Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sermon for May 6th: John 15:1-11

‘Abide in Me’

There was a well-known story in Israel in the time of Jesus that went something like this:
My beloved worked hard to plant a vineyard. He found the perfect spot for it, on a very fertile hill, and set to work to clear the ground. He cleared out all the rocks and stones, tilled the ground and prepared it for planting. Then he bought the best young vines he could afford and planted them. He built a wall around his vineyard; in the middle he built a watchtower, and in one corner he dug a wine vat. All through the growing season he put in long hours, tending the vines and protecting them from bad weather and pests and robbers and other dangers. He did all this, expecting that his vines would produce good, sweet grapes, but it was not to be. When harvest came, the grapes were sour and bitter.

The story goes on in the first person like this:
Tell me, all of you who live in Jerusalem and Judea – what more could I have done for my vineyard? Judge between us! Can you think of anything that I should have done that I neglected to do? Was it unreasonable of me to expect a crop of good, sweet grapes from it?

I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to tear down the wall that protected my vineyard, so that the animals can come in and trample it down. I’m going to leave it alone so that the thorns and thistles will grow up and the vines will be overrun with weeds. I’m going to tell the clouds to keep their rain; this vineyard doesn’t deserve any water, for all the good it’s done me!

And then the story ends like this:
‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’ (Isaiah 5:7).

This illustration of Israel as being the Lord’s vineyard is very common in the Old Testament. Sometimes there’s a slight variation on it – instead of a whole vineyard, Israel is a single vine. So in Hosea 10:1 Israel is ‘a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit’, and in Jeremiah 2:21 she is ‘a choice vine from the purest stock’. Psalm 80 takes up the illustration like this:
‘You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River’. (Psalm 80.8-11)

But once again the story does not have a happy ending:
‘Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it’. (vv.12-13).

So Israel is the vine - or the vineyard – that the Lord planted, and on which he lavished his loving care, but Israel did not produce the sort of fruit the Lord was looking for. He was looking for justice and compassion, for faithfulness and holiness, but what he got instead was oppression, violence, worship of false gods, and general disobedience to his commandments. And so he decided to judge his vine, to hack away the fruitless branches and burn them in the fire, and to prune the few branches that were bearing fruit so that they would produce even more. 597 B.C., when the Babylonians came and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and took the people away into captivity, was the day of pruning and judgement; this was what all Jewish people believed in the time of Jesus.

And so, you see, when Jesus got up at the Last Supper and said to his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1), he wasn’t just making up a parable out of his head; he was telling an old, old story, and the disciples knew exactly how it went. “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” (v.2). The disciples would have said to themselves, ‘Ah yes - this is the story of Israel he’s telling us, except for this one thing – he’s putting himself in the place of Israel’. Israel is the faithless vine that bore no fruit, but Jesus has kept his Father’s commandments and so he remains in the Father’s love.

And now you and I get to be a part of that. Our Lord Jesus Christ isn’t just a dead person who lived a long time ago, someone we aspire to imitate, but can never hope to meet for ourselves. Not at all; Jesus rose from the dead and is alive forever as Lord of all. And you and I are his followers, his disciples, and we are called into a relationship with him that is close and intimate: “I am the vine”, he says; “You are the branches” (v.5). The branches are intimately connected to the vine; they draw their very life from it, and unless they stay joined to it, they wither and die.

Look at what Jesus says in verses 4-5:
“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”.

The Greek word that our NRSV renders as ‘abide’ is notoriously difficult to translate into English in a way that adequately conveys all its various shades of meaning. The NIV has ‘remain in me’; the Good News Bible says, ‘remain united to me’, and the REB has ‘dwell in me’. This variety will give you an idea of the breadth of meaning in the original. In old-fashioned English, of course, the place you live is called ‘your abode’, the place where you ‘abide’, and so to ‘abide’ in Jesus is to live in Jesus or dwell in him, to see Jesus as in some sense your home. But also in old English the word carries the meaning of ‘staying put’, so that if someone says, ‘Bide here for a while until I come back’, he means ‘stay here’ – hence the NIV translation ‘remain in me’.

This is such a rich metaphor for us to meditate on! Jesus is our home, the place where we live, our ‘abode’. Jesus is the source of our true life, to the point that if we are somehow separated from him, we can accomplish nothing worthwhile at all, and eventually we wither and die. In some deep spiritual sense, we live in Jesus and he lives in us, and the closer that relationship, the more fruitful we are.

There are two things I want to say about this relationship we have with the risen Jesus. First, we did not earn it or create it. It’s spoken of in these verses as a given. “You have already been cleansed”, says Jesus, “by the word that I have spoken to you” (v.4), and in verse 9 he adds, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love”.

