Sermon Seed: Beloved, Be Loved, Be Love

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B

(Liturgical Color: White)

Lectionary citations:

Acts 8:26–40

Psalm 22:25–31

1 John 4:7–21

John 15:1–8

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture: 

John 15:1-8

Focus Theme: 

Beloved, Be Loved, Be Love

Reflection:

By Cheryl Lindsay

Visit any Christian bookstore (in-person or online) and you will discover a plethora of books listing the biblical promises of God. They isolate and extract statements from a larger story or conversation in order to promote a guaranteed reality if only you will receive that promise. While there is validity in meditating and reflecting upon those scripture passages, it seems to me that most of those books of lists miss the point of God’s promises. While those books often emphasize what you can have and obtain, God’s promises are covenantal, relational, purposeful, and transformational. At the heart of them is assurance of God’s abiding presence and connection that focuses on who we will become as we are more and more firmly rooted in the Triune God. 

The Gospel according to John explores the divine nature of Christ in particular ways distinctive from the synoptic narratives of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The seven “I Am” narratives illustrate this point:

  • “I am the bread of life.” (6:35)
  • “I am the light of the world.” (8:12)
  • “I am the gate.” (10:9)
  • “I am the good shepherd.” (10:11)
  • “I am the resurrection and the life.” (11:25)
  • “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (14:6)
  • “I am the true vine.” (15:1)

Each of these statements may be read in isolation, but these identifiers forge larger connections than that. They echo and amplify the words that the Holy One spoke to Moses: 

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘the God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “Who is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am who I Am.” (Exodus 3:13-14a)

That dialogue was about the identity–character and nature–of God. In the declaratives statements of Jesus, he adds further revelation to the character and nature of God. 

Each of these statements also need to be understood within the context of their respective narratives in order to more fully grasp the nature of God as well as the nature of the relationship God desires with God’s creation including, and especially, humanity. Each of these statements reveals another aspect of the relational covenant of God’s abiding presence with God’s people through the use of metaphor. Unlike the synoptics gospels where Jesus taught primarily through the use of parables, John shares Jesus employing metaphor to demonstrate his theological points. Each “I Am” statement utilizes specific imagery to represent a particular aspect of Christ’s identity and our identity in Christ. In this week’s focus text, the vine represents the intent of connection, the process of connecting, and the reality of being connected:

Three features of Jesus’ claim to be the true vine contribute to its meaning. The first

is the most obvious. He clearly wanted His disciples to visualize various aspects of His ministry and His relationship to them and to the Father. The verses that immediately follow (John 15:2-8, 16) support Jesus’ intent of an extended metaphor. Carson notes that vines and vineyards were one of the most common motifs in ancient religions. Vines were often used to express fruitfulness, dependence, vital union, pruning. (John C. Hutchinson)

At a time in the history of the church when so many bemoan the loss of former influence and impact, we return to this image of the vine as the image of fruitfulness as opposed to measures and models of success borrowed from the corporate world with a slight theological modification. We need a new understanding of what being a healthy vine looks like, and to gain that understanding, we need to recenter ourselves in the basic imagery Jesus provides here. 

The vine–and vineyards–depend upon connection and the deliberate, consistent, and intentional cultivation of that connection rooted in the fertile soil of God’s love. This passage reflects God’s purposes for a relationship with those who bear the image of God:

Jesus did not specifically identify the “branches” with any particular group of followers, but He did refer to two kinds: fruit-bearing branches and fruitless branches. It is obvious that Jesus was talking here about people, not plants. Was He referring to believers and unbelievers? Any such conclusion would be premature. It would be safe to say at this point that Jesus was talking about disciples. Some disciples bear fruit, but others—such as the “disciples” (broadly defined as interested listeners) who turned away from Jesus after His hard teaching in John 6—bear no fruit. (J. Carl Laney)

Laney distinguishes here between believers and disciples and indicates that those who have some commitment to following Jesus have an expectation to meet of bearing fruit. Within the text, Jesus expresses that expectation and the ways in which God will act in order to encourage, invite, and amplify fruitfulness.

Two divine actions are taken with regard to the fruitless and fruitful branches. The fruit-bearing branches are pruned, and the fruitless branches are removed. The word translated “pruned” literally means “to cleanse,” “to purge,” “to purify.” The verb is commonly used in inscriptions of ceremonial cleansing. It is not the normal word for pruning, but was chosen here because Christ was talking about people rather than vines. (J. Carl Laney)

To understand what Jesus was saying about people, however, it is helpful to understand something about vines. Years ago, I have a rosebush that was somewhat trapped by another non-flowering bush and a light pole. The branches for both bushes intertwined, making it difficult to care for either one directly or uniquely. Over time, the rosebush began to diminish. The other plant seemed to flourish at its expense. Eventually, that rose bush became so pitiful that only three roses bloomed in the course of the summer season. 

