markets, gatherings, restaurants and theaters are closed for extended periods. Sound familiar? How would you react if you were a locally famous, London playwright forced into isolation? Would you sulk? Or would you write Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest? William Shakespeare’s career and life were marked by six eruptions of the bubonic plague. He survived, adapted, and incorporated battling the disease into his plays.

Maybe a new Shakespeare is right now writing a brilliant tragedy. Some of us have made incredible leaps as we cope with Covid 19. Some of us face daily struggles, loneliness, isolation, and financial ruin. 567,000 of our neighbors have lost their lives.

Central to this passage from John is the word “abide.” It is translated from the Greek word “meno” meaning, “to survive or live.” Simply put, Jesus calls us to live in him. Living in Jesus changes our perspective of the world. Instead of living in a moment, we live in Christ and he lives in us. In return, God asks us to bear fruit and share the Good News. Your fruits may be your service to others, the music you create, the plays you write or the love you share.

It’s been awhile since I made a cofession in my message so I let you in on another one. I confess that I find preaching from the Farewell Discourses in John 14-16 seriously challenging. The combination of significant metaphor in the original context; and strange mixture of promise, exhortation, and warning have always prompted me to walk—and preach—gingerly when wading in this particular portion of John’s Gospel. 

It feels like the Fourth Evangelist was writing to a community in pain, struggling with their identity in relation to former friends and synagogue members and a host of losses and fears that are palpably present but difficult to name. All of which makes me pretty cautious so that I don’t read into this passage things John never intended and yet unclear as to what John did in fact intend. Which means that, this week, I come to this passage with more questions than insights, and I thought I’d share a couple of them with you.

The first, Jesus is the vine and God the vinegrower. Fine. And we’re the branches, also fine. But…how do we hear Jesus’ warning (or is it a promise?) that the vines that bear good fruit will be pruned so they can grow more? I’m not a gardener but from what I’m told pruning is part of gardening; that’s just how it works. Sometimes you cut a bush or vine back until it looks nearly like a barren stalk precisely so that new growth is possible. It feels aggressive to me personally, but I think perhaps it is an understanding of a promise that God can and will take even what is most challenging in our lives and use it to prepare us for service. How do you hear it?

The second, “apart from me, you can do nothing.” Again, I wonder how many of us hear that. On the one hand, I believe it. I think that, when offered as a statement of faith, most of you do too. On the other hand, I’m not sure I live like that, or pray like that, or act like that. Day to day, most of us don’t act like everything we do and are and accomplish depends on God. This verse challenges our sense of being self-made men and women in the world. And yet… maybe after a year of pandemic and racial reckoning and political paralysis, maybe this is the year we can hear that affirmation more accurately and with fresh appreciation. It initially sounds like a warning, or even a scolding, yet embedded in these words is a promise. It is precisely because everything we do depends on Jesus that we can count on doing something meaningful. 

The third, across this whole passage is an affirmation of both the immense dependence of the branches on the vine and simultaneously the tremendous potential of being branches on the vine. I’m curious what it would look like in our own lives and in our congregation if we took that a little more seriously. What does it mean to be a branch on Jesus’ vine? How might this promise shape our actions? 

We hear the words: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” This is remarkable, because fear is often the engine driving our religion, our politics, or financial planning and so many other aspects of our lives. Fear, of course, is not altogether irrational. There are a lot of imaginary threats spawned by conspiracy theories, junk science and bad religion. But there are also plenty of real dangers out there.

  • There is real danger for Black men, women, boys and girls face when they encounter police, particularly if they happen to be in the “wrong” neighborhood at the “wrong” time. 
  • There is a very real danger that our failure to vaccinate globally against Covid-19 in a timely matter will give the virus time and opportunity to mutate once again into a form capable of penetrating our current vaccines. 
  • There is a real danger for persons who have lost their jobs, businesses and homes in the wake of pandemic induced economic turmoil are understandably fearful of what the future may hold for them and their families. 
  • There is real danger in the damage to our planet’s climate resulting from unrestrained greenhouse gases should frighten us all.

Fear is a normal and healthy emotion. In a properly functioning psyche, fear alerts one to the presence of danger and the need to react. Fear must not, however, be permitted to dictate our reactions. There are several reasons for this. 