God’s love for us is sure and certain; it isn’t something we have to earn or measure up to. It comes to us as a free gift, because God is love. And this love is the force that gives us life – not just physical life, but eternal life, life with God forever. If we are separated from this love, then true spiritual life becomes impossible for us. “Apart from me”, says Jesus, “you can do nothing”. To expect a person who is not abiding in Jesus to produce fruit is as senseless as expecting grapes from a branch that has been torn from the vine.

So what can we do, if we don’t initiate this relationship with Jesus? Well, the command appears over and over again: ‘abide’ or ‘live’ or ‘remain’ or ‘remain united to’ Jesus. The relationship we have with him is a free gift, but we have to play our part in nurturing that relationship.

How does this happen? How do we ‘abide’ in him? Through the centuries Christians have given many helpful answers to this question. Some traditions have stressed the sacraments, and especially Holy Communion. To come to the Lord’s Table in faith, to stretch out your empty hands to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, to ‘feed on him in your heart by faith, with thanksgiving’, is to be nourished by the divine life of Christ himself. So a regular, thoughtful, faith-filled reception of Holy Communion is certainly a good discipline to help us ‘abide in Christ’.

Other Christians have stressed private prayer as the main way that we ‘abide in him’. Jesus assumes in the gospels that we will pray regularly; in Matthew 6:6 he tells us to “go into (our) room, shut the door, and pray to (our) Father who is in secret”. We know that he did this himself; the gospels point out that it was his habit to go away regularly to lonely places to pray, and that from time to time he would get up before dawn and go off for a time of private prayer. We all know that human relationships grow as we talk with each other and listen to each other; in prayer we listen to God and we pour out our hearts to God. Surely this is an excellent way of ‘abiding’ in Christ.

I think both these answers are very helpful; if we want to abide in Christ, we will certainly join regularly with our church family as we celebrate Holy Communion, and we will certainly be faithful in our private prayers. But I think it’s very important that we not miss what Jesus actually says in this passage about how we ‘abide’ in him. He’s actually quite clear about it. Look at verses 9-11:
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 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. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete”.

Let’s remember the story we started with. When God planted the family of Abraham in the promised land like a young grape vine, he did it because he was looking for fruit. He wanted a people who would live together in compassion and justice, in faithfulness to the one true God and obedience to his wise commandments. Because they persistently refused to live in that way, over hundreds of years, God eventually brought judgement against them and allowed his vineyard to be overrun and destroyed.

Jesus, however, is the fruitful vine. “I have kept my Father’s commandments”, he says, “and abide in his love” (v.10). And now we – you and I – are branches in the vine of Jesus. Obedience is the fruit that God wants to see from us. This is how we ‘abide in’ Christ.

This obedience is both an individual and a corporate thing. For us as individuals, there’s no particular mystery as to what it looks like; Jesus has made it very plain to us in the gospels. We’re to love God with our whole heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. We’re to turn away from anger and resentment and work instead for reconciliation and peace. We’re to be faithful to our marriage vows and work to build strong families.  We’re to tell the truth at all times and be known as people of our word. We’re not to retaliate when people wrong us, but we’re to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us. We’re to pray, fast, and give to others out of a desire to please God, not to impress other people. We’re not to accumulate luxuries, but live lives of simplicity and generosity, caring for the poor and needy wherever we find them, trusting that our Father in heaven will look after us. We’re not to judge others, but concentrate on taking the two by four out of our own eye instead of the little speck of sawdust in our neighbour’s eye. We all know that this is the way of life that Jesus taught us.

And this applies to us as a congregation as well. As we seek to spread the good news of Christ in our neighbourhood – as we think about starting another service and building an extension on our building – we have always to remember that our first and most important priority is to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in our congregation. This means, for instance, that if we have something against someone else in our congregation, we don’t complain about them to everyone else and gossip about them behind their back: rather, we go to them and talk it over, just between the two of us. This is what Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:15-20. It means that if someone else in the congregation loses their temper and insults us, we don’t respond in kind – we give what the book of Proverbs calls ‘the soft answer’, that turns away anger. This is what Paul has in mind in Ephesians when he says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (4:31-32).

Here at St. Margaret’s we really want to be fruitful for Christ. We want to reach out into our neighbourhood and help more people know and experience the love of God. We want to invite more people to become followers of Jesus. We want to touch more and more lives with our generosity - in our city, and in our country, and all around the world. That’s excellent, but let’s not forget what Jesus says: it’s when we abide in him that we will bear much fruit. There is no Mission Action Plan, no matter how good it is, that can substitute for us as a congregation putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our life together.

Let me close by reminding you of these words of St. Paul:
‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23).

Wouldn’t you love to live that way? Wouldn’t you love to be part of a church community that is marked more and more by love, by patience and kindness, by joy and generosity? That’s the fruit that Jesus wants to see in us. That’s the reason he has showered so much love on us. And the way to produce that fruit, as he tells us in this gospel, is to ‘abide’ in him.

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