United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds April 29, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B

color_white_1.jpg

Lectionary citations:
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Worship resources for the Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
John 15:1-8

Focus Theme:
Love Abides

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

Last week, the Gospel of John provided the image of a good shepherd to describe the close, caring relationship between God and Jesus, and between Jesus and us. Perhaps we're not herders of sheep, or haven't spent much time in an agrarian setting, but we get the idea of what John is talking about.

First of all, the shepherd image is familiar to us from the much-loved and often-memorized Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd." And, from childhood, we've seen many paintings of Jesus with a little lamb over his shoulders, the flock grazing peacefully around him.

Understanding ourselves as little lambs, enfolded in God's care, is reassuring, and reassurance was what the disciples and the early Christian community needed, especially John's community. Just as the disciples must have been bewildered by some of the things Jesus was saying, and anxious about the negative response of religious and political leaders, so the early Christians a generation later, expelled from their religious home, also needed a word of tender reassurance from the risen Christ, telling them that they weren't alone or abandoned.

Branches entwined

vine__cropped.jpg

In this week's reading, John uses the image of a vine and its branches, to help--and challenge--that early community, and ours today, to claim our close relationship with Jesus. In Jesus' time, people would have been familiar with the vine metaphor; it appears in the Hebrew Scriptures several times to describe Israel. But even if contemporary Christians have never tended a vineyard, most of us have seen a grapevine at one time or another.

Looking closely, we see the many entwined branches, winding their way around one another in intricate patterns of tight curls that make it impossible to tell where one branch starts or another one ends. This is not just intricate; it's intimate, and the vine shares with its branches the nutrients that sustain it, the life force of the whole plant. Even closer than the shepherd there on the hillside, this vine is one with the branches.

Intimacy and anonymity

Intimacy, and anonymity. Gail R. O'Day finds the "anonymity" in this metaphor "stark." John isn't interested, she says, in "distinctions in appearance, character, or gifts." The many voices of the New Testament give us a fuller, richer picture than one voice would have provided, so here we could do a little Bible study by comparing this passage with the writing of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.

O'Day contrasts John and Paul's writings, with Paul using the differences between the members of the body to define "what it means to be a body." On the other hand, John, instead of highlighting our individual gifts and roles, "challenges contemporary Western understandings of personality, individualism, and self-expression." For John, O'Day writes, "The mark of the faithful community is how it loves, not who are its members" (John, The New Interpreter's Bible).

That word, "love"

We often hear that word, "love," in John's writings. Love is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Love is the measure of faithfulness. Our readings this month linger on this line of thought, but they're not legalistic or detailed. "Love" can feel like a state of being, so the word "abide" almost jumps off the page in these readings from John. Fred Craddock understandably calls it "the central verb" in the passage, and emphasizes its importance in the entire Gospel of John (Preaching through the Christian Year B).

Eugene Peterson renders "abide" in verse 4 a little differently, but with the same meaning, as Jesus teaches his followers, "Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you" (The Message). Just as we need the air to breathe, so we need food and nourishment to live. We need shelter and community; we need a home. The early Christians, who had in a very real sense lost their spiritual homes and perhaps, along with them, their family ties and their physical homes, were undoubtedly comforted by this thought.

Rise up and get moving!

The setting for these words holds great significance. Just before this passage, at the end of chapter 14, Jesus has finished the Passover meal (the Last Supper) with his disciples and is ready to move on. "Rise," he says, "let us be on our way" (14:31b). But the very next verse, which begins this week's reading and chapter 15 as well, continues his long farewell speech, full of instructions and exhortations for the disciples.

Charles Cousar doesn't skip over the significance of that last verse in chapter 14 or its connection to what follows: "Jesus' words are a call to get moving." Jesus is speaking to his followers, a community whose witness and service (perhaps it would be better to say "witness of service") expresses a "distinctiveness from the world" that provokes "distrust and hatred (15:18-19)" (Texts for Preaching Year B).

In a way, there's a tension here: the word "abide" could suggest "planted" (like a vine, perhaps?), in place, rooted, fixed. But Jesus' command to "rise up" puts us in motion, in mission, in works that bear witness and bear fruit at the same time. Sarah Henrich is helpful here: "Bearing fruit does not create disciples," she writes; "bearing fruit reveals disciples. Both of these activities are dependent on abiding in Jesus, the real vine" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).

The corporate: a word of reassurance for the church

Scholars take more than one approach to this passage. Some, like Charles Cousar, focus on the community, on the "corporateness" of this image, and on the centrality of "the indwelling Christ" to its ministries. Cousar finds words that are front and center for a church that seeks new life: "connectedness, permanency, vitality." I love the image of green plants for church vitality, and Cousar would seem to agree when he associates the image of bearing fruit with "growth, usefulness, and nourishment" (Texts for Preaching Year B). [When it comes to church vitality, I would add the green "beauty" of flowers as well, because beauty feeds our souls just as food feeds our bodies.]

Gail O'Day also emphasizes the communal nature of this life, a "model" of "interrelationship and corporate accountability" that challenges our unceasing attempts to stand out from, and rise up over, one another (John, The New Interpreter's Bible). Have you ever experienced a spirit of competitiveness in the church? How does this affect its unity, internally and with the larger Body of Christ?

What does "bearing fruit" look like?

