April 29, 2018

Easter 5   April 29, 2018   Psalm 67, 1 John 4;7-12, 13-16; John 15:1-11

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All the post-resurrection stories in the gospels focus on Jesus revealing himself to startled disciples – who’ve seen him die on the cross, sealed tight in the tomb. Now from the day of resurrection – over the course of 40 days till his Ascension –  Jesus walks with disciples, unrecognized, till he breaks bread – Jesus passes through locked doors to greet followers and commission them for ministry – Jesus appears on a mountain in Galilee where disciples worship him and doubt  at the same time – Jesus shows up by the lakeshore to serve breakfast to disciples after an all-night fishing trip – He asks for something to eat on one occasion, cooks for disciples on another. In each after-the-resurrection appearance Jesus shares words of comfort, challenge, and instruction.

Each time disciples are left awestruck – half-believing-half-disbelieving-in-awe-and-wonder-and-worship-in-a-blur-of-emotions – and in this collage of imagery we glimpse the life of the early church, our ancestors in faith – in moments in time and space that help us find our own place in the story.

The emotions and reactions we see among the first disciples are not so very different from those we see and hear and feel ourselves today. The story is alive – the story has deep heart-to-heart power still to communicate the love of God…

And the story still needs translation and interpretation each new day…As we seek to communicate the word of God for people living in different times, places and circumstances, every day… Noticing…

Unlike everyday users of Face Book, whose minute-by-minute-details-of-life are tracked in selfie-sequence-with-emoji-accents more-or-less-unceasingly – unlike our present-day obsession with endless information – the gospels never tell us how Jesus took his morning coffee – what color shirt he wore – what were his comfort foods and favorite psalms to recite in the morning – favorite prayers at night.

As we draw near the end of the Easter season, the bible is focused almost exclusively on communicating just the message: God is faithful – God is love – Jesus is Lord – and He Is Alive! As we open the word of God again in the light of Christ’s resurrection….

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[John 15:1-11– ]

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The soundtrack for our reading from John 15 today is set to the tune of a beloved hymn – When other helpers fail and comforts flee – Help of the helpless, O abide with me…

Help of the helpless help me, please…I’ve been feeling a little helpless, trying to keep focused, in our gospel reading, from Jesus’ last supper farewell teaching in St John’s gospel. I’m feeling a bit helpless because Jesus goes deep in so many directions. Offering comfort, discomfort, and questions all at the same time. I’ve been feeling like I imagine early church members may have felt, trying to sort and digest all the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus…

The spiritual comfort food part of what Jesus says today is set in close harmony with our readings from the First letter of John. Jesus is singing the original version of Abide with me – though he says “in me” not “with me.” Abide in me – as I abide in you. Branches can’t bear fruit alone – Neither can you.

We’re in the comfort zone, as Jesus tells us he is the true Vine, we are the branches – intimately organically connected. We depend on his lifeblood, depend on our intimate connection with him. In him we produce abundant fruit, just by abiding – residing – living connected with Jesus. Good news.

The image of Christ the vine and God our Father the Gardener is comforting. The more so if we remember all the places in the bible where the vine represents Israel. In Psalm 80 Israel, the vineyard, cries to God for help as enemies attack the vineyard and vines are perishing. The vineyard image is seen from a different angle in Isaiah chapter 5, where God the Gardener is seriously ticked off at vineyard, Israel, for yielding wild sour grapes. Elsewhere the prophet Ezekiel (15) speaks of Jerusalem as a useless vine, good only for burning. Jesus and his first followers know these and other texts where the vine does not do well… So it’s comforting to have Jesus now as the vine we’re part of – our fruitfulness depending now entirely on our relationship with Jesus, whose love is eternal and steadfast – rather than depending on any nation, tribe or church… all of which have been known to fail frequently…

The uncomfortable part of Jesus’ teaching today for me is branches cut-off from Jesus tossed in the fire. Not a pleasant image. If we don’t abide in him, Jesus says, we don’t have life in us. So I suppose if the branch is dead there may not be any feeling left in the branch. Perhaps no pain. Though I wouldn’t press the metaphor, allegory or parable too far. Jesus isn’t giving a scientific explanation or systematic theology answer here to what happens when we’re not connected with him. He’s giving a pastoral answer – saying – don’t even think about not staying connected with me.

