29 April 2018

Abide (Or, Only Connect)

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Living with John 15 this week transported me back to my time on the Camino, the 500-mile pilgrim route across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela, one of the oldest Christian pilgrimage sites in Europe.  On the Camino, I spent a lot of time walking around and sometimes walking right through acres upon acres of vineyards.  The Camino winds through some of Spain’s richest winegrowing regions, such as Rioja.  I’ve seen vineyards before in France and Italy, in Switzerland, in Nova Scotia, in Napa Valley, in Maryland, and in New Jersey—yes, even New Jersey!  Walking the Camino, though, I was up close to the vines and the branches, I could see the vines staking their claim in the rich soil.  I walked the Camino in September and October, during the wine harvest, so the vines were laden with deep, purple grapes crying out to be picked (which, of course, I was happy to oblige).

Vineyards along the Camino, outside Logroño, Spain.
There was one day, Sunday, September 25, that stood out. I left Logroño when it was still dark. The city was recovering from its annual Rioja Festival, a weekend revel to the grape, worthy of Dionysius or Bacchus. My destination for the day was Nájera, about fourteen miles away.  On the way, I walked through and along and around many vineyards, as far as the eye could see.  As I walked, this text came to mind, “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” (Jn. 15:5).  And then, as I walked, I reflected on the nature of the vine. I considered the power of the vine—the source of life, the source of vitality for the branches. I considered the energy, all the life flowing through the vineyards, moving from the roots and stretching out along the branches and eventually bearing fruit.  Then I considered all the wine these grapes would eventually produce, barrels and barrels.  It felt like wine was flowing all around me.  I was swimming in it.

When Jesus said, “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower” (Jn. 15:1), he was tapping into a symbol deeply rooted in the human psyche. Grapes, vineyards, wine have been symbols of fertility, immortality, and divinity for thousands of years.  The oldest vineyards go back to around 6000 BC, in the Republic of Georgia; the oldest winery dates to around 4000 BC can be found in Armenia.  The Greeks and Romans loved their wine.  So did the Israelites.  In Isaiah 5, Judah is compared to a vineyard, planted to bear fruit, to yield grapes. At the time of Isaiah, he judged the house of Judah unfaithful to the covenant, and therefore unable to fulfill its purpose: to bear good grapes.  Isaiah warned that the vineyard would be left unattended and be destroyed (Is. 5:1-5).  In the ancient world, wine was safer to drink than water. The fruit of the vine was equated with life.  At the wedding at Cana, Jesus turned nearly 200 gallons of water into the finest wine (Jn. 2:1-11). And Jesus turned to the fruit of the vine and said whenever you drink wine, “Remember me” (1 Cor. 11:25). The vine and grapes became a distinctively Christian symbol; you can find these images in the catacombs in Rome.  In the Vatican Museum, you can see the beautiful sarcophagus of Empress Constantia (d. 354), the eldest daughter of Emperor Constantine (c.272-337); the porphyry sarcophagus has a beautiful vine motif—a symbol of the Christian life.

Jesus took a common, ordinary element of his world and transfigured it for his disciples. John 15 is part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourses.  He’s preparing them for his departure.  He wants them to know that after he leaves he will still be part of them and they will be part of him. For them to continue his work in the wake of his absence, they need to abide in him. Here, Jesus offers them a final “I AM” statement, “I am the true vine,” and invites them to abide in him.

The Greek verb meno, translated, “abide,” also means “to remain” or “remain on,” “hold,” “attach, “keep.”  It’s one of John’s favorite words.  It’s found in 16 of 21 chapters in his Gospel, used more than forty times.  Abide. Remain. Stay. Connect. Jesus says earlier in John, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (Jn. 6:56).  Jesus uses a relational figure of speech, and gives it to the disciples—gives to us—to encourage them, encourage us, to stay close to the vine. In the extra-biblical source, Gospel of Thomas, which dates from between 40 and 140 A.D., we find Jesus saying something similar, “A grapevine was planted away from its Source, where it remains unprotected.  It will be torn down by its roots and destroyed.”[1] Both references stress a similar point: Jesus wants us to stay near the Source of Life. Stay. Remain connected. Rest. Abide.

When Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” he is essentially saying, “I carry the roots.”  In other words, he provides access to something deeper, deep in the soil.  He conveys through his roots the stuff of life, which generates growth. Through him the branches are generated, branches that intertwine and branch out in every direction.  We are the branches, entangled together, connected to the root.  As we know, a branch can’t survive separated or cut off from the vine; a branch can’t access the roots except through the vine.  A branch can’t go it alone, without withering and dying.  And a branch can’t really choose to not be a branch, it can’t sever itself from the vine, because the branch is an outgrowth, an extension of the vine.  A branch cannot even hope to bear fruit apart from the vine—only when the branch is in service to the vine, in relation to the vine, when life pours through it and branches out, only then does it yield fruit.  And the branch exists to bear fruit, to produce a yield, but it can’t do so apart from the vine.

And note, Jesus isn’t saying that one day, when you get your life in order, you’ll become a branch that bears fruit.  He said, “I am the vine.”  “You ARE the branches.”  Right now. It’s a done deal.  We’re already involved in the work of the Vine Grower.  Whether we like it or not, our lives are bound up in his life and his life in ours and we connected to one another.[2]

But Jesus takes the figure of speech even further.  Yes, the branch is dependent upon the vine for life. However, Jesus also says that the life of the branch is nurturing the vine. Jesus invites us to abide in him, so that he can abide in us.  There’s dependence here, but also mutuality, mutual interdependence. Jesus is sharing with us the life of the vine. We are grafted into him and he is grafted into us. And because God is the vine grower, caring for the true vine, allowing it grow, Jesus is suggesting an intimacy with God unlike any other passage in scripture.  Jesus invites us to remain in him, because he wants to remain in us.  And when we stay close to the vine, stay together, like vine to branch and branch to vine, that’s how we bear fruit. Apart from him we can do nothing, no fruit.  This is not meant to be a negative statement, but a realistic one. It’s a true confession that life flows through the Vine.  This is a profound claim in John’s Gospel; he bears witness to the corporeal, physical relatedness of Creator and creation. It’s incarnational through and through.  God wants to grow through us, be implanted in our lives.  God seeks incarnation, embodiment, connection, intimacy with humanity through Jesus through whom we experience God, the God who becomes further embodied in the world when we bear fruit.

