Sunday, April 29, 2018

5th Sunday of Easter

Readings for Today.

Listen to the Sermon.

Jesus offers us a beautiful and intricate image of the vine and branches in today’s reading from the Good News of John.  Living here in the Pacific Northwest, many of us have seen grape vines. Some of us even prune and tend grape vines - and know intimately the how the branches grow from the vine.  How to prune so that the branches produce the most fruit.

Jesus says, “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” (John 15:4).

In some traditions, this passage has been used to exclude people from community or discount others’ discipleship and faithful living based on perceptions of their “fruitfulness.”

Let’s take a moment to remember where and when Jesus says these things.  This passage is part of what is called the Farewell Discourse, and it takes place at the Last Supper.  Jesus and his disciples have gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Jesus has washed everyone’s feet, even Judas’; they have eaten dinner; and Judas has left the table to go find the soldiers who will arrest Jesus later.  Now Jesus is giving his final teaching to his disciples. These words are farewell promises of one friend to many. They are words of reassurance and encouragement, remembrances and exhortation of a deep and forever relationship, not judgement about who bears the most fruit.

“Abide in me as I abide in you.”

Without Jesus, without being attached to the true vine, we will wither and die.  We are connected with Jesus, and with one another, in ways that cannot be pulled apart.  The branches and the vine are interdependent. The branches depend on the vine to bring water and nutrients from the soil.  The vine depends on the branches’ leaves to gather sunlight, to create energy to grow and produce fruit. The vinegrower may prune the branches to grow, to bear more fruit - but the vine and branches remain intertwined and inextricable from one another.

It’s true, the branch can be severed from the vine.  We can choose to leave the relationship, to no longer abide in Jesus.  But does Jesus ever not abide in us? Once we have known the Truth of God’s love abiding in us, can we ever truly separate ourselves from that experience?  And we know that God always waits eagerly for us to return, to seek love, forgiveness, grace and sustenance from the vine once again. We CAN be grafted back to the vine!

Here at Emmanuel, we know something about the mutual abiding of God and us together.  It’s in our name. Emmanuel means “God with us.” We are not just blessed by God’s presence with us, but by the very real deep and mutual connection of the vine and branches.  “God with us” is not just a passive statement of who we are as God’s people; it also declares our dynamic mutuality and fruitfulness in God.

These images of vine and branches, God’s and our mutual abiding, fruitfulness, these are beautiful images.  But what do they look like in our every day lives? What does it look like when we are living “God with us”?

At our Day of Discovery last May, we heard that welcoming is one of the deeply held values of this congregation.  (You can find the values in the purpose statement on the next to last page in your bulletin.) When we gathered to explore and name who we are, people told stories of being welcomed into this community when they felt excluded in other faith communities.  We discovered that we abide in God’s love and it abides in us through all the ways we welcome people of many ages, different social and physical abilities, and countries of origin. Our values say that we welcome people of all ages to worship with us, to learn about God and Jesus, to grow in faith and discipleship as we all try to follow Jesus more each day.  

We abide with one another when we welcome new people to find out more about Jesus, and when invite them to offer the gifts they have to help build the kingdom of God and enrich our life together.  We all abide in Jesus, the one true vine, and we are stronger and more fruitful branches when we welcome the energy and growth that new branches on the vine bring.

Imagining ourselves as the branches to Jesus’ vine brings both reassurance and hope.  Reassurance that we remain connected, abiding, with and in the Truth of God’s love for us.  And hope because of that relationship we will continue to grow, to learn, to seek and respond to God’s call for us to share that love with every person we meet.  Because of our interdependence with the vine, we know that a part of us goes with those who leave us, and we have energy to welcome budding new branches and new directions for growth.  

God of deep soil and luxuriant growth; you call us from our shallow selves to find depth in you: may we abide in him alone who can teach us who we are; through Jesus Christ, the true vine. Amen. [1]
[1] Shakespeare, Steven. "Collect for Easter 5, Year B" in Prayers for an Inclusive Church (New York: Church Publishing, 2009), page 59.

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