The Spirit and the Great Debates, Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012 on Acts 2 & John 15-16

Acts 2:1-21

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When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”

John 15:26-27,16:4b-15

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[Jesus said:] “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

It’s a bit odd that Memorial Day weekend and Pentecost Sunday should come together as they have this year.  In some ways they have nothing in common.  One is a national holiday, the other a church holiday.  Memorial Day is a time to remember people who have died in service to our own country: it’s about America.  Pentecost is about the Spirit making it possible for Christianity to become an international faith, understood in every language.

And yet, as I thought about it, the two holidays do share some elements in common.  Both are occasions for happiness and sorrow.  On Memorial Day, we rejoice in our freedom even as we reflect on the sad cost paid for it in human lives.

We see the same mixture of emotions about Pentecost.  When Jesus announced the coming of the Spirit which should have been a cause for joy, the disciples

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were full of sorrow over Jesus’ upcoming departure.

And, although Memorial Day is all about our own country, nevertheless, this is quite a remarkable collection of people who came here from all over the world.  In that way, our country shares a characteristic in common with the church.  When the Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost and everyone heard the message of the gospel in their own languages, one church, one body of Christ was taking shape from all of that diversity.

Admitting we were wrong

We have a lot of debates in our country right now.  We have different perspectives on a variety of important issues.  And the same was true for the church, from the very beginning.  Both the nation and the church have had to grow and mature.  Both have had to accept the fact that there were ideas and assumptions that we used to have, that now we see were incorrect.  Both our nation and the church have had to swallow our pride and admit we had been wrong.

As our Declaration of Independence proclaims, our nation was founded on the self-evident concept that “all men are created equal.”    We all know that when they used to say the words “all men” they meant all people.  Except that, in this case, they really did mean men, and actually, they meant only white men.  Thomas Jefferson himself was a slave owner.  It took a very long time to enshrine racial equality in law.

In the same way, it took a long time for men in this country to come to believe that women were created equal and that they should have the right to vote and hold elected office.

The church also used to be guilty of patriarchal attitudes towards women, and yes, some churches were racist.  Our culture has a powerful and limiting effect on what we believe.  Thankfully we can see that though it took a long time, the “Spirit of Truth” has led us into truth that we could not bear in earlier days.

More to learn

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This is exactly what Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do.  Jesus had taught the disciples a great deal, but he knew they still had more to learn.

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

The job of continuing his teaching ministry is what the Jesus said the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Truth” would do.

13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.   14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Right from the start, the Spirit of truth had teaching work to do.  One of the teaching points that Jesus never got around to was what to do about converts who were not Jewish.  The issue was how much of the Old Testament law of Moses did they have to follow?  Did they have to keep Kosher – avoid eating pork and shrimp?  Did they have to be circumcised?   What about eating meat with blood in it?

The issue was finally settled at a meeting we call the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).  At the conclusion the council sent an open letter to the Gentile churches, saying,

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit” 

not to impose on Gentiles the burden of the circumcision mandate.  Clearly they understood that the Holy Spirit was teaching them new things that they had not learned from Jesus himself.

How did they know that the new teaching was really from the Holy Spirit and not an unfaithful novelty?  The answer is that it followed the same path; it went in the same direction, the same trajectory as Jesus’ teachings had followed.  This is what Jesus indicated would happen.

“13  he [the Spirit of Truth] will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.   14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you

Follow the Trajectory

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Although Jesus never taught about what exactly the requirements for Gentiles should be, nevertheless it was clear that he seemed to accept them when they came to him in faith, looking for healing.

The Roman centurions’s servant was healed, the Canaanite woman’s daughter was healed, and in neither case did Jesus follow up the healing by saying “Now go to the temple and start following the law of Moses.”  He seemed to open the door to non-Jews in a new way.  The disciples at the Jerusalem Council were merely following the same trajectory further down the path.

Slavery

We believe that the same thing happened with the institution of slavery.  Nowhere did Jesus teach that slavery was wrong, but there is an easily discernible arc, or trajectory that led the church, eventually, to that conclusion.

The way that Jesus treated all people with dignity and worth, people of different races, genders, and ages, showed a perspective that seems incompatible with owning them as property.   The Spirit of Truth finally led the church to that new conclusion.

