Weekly Seeds: Beloved, Be Loved, Be Love

Sunday, May 2, 2021
Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B

Focus Theme:
Beloved, Be Loved, Be Love

Focus Prayer:
God, you sent your Son into the world that we might live through him. May we abide in his risen life so that we may bear the fruit of love for one another and know the fullness of joy. Amen.

Focus Reading:
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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 8:26–40
Psalm 22:25–31
1 John 4:7–21
John 15:1–8

Focus Questions:
1. How do you experience connection?
2. What are your deepest connections?
3. How have you experienced disconnection in your life?
4. What possibilities for new connections to you see?
5. How is love a manifestation of connection?

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.

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.

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

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.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a United Church of Christ resource for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.