I decided it was time to give up on the rosebush. It wasn’t dead, but it appeared to be dying, and it no longer made sense to me to keep it. I started cutting off it’s branches. Because of the other bush and the pole, I couldn’t get to the roots to pull it up. I simply clipped its branches as much as I could. As I started to really get into it, I even found myself clipping off some of the branches of the other bush that I didn’t realize were also failing because of rosebush. I clipped until I couldn’t reach any more branches. Once I got started, it was both as hard as I expected but it became easier as I began to see the possibility for the remaining bush to be healthier without the rosebush holding it down and draining its potential. 

What do we fail to prune because we’re afraid it will die? What could live more abundantly if we’d get past our fear that it might die?

There are so many aspects of our lives and the church that could benefit from a real pruning. What needs to be cut down so that it can be renewed for flourishing?

I once shared in a prayer service at a local catholic high school where one of the priests prayed against our propensity toward incrementalism. He was talking about movements for social justice, but our desire to mitigate change and short-term suffering for long-term fruitfulness extends far beyond that. Pruning isn’t incremental. It is abrupt and brutal…in the moment, but it makes room for an abundant harvesting. 

Pruning takes place when we adjust our language to account for the glorious diversity and expansiveness of God’s creation. When we clip off old forms and ways of being that exclude and isolate in favor of opening access and inclusion, we prepare for a greater tomorrow than today. Well tended gardens get weeded constantly as those elements that hinder flourishing of the garden are removed, and dead leaves and branches are removed from a still living plant to give it the opportunity to thrive.

How often do we diagnose a plant as dead when it just needs a bit of pruning? The church isn’t dead or dying; the body is just overdue for a good pruning to enable it to flourish. 

That rosebush I cut down looked horrible for the rest of that summer. Even in the winter, every time I looked at it, I cringed and resolved that I would find a way to extract it from the other vines that held it in place, even if that meant having to remove the other bush that surrounded it. But…come spring…something happened. 

It bloomed. What I thought had destroyed it actually gave it new life. One day all those naked branches were filled to capacity with lush and vibrant roses in colors I had not seen on it before. In addition, the bush that lived alongside it also grew because it wasn’t drained by an unhealthy companion. 

Resurrection people overcome our fear of loss when we understand that intentional giving up on a faded flower can lead to a new bouquet. The cross was a pruning, not of Jesus, but of those who witnessed it and were transformed by it, and most of all of death itself. The empty tomb ushered in the flourishing of a new harvest with fresh buds and new life sprouting everywhere.         

The fruit yielded by that harvest is love. The abundant, overwhelming, and surpassing love of God flourishes from the vine to and through the branches. Jesus, Love Embodied, connects us as beloved of God, recipients and carriers of that love. We are pruned to love more. That Love surrounds us, upholds us, nourishes and refreshes us. That Love makes us love, both verb and noun–who we are and what we do. 

And, when we become that love, we can truly embrace the particular promise of this passage within its context: “Ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” This is not a blanket statement that every prayer we utter will be answered, but a covenantal promise that when we immersed in Christ as the Revealed Love of God, our requests will be aligned with God’s will for us. We will grow in relationship and fruitfulness through our strong tethering to the vine and the vinegrower. 

Beloved,

Be loved.

Be love.

For further reflection:

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.” — Brené Brown

“Do stuff. be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. stay eager.” — Susan Sontag

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:

Invite the congregation to work in a garden (church, community, or home) and do the work of pruning for new growth.

Works Cited

Hutchison, John C. “The Vine in John 15 and Old Testament Imagery in the ‘I Am’ Statements” Bibliotheca Sacra 168 (January 2011): 63–80.

Laney, J Carl. “Abiding Is Believing: The Analogy of the Vine in John 15:1-6.” Bibliotheca Sacra 146, no. 581 (January 1989): 55–66.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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

Lectionary texts

Acts 8:26–40

Psalm 22:25–31

1 John 4:7–21

John 15:1–8

Acts 8:26–40

26 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.) 27 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 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 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.

    33      In his humiliation justice was denied him.

    Who can describe his generation?

    For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 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?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 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. 40 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

   25      From you comes my praise in the great congregation;

    my vows I will pay before those who fear him.

    26      The poor shall eat and be satisfied;

    those who seek him shall praise the LORD.

    May your hearts live forever!

    27      All the ends of the earth shall remember

    and turn to the LORD;

    and all the families of the nations

    shall worship before him.

    28      For dominion belongs to the LORD,

    and he rules over the nations.

    29      To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;

    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,

    and I shall live for him.

    30      Posterity will serve him;

    future generations will be told about the Lord,

    31      and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,

    saying that he has done it.

1 John 4:7–21

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 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. 10 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. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 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. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

John 15:1–8

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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