Women

The same is true, of course, about the role of women in the church.  This issue is even more complicated because the New Testament seems to be double-minded on the question.  Some passages indicate that women, like for example Junia, were considered apostles – even outstanding apostles (Rom. 16:7).   And yet other places in the New Testament forbid them to speak or have authority (1 Tim. 2).

Eventually the church concluded that the reasons for limiting the role of women seemed to have been cultural and historical – given that women in those days were generally not given access to education.  The trajectory that Jesus set in motion was to treat women and men as equals.  The Spirit of truth finally taught the church to open its doors to the ministry of women, and we have been enriched enormously by their gifts.

Our Modern Debates

A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

The church continues to debate complex questions.  People of faith disagree with each other now, just as they did during the debates in the Jerusalem Council.  Culture always seems to complicate the questions.  Some people by nature seem to be more open to new ideas, others by nature are only comfortable keeping it the way it has always been.

Both kinds of people  have the obligation to respect each other and to hear each other out, believing the best about each other, and trying to discern where the Jesus-Trajectory is leading us.

There is, after all only One body of Christ.  The basis of our unity is only Jesus.  Our unity is not contingent upon unanimous agreement.  When we come to the Lord’s Supper, we share one bread and one cup.  One Lord Jesus is present in the sacrament, by means of One Holy Spirit.

Reflecting on Memorial Day Weekend

As we remember sacrifices made on our behalf and celebrate our very diverse country this Memorial Day weekend, let us pause to reflect on the positive ways we have moved past the limited white-males-only perspectives of our founders.  Let us rejoice that we have been led to grow into a more mature  inclusive democracy.

Let us also pray that the Spirit of Truth would continue to teach the church as we struggle with the issues of our day, as Ephesians says,

“making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3).  

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“Protected In, not Safely Out” Lectionary Sermon on John 17:6-19 for Easter 7B, May 20, 2012

John 17:6-19

6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  7 Now they

Sherlock

know that everything you have given me is from you;  8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.  10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.  11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.  12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.  13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.  14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.  16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Sometimes things that are most obvious are overlooked.  We have recently seen the  new, modernized TV version of the Sherlock Holmes stories, set in contemporary London.  Sherlock, of course, uses a cell phone and a laptop computer.

In one episode, he has to try to find proof that a painting purporting to be a newly discovered Vermeer is actually a fake.  He just knows it is a fake, but how can he prove it?  He gets up close, studies details, brush strokes, texture, coloring; no good; it’s perfect.

Finally he steps back: Yes, he’s got it.  The painting is a landscape at night.  In the sky are the beautifully luminescent stars of the so called Van Buren Supernova.  But that supernova was not observed before nineteenth century, so Vermeer could not have painted it in the 1640’s.  Sometimes things that are most obvious are easily overlooked.

I think the same thing is true for us when we think about our faith.  Sometimes we overlook the obvious.  The text we read from John’s gospel helps us because it digs deeply into fundamental elements of our faith, crucial for our lives today.  Let us look at the text.

The Upper Room Setting

First the setting: in this season of Easter we have been watching the scene taking place in the upper room where Jesus and his disciples have just eaten the last supper.  Da Vinci’s

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painting of the Last Supper has all of them on the same side of a European-style table – as much of an anachronism as the supernova in the fake Vermeer, but never mind.

The disciples may or may not fully expect what is going to happen the next few hours when Jesus is arrested, but Jesus knows that the end is near.  Like Moses did at the end of his life, Jesus delivers his final message to his followers, and like Moses’ it ends with a prayer.  That prayer is what we read today.

Jesus’ God

The first most obvious but often overlooked fact is the way Jesus feels about God.  We only read part of Jesus’ prayer, but if we had read it all, we would have heard Jesus call God “Father” six times.  The level of intimacy he felt was amazing.  And yet he never lost sight of God’s God-ness, even though he was Father.  In our text Jesus calls him “holy Father”.

This is exactly the way we refer to God, as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us, the Lord’s prayer.  “Our Father in heaven, Holy is your name.”  But the problem with saying it so often is that we lose sight of how significant that way of thinking about God is.  The Holy God whose essence is awesome, holy, divinity is also Father.

Human fathers range from wonderful to horrible examples of what fatherhood means.  Whether it is better to look at, or to look away from the example of a father that your father is or was varies with each person, but we all have a mental image of “the perfect father.”  God is the perfect father: loving us unconditionally, teaching us how to live, protecting us, and holding us to high standards.