Another discomfort area for me today is where Jesus says “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” It’s hard to avoid this promise and the questions it raises – since Jesus says almost the same thing several more times in John – (in chapters 14, 16 and one more time here in chapter 15). I’ve prayed for many things in the name of Jesus over the years that haven’t been done for me, at least not yet. I’m guessing most of us have. How then are we to understand the promise?

Bible scholars and preachers often say what Jesus means here is that when we pray in full unity with Jesus for what Jesus prays for, our prayers are  answered. Which may be the best answer available. Though when we’re hurting and praying and not feeling answers coming this can sound like a technically-correct answer, but not a very good pastoral answer.

I take just a little comfort in knowing these passages where Jesus says ask anything in my name and it will be done for you have troubled many Christians through the ages. CS Lewis and Philip Yancey are among the Christian writers who have written deep reflections on this topic, probing possibilities… Yet each of them admits their best interpretive efforts don’t fully satisfy them… and leave many questions unanswered…

I’ve become somewhat accustomed to Jesus answering my questions with more questions. Answering my questions often by calling my attention back to first-things-first-most-essentials. So as I feel myself starting to get a little anxious as I hear Jesus say “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit” – as I’m about to start fretting about my low productivity – just before I get there I hear Jesus ask – “why are you worrying… when you’ve got more good comfort food right in front of you? Remember again the good news – ”

We’ve already been pruned Jesus says (pruned or cleansed–the same word in the Greek means both) pruned already by the words of Jesus, the Word of God who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.

Jesus has already pruned us – pruning sometimes so gently we may not even notice. And he tells us we’re already bearing fruit as we abide in him. Again, whether we notice or not, all who take up residence in Jesus are bearing the fruit of life and grace in good measure. Fruit of the Spirit – love joy peace patience – kindness generosity faithfulness gentleness self-control – the fruit of the Spirit (the letter to the Galatians tells of)…

If we don’t notice the fruit we bear, it’s often because God doesn’t wants us to be self-aware in self-serving ways. God wants us be aware of our need, and everybody’s need for God. If God sometimes keeps the fruit we bear hidden, it may be because keeping track of how good we are and how really well we’re doing… tends to spoil otherwise good fruit… and cause us to forget…

The fruit of the Spirit is God’s work not ours. Apart from him we’re fruitless. We know this – but the world we live in tells us otherwise. Tells us beef-up our resumes, pursue financial prosperity, community acclaim, creaturely comfort. And as usual… Jesus tells the story differently from the way the world tells it…

As Jesus reminds us yet again – abide in my love. 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’ve kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

Love is the first commandment of God, and the new commandment of Jesus. First John tells us love is foundational – telling us twice today that God is love. (Which is not to say ‘love is God’ – since there’s many varieties of love that bear little or no resemblance to the love that God is. But –) God is love – and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them – First John again tells us…

When we love one another God lives in us… And God’s love is perfected or brought into fullness in us. Blessed news. Love – even more than faith – love even more than believing – love is the key that unlocks the door – love is the test of whether we abide in God. And making the love of God known to all is the fruit Jesus has most in mind…

Which requires persistent abiding. God gives his life to us freely. We need to persist in abiding. We need to stay connected. Jesus says abide six times in our readings from the first letter of John, eleven more times in our gospel. Jesus wants us to be sure to notice – he’s talking eternal residency abiding, not dropping in now and then.

And Jesus says one word even more than abide – and the word is Love – heard 5 times in our gospel reading, 16 more times in our readings in First John (about fifty times in the whole first letter of John if we’re counting). God also says I love you more ways than we can count… without even saying the words.

God is love – agape love. The love far beyond self-love that is God’s most essential nature, the love that flows from the heart of God… The love Jesus calls us into as he asks us to abide in him…Abide in God the Father. Abide in the steadfast love of God forever….  Asking God in the name and power of Jesus – to  bless and sanctify our lives and keep us ever fruitful for God’s kingdom… As we abide in him and he abides in us, together in the love of God forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.