First, like every other emotion, fear sometimes yields a “false positive.” 

  • What I interpret as a romantic show of affection, might simply be a friendly hug. 
  • What I interpret as an insult might be nothing more than an awkward attempt at humor. 
  • But what I perceive to be a threat might actually turn out to be harmless. 

So it is critical to question each fear: Why am I afraid? What am I afraid of losing? 

What basis do I have for believing that this person, place or thing threatens my wellbeing? If I “shoot first and ask questions later,” I am likely to wind up with a hole in my foot and not many answers. 

Secondly, fear makes us stupid. When economic downturns occur, people tend to make poor financial decisions in a fit of panic. For example: 

  • On a collective level, nations reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic by shutting down their borders and pulling out of international agencies like the World Health Organization, little realizing that viruses do not respect borders and that a global pandemics require global responses. 
  • On an individual level, human beings deal with their mortality by steadfastly denying it, by covering it up with lotions, creams and hair color and by isolating the aged, infirm and dying in retirement communities, nursing homes and hospice centers. But the inescapable fact of death finally catches up and, when it does, the one whose life has been spent running away from it has developed no spiritual and emotional resources to meet it. 

So we can conclude, fear works well as a warning. As a motivating force, not so much.

The Apostle John tells us that “perfect love casts out all fear.” In other words, love takes fear out of the driver’s seat. There is no fear of judgement, because God in Christ has taken punishment for sin off the table. Judgment has the purpose only of moving us away from self destructive beliefs and conduct toward repentance and reconciliation. 

In much the same way, love banishes fear of others—whether they be painted as outsiders on the other side of the border threatening to take our country away from us, political opponents threatening to destroy our way of life with offensive policies and agendas or hostile nations threatening our national security. 

Saint John reminds us that if we cannot see the image of God in other human beings; then whatever it is we claim to worship, it is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Saint John would have us know that love, as it is revealed in Jesus, is the antithesis of a life in bondage to fear. 

A meme that I am fond of that occasionally makes the rounds of social media is this one:

The Bible is clear: In Dt. 23, Moabites are bad. They were not to be allowed to dwell among God’s people. But then comes the story of “Ruth the Moabite,” which challenges the prejudice against Moabites.

The Bible is clear: In Jer. 25, People from Uz are evil. But then comes the story of Job, a man from Uz who was “the most blameless man on earth.”

The Bible is clear: In Dt. 23, No foreigners or eunuchs allowed. But then comes the story of the African eunuch welcomed into the church (Acts 8).

The Bible is clear: God’s people hated Samaritans. But then Jesus tells a story that shows not all Samaritans are bad.

The story may begin with prejudice, discrimination, and animosity, but the Spirit moves God’s people towards openness, welcome, inclusion, acceptance, and affirmation.

The content of this meme is fits right in to this week’s lessons. From these three lessons we learn that abiding in Christ helps us learn to love, and that teaching helps us enact good change—in the church, in our own lives, and in the world. 

Let’s look at it as a formula for faith: Abide + Love = Good Change. If we give the Holy Spirit a little wiggle room in our lives, we just might be amazed by how we find ourselves changing and, in turn, changing the church and the world. Heaven knows, we don’t need more of the same as we emerge from the relative safety of our COVID cocoon.

The gospel and the lessons from Acts and 1 John are all familiar, and beloved, excerpts of scripture that point us to a new way of being and doing church and living in the world as followers of the Christ. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a connection between all three as I see this year, but it is a powerful one.

We begin by abiding in Christ, by being grafted into God’s family and dwelling deeply in the reality of Christ’s love and mercy and fruitfulness. Cut flowers or forced branches usually don’t last too long, but disciples who abide in the Christ find they suddenly begin to bear fruit in the most amazing and unexpected ways. The mark of this fruit is the love we share, the kind of non-optional love that we learn about in the lesson from 1 John. Verse 13 reminds us “By this [love] we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”

This love of our sisters and brothers is not optional; it is a commandment. We are compelled to love, to love beyond borders, prejudice, affiliations, race, creed, or sexual orientation. In short, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). So let us not live in fear, but let us live in love. Let that love be seen by others by not only what we say, but also in how we live.