Some of us here have gone through some painful experiences recently.  If that has been true for you, then know this:  God is there for you like the perfect Father that he is.   Go to Him.  Let him embrace you as his child.  He loves you more than you can possibly know.

A Dangerous World Out There

The next most obvious but easily overlooked fact that we see in Jesus’ prayer is that he is worried for his disciples.   Well, OK, “worried” is probably not the best word, but it’s close.  Repeatedly Jesus acknowledges how dangerous the world is that he is going to be leaving his disciples in.  Listen to his concern again as he prays:

11 And now…I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,…. 12 While I was with them, I protected

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them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, …14… the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, … 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.

When do you need body armor?  When you are being shot at.  When do you need protection and guarding that Jesus prays for?  When you are in danger.  Yes, the world is a dangerous place.  Evil is real.  Evil is destructive of everything Jesus is about.  And evil is a threat to his disciples – all of us.

Evil and our Failure at Square One

How much danger are we in?  How significant is the threat of evil?  All we need to do is to again, look at what is hiding in plain sight; at something that is totally obvious and frequently overlooked.  It is the answer to this question: what is the number one, most fundamental, basic, first-grade step in living the life Jesus taught us to live?  Forgiving people.

Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  How successful are most Christians at forgiving?   How successful am I at forgiving people in my debt who owe me – an apology?

How about people who owe me restitution for what they have done?  What about people who owe me what can never be repaid because the damage has been done, and the past cannot be undone?  Can I forgive?  Can I accomplish the first, most basic, beginner virtue of a Christian: forgiveness?

So, we have to admit that the world of evil is real; it often thwarts us at the most primary, fundamental level.

Us and the World

What Jesus said about us is true: at a deep level we do not belong to the world.  The world’s dominant ideology is about vengeance, retaliation, and making sure that “what goes around, comes around.”  The world is about finding out who is to blame, or at least finding a scapegoat to take it out on.

The Jesus way that Jesus taught us to live begins with the prayer “forgive us… as we have been forgiven”  ends with the prayer “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”  Christianity is cross-shaped.  This is basic to Christianity. The fact that we so often observe the opposite shows how seductive evil is.

Protected in, not safely out of the world

The last obvious but easily overlooked fact we have time to look at (there are many more!)  is the way Jesus describes our role.

11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,… 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”

Even though this is a dangerous world with the threat of evil at every turn, Jesus prays for us, not to be sequestered safely somewhere out of the world, but to be protected in the world.  Why?  Because we have a hugely significant role to play in this world.

What we know

We have received his words, as Jesus repeatedly reminds us as he prays.  We are the ones who know the truth.  We are the ones who know that God is not an angry, vengeful smite-happy sociopath; he is our Heavenly Father.

We are the ones who know that the Kingdom of God has broken into this world.  We are the ones who have been taught the secret of the power of forgiveness.  The world is in desperate need of people who know how to put the these true words into concrete action.

The most obvious fact is that Jesus put us here for a reason; we are here to be his representatives, his means of getting God’s will done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

We are the ones who know that an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth only gets you an eye-less, tooth-less world of endless hostility.   We are here to model a new quality of life that turns the other cheek, goes the second mile, gives the shirt off our backs when a coat has been requested.   Jesus has us here for a purpose.

The God thing

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The last most obvious fact that we must never overlook is that all of this is a God-thing.  In the text we read, Jesus is not giving a pep talk to inspire his little band of followers; he is praying.  Only God, Almighty can accomplish any of this.

Only God can break through our defenses and show us his loving Fatherly face.

Only God can protect us from the evil that undermines our commitment to be forgivers as we have been forgiven.

Only God can empower our mission of mercy to this vengeful world.

God is Father.  Evil is dangerous.  God has a purpose for us in this world.  All of this is obvious.  All of it is easily obscured by its very familiarity.  All of it is crucial.  Jesus is praying for us.  May he get what he asks for!

Mother’s Day Sermon, Easter 6B on John 15:9-17 “Why Fairy Godmother?”

John 15:9-17

[Jesus said:] “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.

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“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. 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. 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. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

In the fairy tales I heard when I was young, sometimes there was a fairy godmother.  For example, there is poor oppressed, abused, and despised Cinderella; utterly hopeless until the kind fairy godmother appears and changes her life.

As far as I can remember, there are no fairy godfathers.   In fact, “godfather” has an entirely different set of connotations for us.

