We celebrated World Communion Sunday at Bethany this week. It was great fun. There was good music, good fellowship, and great bread. In a nod to the season of creation, our text for the week was John 15:1-12, where Jesus reminds us that he is the vine and we are the branches. How often we get that relationship confused! Audio is below, or the text is after the jump.
I need to admit something: the link to the season of creation is tenuous at best today. Our focus, instead, is on the celebration of communion in connection with Christians around the world. Given that, and given that it’s still the season of creation, it was impossible to pass up this text where Jesus uses an image from the natural world to describe how we Christ-followers are related. We’re like branches on a vine. That, right there, is our nod to the season of creation. I told you it was weak.
Tenuous, maybe, but challenging, too. This vine and branches stuff sounds nice. It might bring to mind wine country and thoughts of long, lazy evenings in Napa. We might hear the metaphor and think, yes, this is the kind of gospel I can go for.
Except, well, Jesus more or less ruins the idyllic image as soon as he sets it up. He rushes right in to this cutting away branches and pruning business—which is all fine and well and good if we’re talking about actual vines, but if we’re the branches… yikes! Getting pruned doesn’t sound nice at all.
Let’s back up and set a little context for this teaching. Our verses for today come from the middle of what’s sometimes called the Last Discourse. The night before Jesus is crucified, he’s with his friends, who don’t understand what’s about to happen, and he’s trying to say good-bye.
Fred Craddock describes the mood of these chapters this way. It’s as if the disciples are a group of children playing in the living room, and all of a sudden they look up and realize the adults are putting on their coats and shoes and seem to be leaving. Where are you going? Why are you leaving? What will happen to us? Jesus stoops down as he ties his scarf around his neck and says, don’t worry. It’s going to be okay. And play nice with your sister while I’m away.
That was always the hardest instruction wasn’t it? How many of us have siblings? And how many of us fought with our siblings? Yep. Me too.
But here Jesus tells us, in no uncertain terms, love one another. The other gospels have Jesus telling us to love our neighbors, even our enemies. In the gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t say that. He says: you folks who follow me, love each other. Which would seem, initially, to be awfully insular and not what the church is supposed to be at all.
We’re supposed to share God’s love with the whole world, right? Not just each other.
John’s gospel was the last of the four to be written. I wonder if that has something to do with why this command rises to the top here. When the authors of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were writing, being part of the group that followed Jesus was still new, and it seemed like all the best people were doing it. Twenty or forty years later, though, that coalition of followers seems a little less shiny. I wonder if this is about the time that folks started thinking, the church would be great if we could just get rid of so-and-so who thinks such-and-such?
Maybe that’s when folks remembered Jesus’ command to love each other, and when they realized that this might be the hardest thing to do.
That command is the heart of this passage: we are branches on Christ’s vine. We are to bear fruit. The fruit we bear is to follow Jesus’ commandments, especially that one about loving each other. All of which makes that first part, about the bad branches being cut off, scary, because, truth be told, I have a really hard time loving other Christians sometimes.
It can be tough when people who share your faith don’t seem to share your values, when people who come to this table together can’t seem to come together about anything else. And Jesus says, “Love them. As I have loved you.”
It sounds impossible, doesn’t it?
It helps a little to keep in mind the example we get from Jesus of what love looks like, because in our Hallmark age, sometimes we think that loving means playing nicey-nice. That’s not so much what we see in Jesus. In Jesus, love sometimes means disagreeing, loudly. In Jesus, love sometimes means letting others walk away. In Jesus, love sometimes means standing our ground even if it makes others mad.
But love also means hitching up our skirts and running to meet a long-lost family member, even one who hurt us dearly. Love also means forgiveness, seventy times seven times if necessary. Love also means preferring another to myself, laying down our lives for a friend.
How on earth can we ever live by that standard not just with casual acquaintances, but with those who are closest, those who are nearest and dearest, those who have the power to make us most mad and wound us most deeply?
Let’s back up, and look again at that tangle of words toward the beginning of the passage. Did you catch, in the middle, around verse 4 where Jesus said, “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.”
Here is a word of hope. Or, at least an acknowledgment of how hard this is. We can’t do it on our own. Not even close. And we’re not expected to.
A child learns to love by being loved.
Likewise, the Christian confession is that we love because we’ve experienced the love of God.
That’s where everything starts for Jesus in this passage. Abide in me, he says. I’m the vine you grow out of. Don’t go thinking you can run off on your own and do it all by yourself. Settle down, settle down deep, root down deep in me.
Love as you’ve seen me love. Love as you’ve been loved by me.