But what about this notion of "bearing fruit"? If bearing fruit reveals disciples rather than creating them, as Sarah Henrich claims, we might search our church's history to see how often abiding in Jesus can cause all sorts of trouble, just in case we're forgotten that the early Christians were not the last ones to face opposition and persecution for their faith in Jesus. Stephen A. Cooper calls the roll of such disruptions caused by Jesus' "radical" instructions: Paul, Anthony, Francis, Luther, Anabaptists, anti-slavery activists (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).

One question for the church today is whether we find ourselves speaking and acting a word contrary to the "comfortable" within us and around us, where we face together, not alone, the forces arrayed against justice and mercy. What would happen if our congregations spent less time talking and worrying and working on our survival and more time on putting ourselves in the line of fire, as Paul, Anthony, Francis (and Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Archbishop Romero and the four American churchwomen murdered in El Salvador, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and the rest did?

By the way, there will be pruning

Emily Askew makes a challenging observation about the vine imagery of this text, for "living in the promises of God will come with times when we experience the cutting away of what might have seemed to us to have been vital." Her "Theological Perspective" in Feasting on the Gospels: John, Vol. 2, bears reading several times. I wonder if at least some members of a congregation on Sunday morning would hear her exhortation to "expect to be pruned" in ways that might be misunderstood.

In the same book, Lindsay Armstrong's "Pastoral Perspective" on this text fills out this idea even more in a way that reassures even as it challenges us, claiming that John's Jesus is telling us "that we branches will be cared for by the divine vinegrower who knows just how to develop us, exactly when to prune, when to wait, and when to harvest."

Armstrong also emphasizes the word "abide," and the tension between "being" and "doing" that we often experience in the church, with "doing" mostly coming out ahead. "John's Jesus does not leave us with a to-do list," according to Armstrong (Feasting on the Gospels: John, Vol. 2). I'm reminded of that bumper sticker of some years ago: "Jesus is coming--look busy!" And then there was last week's theme, "Love in Truth and Action." As I said, it's a tension we experience in the church, one we might reflect on in our preaching.

The personal: a word of reassurance for each one of us

However, the corporate reading of this passage is not the only way to approach it; in fact, this beautiful text deserves a fuller, deeper understanding. Nancy R. Blakely takes a pastoral approach to her reflection as she considers the personal relationship each of us has with Jesus, the vine. She reminds us that we find the best grapes close in to the vine, "where the nutrients are the most concentrated." And she uses Peterson's image of "making a home" in describing the peace that we long for in our hearts.

This kind of abiding for Blakely is the way God "sustains" us and showers us with "shalom, which speaks of wholeness, completeness, and health." Here, close to the vine, immersed in shalom, we find not only nourishment but also hope and joy, and we let God's word "find a home in us through faithful devotion."

There, close to the vine, we find peace about all the things that we face, and all the things that we pray for, because our will will be aligned with God's own will. She even reminds us of the value of that sometimes painful but redemptive pruning: "All that is extraneous is carefully and lovingly removed. What remains is centered and focused on God's word" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).

A word of challenge for us all

How do we bring these two streams together or, to be closer to today's image, how do we graft them together, the personal and the communal? Blakely does just that when she reminds us that the Risen Christ in John's Gospel is warning his followers in every age and every setting not to "go it alone, trusting in their own strength. On their own they would be cut off from their life source. They would bear no fruit."

This is really good news for us, no matter how much it flies in the face of everything we're told about success and measuring up. It's not up to us to dig deep down inside and make happen what needs to happen. Blakely reminds us that, if we stay close to Jesus, we have a source for all the grace and strength we need in our lives, and the result will be joy (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).

The result will be fruit that blesses the world and reveals us as the followers of Jesus, a community of love. Together, we are so much more powerful than any of us can be on our own. However, this "together" isn't out there, on our own even as a community, because our life force flows from the vine with which we are one. Barbara Essex perhaps puts it most succinctly: "The community that Jesus calls forth is one that embodies an African proverb: Because we are, I am" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). Amen!

Kate_SS_2017.jpg

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

William Sloane Coffin, 20th century
"I think, therefore I am? Nonsense! I love, therefore I am."

Richard Rohr, 21st century
"True religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, in spite of our best efforts to deny it or avoid it."

Confucius 6th century B.C.E.
"Heaven means to be one with God."

William Pickens, in a speech to a meeting of Congregationalists, Oak Park, Illinois, November 2, 1932
"Living together is an art."

Jean Baptiste Lacordaire, 19th century
"We are leaves of one branch, the drops of one sea, the flowers of one garden."

Gwendolyn Brooks, 20th century
"We are each other's harvest; we are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond."

Thomas Merton, 20th century
"The deepest of level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless...beyond speech...beyond concept."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Where there is love there is life."

Mother Teresa, 20th century
"I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, [God] will not ask, 'How many good things have you done in your life?'; rather God will ask, 'How much love did you put into what you did?'"

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, 20th century
"Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new."


Lectionary texts

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."

The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Psalm 22:25-31

From you comes my praise
   in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay
   before those who fear God.

The poor shall eat
   and be satisfied;
those who seek God
   shall praise God.
May your hearts live forever!

All the ends
   of the earth
shall remember
   and turn to God;
and all the families
   of the nations
shall worship before God.

For dominion belongs
   to God,
and God rules
   over the nations.

To God, indeed, shall all
   who sleep in the earth bow down;
before God shall bow all
   who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for God.

Posterity will serve God;
   future generations
will be told about God,

and proclaim God's deliverance
   to a people yet unborn,
saying that God has done it.

1 John 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 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. We love because he first loved us.

Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

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."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
    
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!