It seems that when we need a character to be the essence of compassion, we turn to mothers.  This is mother’s day, and today we celebrate our mothers who bore us.  Most of us were lovingly nurtured by our mothers who loved us  and sacrificed so much for us.

It is a happy coincidence that the scripture texts of the lectionary are all about love.   Jesus said,

9 “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

God’s Mothering Character

Jesus refers to God as Father, not mother, but the characteristic of God that he is focusing on is not masculine power or strength, but the motherly characteristic of love.  As a Jewish person, Jesus knew well that the Hebrew word used for “compassion” in the Old Testament comes directly from the word “womb.”

Jesus knew the book of Isaiah very well where God is pictured as a mother in the moment of nursing her baby:

15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

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It is almost comical that there are people who get worried about what might happen to our faith if we thought of God as both Father and Mother, as if the mother image might weaken god and remove some essentially masculine quality.  In the ancient world, of Isaiah and in the world of the Roman Empire that Jesus lived in there were plenty of goddesses around.  Some were quite powerful, and sometimes violently brutal.  You didn’t want to cross them (ask the god Kingu about what goddess Tiamat did to him!  ouch!).

Nevertheless, the primary association we have with motherhood is compassion, caring love.  This is a perfectly appropriate way to think about God.

Flowers and Dead bodies

In the greeting card aisle stocked with mother’s day cards, the most frequent image, as far as I can tell, are flowers.  It seems normal.  Flowers are beautiful, which seems to suggest the beauty of motherly love.

And yet, we have already used a word, when describing what our mothers did for us, that seems to point away from flowers towards the image of a body lying dead.  The word we used is “sacrifice.”  That is the image that Jesus reflects on when he speaks of the depth of love he means.

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.

The word “friend” here comes from one of the Greek words for love.  We are now stuck with this weak word “friends” in English that sounds like the subject at hand is no deeper than Facebook.  But the English word “friend” actually does come from an Old English term (frēond) for love.  But since “friend” is now so weak, I think we can hear this better if we use “beloved.”

13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s beloved.”

The Pelican’s Sacrifice

When I lived in Europe, I saw an image in several Hungarian Reformed churches  which is quite startling when you see it for the first time.  It is of a mother bird, a pelican, in a nest

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surrounded by her chicks.  She is feeding them self-sacrificially, blood from the wound she has made in her own breast.   This image comes from Medieval Europe, I’m told, and in churches, it is an image of Christ’s self sacrificial love.  Jesus, pictured as a self-sacrificial mother.

When we move from the image of the womb as the place to see compassion, to the image of a self-sacrificing mother, we have moved from emotions to actions.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s beloved.”

From Amazing to Mandate

When we think about how much God loves us, that like the mother pelican, God lays down his life for us, it is truly amazing.  But it is more than merely amazing.  It is also a mandate.

We, who have been chosen by God’s initial act of love for us, have been given the mandate to be people of that same sacrificial love for one another.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

That little word “as” is huge: “as I have loved you.”  The measure of our love is Christ’s.  There is no way to weaken this to make it un-shocking.  This is our mandate; nothing less.

It is followed by another little word with huge implications; the word “if.”

14 “You are my friends if you do what I command you”

Or, as we said, we could read it better using the word beloved instead of “friends”

“You are my beloved ones if you do what I command you”

“If”  makes obeying Jesus’ command a test of the genuineness of our identity as his followers, his beloved.  So what is this command?

Jesus’ Command

Jesus famously summed up all of the commands of Torah, the Law of Moses with the dual mandate to love.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  38 This is the greatest and first commandment.  39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”   (Matt 22)

It seems too demanding.  We look for exception clauses.  Maybe the phrase “love one another” refers exclusively to us, in our group of disciples.  Maybe the “neighbor” I am to love as I love myself is restricted to my people.

The follow-up question which was asked by someone looking for just such an exclusion to limit the love mandate is now famous.

“And who is my neighbor?”  (Luke 10:29)

To which the reply is the parable of the “Good Samaritan”.  Remember the story of the robbery victim and the people who passed by without helping?  Only one showed compassion; only one stopped to help.  Only one risked, even sacrificed for the robber’s victim on the side of the road.

The essential question is not “who is my neighbor?” but rather, as Jesus asks

“36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?””

