May 6, 2018 + Easter 6B
I want to begin today with an illustration, an object lesson, demonstrating what we just heard in the Gospel of John. Jesus tells us that “he is the vine” and “we are the branches,” and that apart from him we can do nothing. It’s really quite simple and obvious, you don’t have to be a botanist, or a master gardener, to understand it.
We have before us today a “Jasmine Vine.” As you can see it is a healthy plant, complete with flowers, (its fruit) and more buds ready to bloom. And here we have a branch that was removed, Pruned, cut off, separated from the vine. (I removed the branch a couple of days ago.) And as you can see it is no longer bearing fruit, it is withering, it is no longer alive. “Let those who have eyes, see!” Let those who have ears, hear!”
Jesus reminds us, that apart from him, we can do nothing. It’s pretty simple, straight forward, are we connected or are we not connected? Yet there’s more to it, what we really need to know is what does it mean to be connected, what does that look like, what does that feel like? Jesus uses the word “abide,” a word that suggests more than just a casual connection, a word that suggest a deeper relationship.
In today’s gospel Jesus invites us, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” So, to understand what it means to “abide in Christ,” we must begin by reflecting on how it is that Christ abides in us!
The Gospel of John begins this story with these words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And then this dramatic step, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians describes it this way, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” God’s decision to “abide” with us was anything but casual, it was not convenient, it was not superficial. It was deep, it was radical, and it was wholly complete. God literally chose to be planted and to root “God’s very self” among us. “For God so loved the world.”
So, what might it mean for us to “abide” in Christ? You can all do the math! It means everything. Our relationship is to be primary, it’s not just a Sunday thing, it’s not a private thing, it’s not just a personal thing, it is truly an everything!
Now let us be clear the invitation “to abide” is not the invitation to salvation, it is not the prelude to judgment, it is not a condition placed upon grace and love. By grace you have been saved by faith which is a gift from God! Your salvation is done, complete, and not up for question! The invitation to “abide” is the invitation to live more fully in your salvation, to grow deeper in grace and love, to abide in the fullness of the resurrection, to bear fruit and live more abundantly.
So back to our original question, what does it mean to “abide” in Christ, to go deeper with our faith, to experience the joy of our salvation, to live out our own unique calling in life, to live in the abundance of the gospel, to make a difference, to know the power of the resurrection, to experience “all things new,” to share the love of God, to participate more fully in the Kingdom of God?
Perhaps a second object lesson will help us answer the question, “What does it mean to abide?”
I have here another “Jasmine Vine.” With this Jasmine Vine I chose not to simply cut off a vine. I left all the branches intact, they are all still connected to the vine. Instead I chose to take the vine “out of its context,” I removed it from the place where it belongs, the place where it thrives, the place where it becomes real. A few days ago, I pulled it up and out of the earth! And as you can see, even though it is seemingly all intact, it no longer has blossoming flowers, it no longer bears fruit, it is withering, it is drying up, it is dying! So, what’s missing? Once again you don’t need to be a botanist or a master gardener to figure it out. Soil! The vine needs to be planted in the earth! The vine and the branches cannot exist, cannot bear fruit, cannot live, without soil, without earth. And that’s often the missing part of our faith life, the context, the soil.Faith must be practiced in community.
You see, we have a tendency to want to make our faith life “personal” and “private,” we would prefer to practice our faith in isolation,“out of context;” and not in the place where it was designed to be practiced. Instead of abiding fully in our faith, planting our faith in the community garden, we push faith to the edges our life, at best perhaps keeping it in a pot in the kitchen, at worst letting it dry out, un-nourished languishing in our neglect.
And that’s not what it means to abide! To abide in Christ, to experience Christ,to bear fruit, to be empowered, to live life abundant, to live out your great calling in life,you need to not only be connected to the vine, but also to the earth. To abide is to go deep, to endure by being planted and letting your roots take hold! For the true vine, the vine that comes from God, is not rooted in some kind of private faith experience,it’s not in some kind of personal relationship with the divine, but rather in the earth, in good soil, in the place where the kingdom is at hand.
The next question is “where?”Where is that good soil? Where might we be planted, where are we to abide deeply, where is this community garden of faith? And the answer would be - here in this place. To abide in Christ is to abide in the church, not the institutional church, not just in membership, but in those places where faithful people gather around faithful things, the places where, two or three gather in the name of Jesus, and Christ is present, the places where bread is broken, and wine is poured out, and the body is re-membered, the places where the resurrection is experienced, the places where it is proclaimed and experienced, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
To abide is to participate in the life of the church, to get involved in the often dirty and messy life of community. You can’t really abide alone, - alone you just survive. To abide is share life with people, to share in service with people, people who are different than you, people who irritate you, people who are hard to get along with; yet people who will complete you, people who complete the Body of Christ, people who will give you strength when you are weak, pick you up when you fall down, and complete your joy when you celebrate.
Now I must confess there are times when I really don’t like people (which can make being a pastor difficult!) Sometimes I wish I was that isolated mountain man, “Jeremiah Johnson.” (The Movie) But I know ultimately that apart from the vine I can do nothing, that apart from the vine I will bear no fruit, that apart from the vine my life has less joy, that apart from the vine I cannot live out my calling in life, that apart from the vine I am empty and alone.
And so, even though it can be hard for me, even though it can be hard to engage in community, even though it’s messy and never easy to do, even though dirt and the water of the spirit always makes for a mud; (Despite all that,) I seek out the church, faithful people doing faithful things, the re-membered Body of Christ, because it has been my experience that whenever I open up and share life with people of faith, people gathered together for mission, people who are listening to Jesus and asking what it means; I find life! I find meaning. I find purpose. I find love. I find God. So it is, that God invites us to “abide” together,so it is the Spirit brings diverse and varied parts together to become one, and so it is that Christ is fleshed out among us, powerfully present and made real in our life together.
We’ve been working hard together for over a year now, working together on the vine and the branches in the garden that is First Lutheran Church. We’ve done some pruning, we’ve spread some manure, we’ve mixed the water of the Spirit and the soil of the earth and perhaps we’ve become a bit of a muddy mess. Yet the sun has begun to rise, and it will continue to rise. And with the new day comes new ideas, new dreams, new growth, the unfolding of God’s presence among us.
Today Jesus invites each of us, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” If you feel like your life is incomplete, if you’re looking for some meaning and purpose, if you’re looking for love, if you’re looking for God, take a chance on getting more involved in a faith community. At first glance it might look like a mess, from time to time it might feel like a mess, and truthfully it is a mess, that’s all part of being community. It might seem best, and it certainly would be easier, to just go it alone but don’t make that mistake. Life apart from the vine, apart from the soil, apart from others, just does not lead to the rich presence of God in community!
I encourage you to truly “abide,” to let go and to go deep. Because when “the sun” rises, and “the son” always rises, the soil of the earth warms, the vine and the branches grow, they multiply, they flower, and they bear fruit and it’s good, even very good! Amen
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 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. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”