Sermons

"Abiding in the Vine": Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

"Abiding in the Vine": Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Apr 29, 2018

Passage:John 15:1-8

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Easter

Category: Love, Discipleship, Faithfulness

Keywords: discipleship, faithfulness, hell, hope, love, mercy

Summary:

Jesus says he is the vine, we are the branches. THEN, he says he will prune the branches that are not fruitful and they will wither away and be thrown into the fire! This sounds scary! Does this mean that we have to "be fruitful...OR ELSE!" This sermon addresses this scripture and looks at what Jesus is telling us, his disciples, about "fruitfulness" and "pruning" and loving one another.

Detail:

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

There is so much about today's Gospel reading that's hopeful and, dare I say, "fruitful" for us as Christians." Jesus tells us: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower." Then he goes on to talk about pruning and bearing fruit.

I think we can all hang along just fine with Jesus' vine metaphor until he gets to the line: "Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

What's Jesus talking about? There's no comfort at all in hearing about being gathered, thrown into a fire, and burned.

The truth is, throughout Christian history, this verse, in particular, has been used to justify great violence and mayhem in the name of Christ.

In the 13th Century, for example, Pope Gregory IX had a dream of reuniting Eastern and Western Christianity. Of course, this is a noble and wonderful goal. There is but one Body of Christ. The problem was with the method Pope Gregory chose to bring about this reunion. He proclaimed that it was necessary to stamp out heresy in the West--the part that was under his control. He enacted a law, based on today's Gospel reading, that heretics condemned by his Church court would be burned at the stake. Death by fire, he claimed, was what Jesus wanted for them. "It's in the Bible!" His method was "gathering those heretical branches, and throwing them into the fire." In the end, Pope Gregory's efforts did not reunite East and West, but it did start the Inquisition, which lasted for the next 500 years.

But we don't have to go to the 13th Century to find violent and disturbing interpretations of these verses. A casual search of many of the online Bible commentaries will all agree that this verse means that if you backslide from what Jesus intends for you to do in this life... become apostates in this life... you will be--to quote one of these popular sites-- cast into the "everlasting burnings of hell fire by angels at the last day...."[i]

So how does this fit with our understanding of God?

We heard from our bishop last week that the primary characteristics of God are love and mercy. God says: "I forgive you!" as the lens through which God's love is channeled.

How does killing heretics have any connection to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

How does burning in hell make sense in light of the Gospel?

I think that we need to look more closely at what Jesus is trying to do in this parable. Jesus makes these comments to his disciples just before he begins his final hours toward the cross. He tells his disciples that he is the TRUE vine. The vinegrower is his Father.

So what is our relationship? We, along with his disciples, are the branches.

Jesus says that the Father will prune the branches that don’t bear fruit. Now, that could be taken as a threat. We could hear it as: “If you don't produce the outcome I am looking for, you’ve had it!” But this is the problem with metaphorical language. In a culture like the one in which Jesus lived, they understood vineyards and pruning and such.

But here's the thing: that metaphor can just as well be understood to mean removing the parts of the branch—the parts of us—that keep us from bearing fruit.

A clue to this understanding is that word "prune." It's actually the exact same Greek word for "cleansed" that's used in the next verse, when Jesus  says, “You have been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” "Cleansed"... "Pruned"... the same word. This does not mean, "thrown away or discarded."  We have not been “removed” by the word of God. In fact, what the word of the Lord does for us is it brings us healing. It brings us reconciliation. It brings us together as the body of Christ.

But what about that burning stuff? Just before that part, Jesus says:  “Abide in me as I abide in you.” It's through this “abiding” in Christ that we "bear fruit." And the branches that do not abide in Christ, do not bear fruit, and are gathered and burned.  

What needs to be pruned—to be cleansed, and burned away--are practices that take away from this fruit-bearing life.

The more I am part of this Body of Christ, the more I am cleansed of pride and jealousy. I am cleansed of hopelessness and despair. I am cleansed of arrogance and hatred. How can I hold on to anger when I am regularly hearing about forgiveness among my fellow “branches”? How can I remain self-centered and focused solely on my own problems when, as a part of my regular practice, I am supposed to love others? These things get “pruned” away as I continue to abide in God’s love—in the community.

So what does “abiding” look like? What does “bearing fruit” look like?

Part of the answers we find in today’s reading from 1st John. We bear fruit when we love one another. Why?  Because “love is from God.” John tells us that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

Living together in a community of believers is how we abide in Christ. The fruit of that abiding then ripens and becomes sweet. That fruit is love.

At St. Andrew's, we are continually working to abide in the vine, producing fruit.

Last week, we had the joyful, abundant sacraments of Confirmation, Reception, Reaffirmation, and Baptism. We abide in the vine.

But every time we gather for sacred worship, we abide in the vine.

When our breakfast teams rise early and prepare the feasts that we all enjoy and share with whomever walks in our doors, we abide in the vine.

When our Chancel Choir and our St. Andrew's Ringers faithfully practice and practice and practice, then take us to the place of transcendence in worship with their gift of music, we abide in the vine.

When our ushers and greeters arrive early for worship and make it their ministry to be welcoming and hospitable to all, we abide in the vine.

When our Readers and Eucharistic Ministers and Eucharistic Visitors prepare each week to help sustain our worship and our community, we abide in the vine.

When our acolytes faithfully don their vestments and learn their roles and help make all we do sacred, we abide in the vine.

When our Christian formation teachers show up week after week, sharing their time and talents and love of God, we abide in the vine.

When we gather to pack lunches or plan outreach or decorate trunks or facilitate helping others, we abide in the vine.

Of course, I can go on and on. But you get my point. It is through our practices of BEING in community as the body of Christ that bears fruit.

In a few weeks, here at St. Andrew's, we are going to offer some opportunities for us all to come together as a community to do so sharing, some listening, and some fellowship around how we bear fruit. We're going to have times on Sundays and Wednesdays where you, the people of this church, can sign up, or just show up, and be part of the conversation about what God is already doing at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. These Gatherings, as we are calling them, are essentially listening sessions, where we are hoping to hear what you are passionate about. What is it we do well? What is it that bears fruit in our congregation and in our community? How are we proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in all that we do?

Our Vestry and leadership are going to use the information from these conversation to help guide and direct their focus as we move forward in our mission and ministry as St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.

We abide in the vine. We bear fruit.

And if we continue to bear this fruit, we are called, in words of Presiding Bishop Curry, to go!

"To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ.  To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation.  To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that love can set us all free."[ii] 

Amen.

 

[i]John Gill's Exposition of the Bible, at Bible Study Tools Website found at  https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/john-15-6.html

[ii] The Most Rev. Michael Curry, "Presiding Bishop Michael Curry: This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world," The Episcopal Church Website, November 2, 2015, at https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-michael-curry-jesus-movement-and-we-are-episcopal-church