The answer he gave was correct:

 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

From womb, where compassion appeared as a mother’s emotion, to self-sacrifice, where it becomes an action, back to mercy, which is compassion in action; even in sacrificial action on behalf of others.

Who is excluded from the love mandate?  Who is not a neighbor?  Who is not included in the “one another” we are commanded to love if we are Jesus’ beloved ones?

Our Own Kind

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It is not hard for us to love our own kind.  Even animals love and care for their own young.  Social animals will tend and care for their group.  Among chimpanzees, the adolescent primates will even sacrifice themselves defending their clan.

It is no great virtue to love those like ourselves.  It is nothing more than pure practical common sense to look out for those who are necessary for one’s own survival.

So, to love one’s family, one’s race, one’s nation is nothing more than pragmatism; our survival depends on them; of course we will love them.  It does not take a Christian to figure that out.

What Christians & Scientists Know

But what if the Christian insight is that there really is only one group, one clan, one  “us”?   What if, as scientists know, there really is only one human race?  That “all living humans belong to the same hominid subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens” and that “among humans, race has no taxonomic significance”?  What if  we actually are dependent on everyone on the planet for our mutual survival?

We would conclude: “of course we care for our own.”  “Can a mother forget her nursing child?”  We care for our own who are European, our own who are Hispanic, our own who are Asian, our own who are Arabic, our own who are African.  Of course we care for our own.

Beyond Self Interest

The Christian mandate goes beyond self interested care – even if it does expand the inner circle indefinitely.  The command of Christ is to love “as I have loved you.”  (which is about as opposite to the perspective of Ayn Rand as you can get).

How does this work?  On mother’s day, let our mothers be the starting point for our models.   What would our mothers have withheld from us that was in their power to give?

Would our mothers have left us hungry and not fed us?  Would they have left us outside the door to sleep on the street?  Would they have ignored our wounds or our illnesses?  Would our mothers have allowed us to be bullied because we were weak or abused for being different if it was in their power to intervene?  Would they not have sacrificed themselves for us?

Our mothers modeled for us, by emotion and by action, what our Lord has said:

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s beloved.”

“You are my beloved ones if you do what I command you”

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”

“The Fruit of the Vine and the Glory of God” Lectionary Sermon on John 15:1-8 for Easter 5B, May 6, 2012

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John 15:1-8

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

I wonder what it must have been like for the first disciples of Jesus?  We don’t get much of the back-story.  Some of them were fishermen, we know that much, and left their business, their livelihoods, their families of origin, and responded to Jesus’ call to follow.

We don’t see too much of those disciples as Jesus journeys through the villages of Galilee.  We see Jesus stopping to heal people, we hear him teaching, telling parables, but the 12 remain mostly in the background.

Unflattering Glimpses

Occasionally we get to watch them react to Jesus or answer his questions.  Most glimpses of them are not at all flattering.  We see them trying to keep children from bothering Jesus.  We hear them as they complain about multitudes who have no food.  They are terrified by storms at sea and annoyed as Jesus sleeps in the boat.  They are puzzled if not scandalized as he converses with a woman at a well in Samaria.

But I do not recall getting to hear or see their reactions to opposition.  Jesus has it out with scribes and Pharisees, he gets accused of breaking purity laws and breaking the Sabbath – what are his disciples doing in those moments?

I picture them trying to avoid eye-contact; hanging back behind Jesus.  “He started it, he can finish it.”  I’m sure there are wry smiles as Jesus gets the better of his opponents, even when they have tried to trap him; I can hear a collective “Yesss!”  and see a fist and hand pump as he says things like “then neither will I tell you.”  “Yes!  That’s our man!

The Elephant in the Room

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But there must have been a nagging feeling among the disciples that left to themselves, they were in trouble.  It was Jesus who had the grand vision of the kingdom of God.  It was Jesus that had such an immediate and uncomplicated relationship with God the Father.  It was Jesus who had the powerful sense of vocation; he knew he was called and sent by God for a mission.  What would happen if he were not there?  It was probably unthinkable.

So here they are, as we meet them in John 15, in that upper room, celebrating Passover together, and it is a somber moment.  He has announced his imminent departure.  He is leaving, he tells them.

He has been their source of inspiration.  He has been their source of a new way of looking at God, not as score-keeping, angry judge but as loving Heavenly Father.

