Sunday, April 29, 2018
Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B
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.
[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."
All readings for this Sunday:
1 John 4:7-21
1. Which image is more meaningful to you, the good shepherd or the vine and its branches? Why?
2. How does John's image of the vine challenge our contemporary standards about individual achievement and personal success?
3. In what ways could the church today continue in the tradition of Paul, Anthony, Francis, Luther, and "the rest"?
4. What does the word "abide" evoke in you?
5. What does Sarah Henrich's statement about bearing fruit "revealing" disciples rather than "making" disciples mean to you?
by Kate 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.
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."
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.
In The Message, 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." 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)."
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."
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." [When it comes to church and spiritual 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. 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.
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." I wonder if at least some of us would hear her exhortation to "expect to be pruned" in ways that might be misunderstood. It bears further reflection.
For example, Lindsay Armstrong's commentary 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. 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, and in our spiritual lives as individuals.
The personal: a word of reassurance for each one of us
Indeed, 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 in 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."
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.
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." Amen!
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
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."
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."
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