Some in this room were part of another congregation for a time, the Spirit of the Sound. I just learned last week that one of the chalices used to serve communion there bore the words “God is wildly in love with you.” What perfect words to call to mind as we come to this table. Yes, indeed, God is wildly in love with you.
How are we going to love each other? How will we love other Christians who make us mad enough to spit?
We’re only able to love by drinking first from that well of living water we meet in Christ, by abiding in Christ’s love, by trusting that we are loved, by seeing that we’re not in this by ourselves, but in fact just a branch on a mighty vine that bears more fruit than we can imagine. We love because we were first loved.
It’s still not going to be easy, though. As we work our way backwards through this passage we get to those parts about pruning and burning branches. This is the stuff we might prefer to skim past, focusing instead on the abiding in love part.
The truth is, there are parts in each of us that don’t do a very good job loving others. There are those selfish, or insecure, or anxious, or angry parts that want to push people away, that say me first, and, I’m not letting myself get hurt.
These branches don’t bear fruit, and in fact, suck energy away from the parts of us that do bear fruit. And our vine grower isn’t going to let those branches take over. The dead undergrowth will get cleared away, and all the healthy branches will get pruned.
Which sounds lovely when you’re talking about a garden, but really not so fun when it’s our hearts.
The thrust of the good news is this: God is indeed wildly in love with us. God created us good and longs for life and love for us. But there are weeds that grow up within each of our hearts, branches that keep us from loving others. Part of being followers is to consent to having some of those branches cut off.
Maybe it’s pride that makes love hard for you. Or distrust, or fear. Whatever it is, God wants to prune that, and let the beauty within flourish.
Being pruned isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, a lot. Sometimes it seems like bad news. I’m not suggesting that every bad thing that happens in life is God’s way of pruning us. There are bad things that happen that contradict God’s desire for us to live and flourish. Some of those things are plain and simple bad news.
But there are also things that may not be how we’d want life to go, may not be what we would have chosen, and yet, they increase our capacity to love. Sometimes, when things get difficult or aren’t going how we’d like them to, it can be helpful to ask ourselves, is this a pruning? Might this be a chance for me to learn to love more deeply? If I rely on Jesus through this, could I come out on the other end a more loving person?
Not every bad thing that happens will work that way. Some stuff will just be bad, and some stuff we’ll have to wait until we meet our Lord face to face to ask why?
But some hard times may be opportunities to grow in grace. I’ve been wondering about this as our presbytery splits in two. The presbytery meeting last month was tough. There is pain and anger and grief as churches leave. I wonder, though, what God might need to prune for us to love each other, or if this schism itself might be a painful pruning allowing new life to emerge.
Our congregation is like a family—basically a happy, healthy family, but every family has its sore spots. When we find ourselves frustrated, or hurt, or alienated from each other, what if we looked at those as opportunities for pruning, to have some of our anxiety, or love of getting our own way, or dependence on tradition trimmed away so that new life could grow in?
In our own families, and closest relationships, what might come about if we let the Lord prune our hearts? What dead branches might need to go so that we could love our spouses, our partners, our friends more honestly, more fully?
These are questions others can’t answer for us. Only the one who tends the vines can know. We get in trouble when we start looking at others and saying, you probably ought to prune this and this and this.
But as we seek to follow Jesus’ commands, as we seek to love our enemies, and our neighbors, and yes, even our fellow church-goers as we join at this table, it’s worth our time to turn to the Lord and ask, what might you be asking us to give up? What would you seek to prune from our hearts, O God? How can we come to rely more fully on your love, rather than trying to do it all ourselves?
We won’t get it right the first time or the fiftieth. As we seek to follow Christ we’ll stumble, take wrong turns, mess up. But the good news is, Jesus never stops seeking us, and inviting us to turn and follow.
Right here he says it again, abide in me. I am the vine, apart from me you can do nothing. We are neither the beginning nor the ending. We are one branch among many. We abide in the love we have come to know in Christ. We root down deep in it. We lean on it, not on our own understanding. And we remember that we are loved, deeply, wildly, passionately. We draw our strength from that love, just as a branch draws nourishment from its vine. We consent to be pruned, to have the sin and brokenness cut out of our lives, piece by piece, even if it hurts to let go of those old ways of being, because we trust in the God who gave us life, who loved us first, who does not stand at a far remove, but comes and lives and walks among us, holding nothing back in wild pursuit. We trust in the love we’ve come to know in Christ and pray to grow in that love. May it so be. Amen.by Sarah W. Wiles October 2, 2011 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA