Sermon, May 6, 2018 – Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
The last thing I wrote in today’s sermon is this opening paragraph. I had everything else down but needed the opening hook. Then it occurred to me. Today’s Gospel passage talks about vines, grapes, and love. Well, I do love my glass of red wine every evening with my meal and we are in the middle of wine country, so maybe we have a fruitful direction in which I can take this sermon? Well, no, sorry about that. But as we learned last week, it really helps to understand how grapes are grown and harvested when hearing this passage. And in some respects, living fruitful lives rooted in Jesus, does bear some similarity to making fine wine, because both take preparation and dedication.
Today’s Gospel reading is the second half of the passage that we started reading last week. The lectionary divides it up, but the whole passage should really be read in one sitting. Reading today’s part only, without having read and understood last week’s part would be like watching a TV show half-way through. You might get something out of it, but chances are you would miss a lot. And believe me when I say that there is some very important information in this passage and you don’t want to miss out on any of it.
If I was a college professor and this was my class, I would say that last week’s sermon by Pastor Barbara would be a pre-requisite. You need to understand what she said last week in order to fully understand our passage today. Before we begin then, let’s listen to the overall passage and then we’ll review some of the key points that Pastor Barbara covered last week. As I read this passage, I want you to listen for three key words – “remain”, “fruit” and “love”.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.
The first part of this passage speaks of Jesus being the vine, while we are the branches. Pastor Barbara told us how, with grapes, the vine is the thick root of the plant, out of which the many branches grow. The grapes grow on the branches. She explained that it is very important for grape vines to be pruned every year after the grape harvest. In fact, if you drive through grape growing country in the winter, you will notice that the vines look very barren – like thin stumps. You might almost think that they are dead. But when spring comes, the branches sprout and grow and eventually produce the harvest of grapes. This is the imagery John is using in our passage.
Pastor Barbara explained that we can only bear fruit if we are connected to Jesus and draw our sustenance and strength from him. If we are not connected to Jesus, and think we can do it on our own, we will bear no fruit, but will become like dead and withered branches that are thrown away and burned. This was John’s message – we either remain rooted in Jesus and bear good fruit in service of the Kingdom of God, or we separate ourselves from Jesus and become like dead branches that bear no fruit.
This theme of remaining connected to Jesus in order to bear fruit is expanded upon in today’s reading. John explains that as we are connected to Jesus, we will remain in his love, just as Jesus’ connection with the Father connects Jesus to the Father’s love. If we do not understand the concept of our being branches rooted in the sustenance of Jesus, we might misunderstand some of what John says. For example, John writes “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love” and “You are my friends if you do what I command”. This might sound like conditional love to us. We will only be loved by Jesus if we do what he says.
The overall message of this verse shows that John isn’t suggesting that the love of Jesus is conditional though. If I find a fruitful vine branch in a neighbor’s vineyard, and I say to myself “what a fruitful branch. I will cut it off and then bring it and put in next to my own grapevine”, what will happen? The branch will die and that branch will no longer bear fruit. Branches of a grapevine only bear fruit because they are connected to the vine. And so, we can only love if we are first connected to Jesus.
John makes this clear when he quotes Jesus as saying, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit.” Jesus chose us and connected us to him so that we will bear fruit. We did not choose God and win his favor by becoming obedient on our own. No, Jesus chose us, and so through him, gave us the ability to bear fruit and show love.
When Jesus says, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love”, he is speaking to those of us who are already connected to him. Jesus is telling us that if we are truly living as his disciples, and if we are living as members of the Kingdom of God, then we will be keeping God’s commands, and will certainly be remaining in his love. Jesus is speaking here to his disciples, and that includes us, and his point is that we are really only his disciples if we follow him and do what he teaches us to do.
This brings up another point. What does it mean to remain in his love and to love one another? Love is one of the most misunderstood concepts in our world today. And so, we need to ask – what does it mean to remain in God’s love? Is it some sort of state of spiritual nirvana, where we feel warm and tingly and spiritually connected, and good about ourselves? And what does it mean to love others? Are we called to be nice to each other, and blandly affirm each other without taking any particular interest in anyone else? Are we called to just have nice feelings for others?
A few years ago, a scholar suggested that two foundational truths for many Americans are: “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions” and “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” Isn’t this what the world tells us? Love is being nice and fair to others, while feeling good about yourself? But is this what John is writing about when he speaks of remaining in the love of Jesus and loving each other?
No. Rather, I think that John is making it clear that there is a direct connection between remaining in God’s love, obeying God’s commands and loving each other. For John, and for Jesus, love is not a feeling or an emotion, but sacrificial action in service of others. Jesus holds up his own pending death as the supreme example of love when he says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If we are about to make the ultimate sacrifice of laying down our lives for another, I doubt that we will be feeling warm and fuzzy. Love is a decision and not an emotion. We know love is present not by our feelings, but rather by our actions in service of others.
We can only truly love God and love each other if we live our lives patterned on Christ. And in order to live such lives, we need to study God’s word and submit our stubborn, selfish wills to the will of the Holy Spirit. Only then, can we live lives of love towards God and each other. This is what Jesus means when he says that we must remain rooted in him as the vine.
The final point I want to share with you is the importance of prayer. Jesus says, “whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” Jesus doesn’t say “whatever you ask, you will get”, but rather “whatever you ask in my name.” Jesus is teaching us that prayer is important but that when we pray, we need to pray in his name. This means that we are to pray for the things Jesus wants, which means again that we must study God’s word to us and be open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It’s all about conforming our wills and desires to God, and then doing to others as God would have us do.
This is true love, and this is the fruit that will be borne in our lives if we are disciples of Jesus, studying the Scriptures, being open to the Spirit, and praying to God in the name of Jesus. Like fine wine, it is only possible with grapes born on branches rooted in the vine, and then carefully and thoughtfully prepared by those dedicated to following the direction of the master vintner.
Let us pray.
Almighty Father, grant us so to put away any identity that is not rooted in you; and nourish us with your words in the Scriptures; your guidance through the Holy Spirit; and communion with you through prayer; that we may bear much fruit and show forth your love to the world; Amen.