He has been their source of a new way of looking at the world, at people – at women, at children, at foreigners, at the poor, at the diseased – he has been the source of their hope that God was doing something new, bringing his kingdom on earth!  He has been their source of the bonding power of love that has made them all into a new family.

“How in the world,” they wonder, “can we live, cut off from Jesus, the source?”  It would be as impossible as expecting a pruned-off branch of a grape vine to produce a new cluster.  That would be impossible.  Cut the branch off from the source and it simply dies in the hot Palestinian sun; good for kindling a fire, and nothing else.

Remain Attached or Die

Yes, that’s exactly right.  Unless they remain attached to the source of life, they will, in effect, die.  The situation for them is very much like branches of a vine.  Remaining attached, they live and produce grapes.  Cut off, they die, barren.

With a bit of re-phrasing to bring out the meaning, Jesus says this:

4 Remain connected to me as I remain connected to you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it remains connected to

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it’s source, the vine, neither can you unless you remain connected to me.  5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who remain connected to me and I to them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Everyone in that part of the world knew in detail the process of wine making.  It starts with a grape vine that needs an enormous amount of tedious tending.  In Europe they say, if you have a vineyard, you don’t own it; it owns you.  If you want good healthy grapes you will be putting in hours of pruning.

Does the analogy hold?  Yes, Jesus says:

1 “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.”

You might think that this pruning work is a metaphor for hard times that you go through that help you to be a better person.  But that is not the point here.  Jesus tells the disciples whom he has been with for the past three years:

3 You have already been pruned [cleansed] by the word that I have spoken to you.

The Pruning Effect of his Word

“The word” Jesus has spoken is the sum total of all the teaching Jesus has done.  The disciples have cast their lot in with Jesus.  They have staked it all

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on him.  His teachings have pruned and tended them, just as methodically and thoroughly as a gardner’s vine-tending.

Now that he is physically leaving, it is only a question of staying connected to Jesus.  How?  By constantly attending to his teaching: the teaching of his words and of his life of uncomplicated connection to his Heavenly Father.  Staying connected to his vision of the Kingdom of God.  Staying connected to his embrace of all of humanity.  Staying connected to his way of being in the world that can only be summed up by the one word that can sum up God himself: love.

The Fruit of Love

This is the fruit that is the goal of the whole vineyard project: love.  Nobody goes to all the trouble of a vineyard for any reason other than grapes – the fruit.  The branches aren’t good wood for building, and not even very good firewood except for kindling.  No, the only reason for the time-consuming vine is the fruit.

The fruit that will come from staying connected to Jesus, the source, is love.  As the epistle we read says, in effect:

“God is love, and those who remain connected to and enfolded in love remain connected to and enfolded in God, and God remains connected to and enfolded in them.  (I John 4:16)

How are We Doing?

God is love.  That one word sums up his essential character.  How are we doing at remaining connected to and enfolded in God?  How are we doing at remaining connected to the vine; to Jesus, the Source?

It is tragically possible to stop being connected to the source.   It is possible not to remain; it is possible to be utterly fruitless, to loose the capacity or will to love.  Look around at the face which the church presents to the world: is it the face of love?  Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not.

Sometimes it is the angry face of a group of people who have become inattentive to the true vine, the real Source, to Jesus and his cleansing words, who are now desperate to find a scapegoat for their anxieties and frustrations.  Scapegoats are easy to find.  They condemn the gays, the pro-choice people, the big-bad government, the illegal aliens, or whatever other target that Rupert Murdoch holds up for firing practice.

But then there are those others who have stayed connected, who have listened to Jesus’s words, who are fulfilling the goal, producing fruit, living a life of love.   They show a different face to the world; a face of joyful love.  They are the ones who know what Jesus meant when he said:

8 “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

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Becoming Disciples 

Did  you notice that word “become”?

“...bear much fruit and become my disciples.

It’s a process of becoming.  We have not yet arrived, but we are on the way.  And so we keep attending to Jesus’ words.  We keep connected to the Source of Love.  We practice daily spiritual disciplines of prayer, study and reflection.  We take advantage of opportunities for continuing Christian education.

And we keep showing up in places were love leads us – like the Christian Service Center.  We keep responding to needs and the pain of people around us.  We keep looking for new ways we can be involved in missional outreach.

And though Jesus has departed physically, though we do not see him, we are continually connected to him as our Source of life, of hope, and of fruitful love.