Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Easter 2018
Acts 8: 26-40 Psalms 22:25-31 I John 4:7-21
A husband and wife were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and their children were deciding what to give them. It seems the couple was always fighting, so the children decided to give them therapy sessions. The husband was hesitant to go, but they went. They began by arguing about what to tell the therapist, whose fault it was and what they could do about it. After a few minutes of loud arguing, the therapist jumps out of his chair, grabs the woman in an intense embrace and kisses her full on the lips. The couple was caught off guard. The therapist said to the husband that his wife needed that at least three times a week. The man thought for a minute and then said, “Alright Doc, I can bring her in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”
In the first lesson from Acts, we see the impact of the Easter faith on an Ethiopian eunuch. In many ways, this incident illustrates the expectations
expressed in today’s psalm, that all nations would eventually turn to God and worship him. In First John, we hear the theme of mutual love among Christians, a major theme for John’s writings. In the Gospel, we experience the relationship between God, Christ and the believers in the vine and the branches.
Vines, vines, vines, everywhere! Today’s gospel reading has Jesus’ last “I am” saying. It is part of his Farewell Discourse that covers chapters 14 to 18 in John’s Gospel. His parting words are meant to give his followers strength for the days ahead – days when Jesus will not physically be with them. It is set in Jerusalem following Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. The discourse ends with the group’s movement to the garden when Jesus is arrested in chapter 18. The section read today is characterized by Jesus’ words to his disciples only occasionally interrupted by the disciple’s questions.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says “I am” seven places in his gospel – I am the Good Shepherd, that we heard last week, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the true vine. These metaphors all point to relationships – with God, with Jesus and with each other. These “I am” statements bring to mind when Moses met with God on Mount Sinai and Moses asked God who he was to tell people who sent him to free the people when they asked. Do you remember, God said, “I am – who speaks to you.” The Jewish tradition did not allow folks to speak God’s name. So we see God as the Great I am. Jesus uses these words to tie himself together with God.
The commentaries tell us that the themes developed in the farewell discourse are not for the public but for the disciples, that is for the church. The primary concern is not what events will soon befall Jesus, but what will happen to the disciples after he is gone. We see an interweaving of promises and commands. Jesus’ promises carry a commission and his commissions imply a promise. He who sends also goes with whom he sends, and he who commands to love empowers to love. And the reverse is equally true; he who loves expects the loved to love others, and he who abides with his followers expects them to go just as the Father sent him.
The grapevine is a prolific plant, a single vine bears many grapes. In the Old Testament, grapes symbolized Israel’s fruitfulness in doing God’s work on the earth. In the Passover meal, the fruit of the vine symbolizes God’s goodness to God’s people. In this imagery, Christ is the vine and God is the gardener who cares for the branches to make them fruitful. The branches are all of us who claim to be followers of Christ. The fruitful branches are true believers who are living in union with Christ and producing good fruit. Those who become unproductive – those who turn back from following Christ after making the initial commitment – will be separated from the vine. Unproductive followers are not connected to the vine and are as good as dead. They will be cut off and tossed aside.
In this teaching, Jesus makes a distinction between two kinds of pruning – separating and cutting back branches. Fruitful branches are cut back to promote growth. In other words, God must sometimes discipline us to strengthen our character and faith. Branches that don’t bear fruit are cut off at the trunk because they are worthless and may infect the rest of the tree. People who don’t bear fruit for God or who try to block the efforts of God’s followers will be detached from God’s life-giving power.
When I was working the Kairos Prison Ministry, I met Mary. She was a Methodist Pastor and a sweet woman. But she did not seem to have an authentic bone in her body. She had this look on her face when she talked with people – kind of like a kindness mask. She would talk out of both sides of her mouth. She would act like she cared for the ladies in prison, but then she would bad mouth and demean them in the car when we were leaving. It was too much for me. It was too distracting for me. It pulled me off of the path of love that I believed Jesus was calling me to. That relationship had to be pruned so that I could see what God had for me. You may know some folks who seem to suck all of the air out of a room by their negativity or blame. Maybe it sounds cruel to kick these folks to the curb, but we are only responsible for ourselves and our relationship with God. We can pray for other people, be a role model, be a friend, but there are times when our producing fruit is hindered by others. There are times to prune!
Fruit is not limited to saving souls. In Galatians, Paul offers the fruit of the Spirit which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Elsewhere in this chapter, John mentions answered prayer, joy and love as fruit.
Many people try to be good honest people who do what is right. But Jesus says that the only way to live a truly good life is to stay close to him, like a branch attached to the vine. Apart from Christ our efforts are unfruitful. The question comes to us - Are we receiving nourishment and life from Christ, the vine?
When the vine bears “much fruit,” God is glorified, because daily God sends the sunshine and the rain to make the crops grow, and constantly he nurtured the tiny plants and prepared them to blossom. It is a glorious moment when the harvest is bountiful and the barns are filled to overflowing. Another example of God’s abundance.
In the vineyard, the best grapes are produced closest to the central vine. That is where the nutrients are most concentrated. Jesus is the vine, God is the grower and we are the branches. I have never felt that more than when I sit and hold the hand of a sick or dying person. It is in those moments that I feel a part of the vine, connected to the strength and compassion of Jesus – connected by love. But I also feel connected to the branches which are the Church, you and me intertwined, our hope and dreams, our loses and victories, our despair and delight, all woven together to make this community of faith – a loving community of faith. It is a feeling of comfort and companionship that I feel as I sit and wait and pray.
Today’s Gospel in these images, remind us of two aspects of God’s created world – bearing fruit and being pruned. When we are out in the world, what kind of examples are we as we are trying to live closely connected to the vine? As the branches of God’s love, Christ’s compassion what are we doing to remain strong – to be an example? We must move away from the manure of false teachings of judgment and hate. We must embrace the truth – God’s truth of acceptance and love. We must come together as the community of faith to build ourselves and each other up. God wants us to be fruitful. God supplies all we need to be whole, healed and fruitful. Sometimes our branches lift and support others and sometimes we are lifted by the strength, love and commitment of others. We are in this together. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches!! Amen.