I’ve been thinking a lot about connection lately. There is a brilliant new film adaptation of the novel Howards Ends (1910), by E. M. Forster (1879-1970).  In the novel, Forster famously describes the philosophy of the protagonist Margaret Schlegel, this way, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die” Only connect. Forster was skeptical and, at times, hostile toward Christianity (for good reasons).[3] Yet, here he certainly captures what’s at the heart of the religious life: only connect.

What is true for individuals in our relationship to Jesus is also true for a church, for a community of faith.  We are called to make deeper connections, stay close to one another, remember that we’re all connected, that Christ’s life is pouring through us.  Just as individuals try to go it alone, churches can do the same, trying to bear fruit without maintaining the connection with Christ. When that happens it’s easy for churches to become closed communities, cut off from the life of Christ, cut off and dead.

Jean Vanier, the Roman Catholic philosopher and humanitarian, is founder of L’Arche, intentional communities (in 37 countries) for people with developmental disabilities and those who care for them.  Healthy communities, like healthy branches, know they exist to bear fruit.  Vanier says, “A community gradually discovers, as it grows, that it is not there simply for itself.  It belongs to humanity.  It has received a gift which must bear fruit for all people.  If it closes in on itself, it will suffocate.”[4] 

Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they can’t do it alone. We can’t really serve him apart from him.  We can’t be a single branch doing our own thing, without the support of the community around us.  The Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is known for her bold tattoos and colorful language (even in her sermons) and heart on fire for Jesus, says, “Christianity is a lousy religion for the ‘I’ll do it myself’ set.  We are meant to be tangled up together.  We are meant to live lives of profound interdependence, growing into, around and out of each other.  We cause pain and loss when we hold ourselves apart, because the fate of each individual branch affects the vine as a whole.”[5]  The body of Christ, the church, is a vineyard, we are branches all tangled up together, connected to the vine, and all is in service to bearing fruit.

So, what is this fruit? There’s only one answer: love.  Jesus said, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you: abide in my love” (Jn. 15:8). God is glorified when we abide in and remain in and stay connected to God’s love.  When we’re abiding in love we’re able to bear fruit and the fruit is always love.  Jesus said, “You did not choose me but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…. I am giving you these commandments that you love one another” (Jn. 15:16). The world knows we are followers of the Risen Christ when we love—that’s the fruit that matters.

What became clear (or clearer) to me in a new way walking through the vineyards that Sunday in Spain, in a moment of grace, is that every blessed thing is pulsating with life and that life is pouring through the vine and bringing life to the branches (to me), and we are part of it all. There is no life apart from this life. Everything flows from this love. And I found myself saying, “I want to be in service to this love.”  I want to abide, remain, rest, stay in this love. 

Love is the vine. 
Love is the branch.
Love is the soil. 
Love is the sun. 
Love is the life pulsating through it all. 
Love is the fruit. 

And the vine and the branch and the soil and sun,
the life pulsating through it all,
and the fruit—are all in service to God’s love.

And knowing this is the cause for great joy, it’s the root of our joy.

As Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you,
and that your
complete” (Jn. 15:11).

[1] Lynn C. Bauman, The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin (White Cloud Press, 2012), Logion (Saying) 40.
[2] Debie Thomas’ insight in “Abide,” Journey with Jesus, 22 April 2018.
[3] See Wendy Moffat, A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).
[4] Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (Paulist Press, 1989), 117.
[5] Cited by Thomas at Journey with Jesus.

22 April 2018

Love in Action

1 John 3:11-24

Fourth Sunday of Easter

I’ll get straight to the point: love is a verb.  That’s it. That’s the sermon. Perhaps I should stop here.  This is the good news; this is the gospel.  Love, God’s love, and every expression of God’s love in us and in the world, is less a noun, than a verb.  “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8), the author of 1 John tells us.  Love is integral to the being of God.  John’s not merely saying that God does loving things.  It’s deeper than that, he’s saying love is God.  Because God is always God, and cannot refrain from being God, God is always love.  God is—I like to think of God as less a noun than a verb—and by virtue of God’s being, God is love, and therefore loving.  God is continually love, loving the world, loving us into being, loving us, in love with us, loving the enemy when we can’t. God’s love, the kind of love talked about in Scripture, creates.  It’s this love, as Dante came to know, “that moves the sun and the other stars.”[1] God’s love creates and it heals and forgives and restores and transforms.  God’s love judges and challenges and corrects us.  God accepts us wherever we are, to be sure, but never leaves us there.  God’s love takes us by the hand and then leads us forward, always forward—never ever back.  God’s love sends us out into the world, rooted and grounded in this same love (see Ephesians 3:17). We could say that love is God’s mission. God’s love is on the move, moving us, sending us.

Love is always a telltale sign of God’s life in us.  We can discern God’s presence by an increased capacity to give and receive love. And this love is always calling us to action, calling us to service.  God’s love is generative, it calls us to give generously of our resources, and time, and talents and love itself—even to the point of seemingly reckless abandon and hilarity. For God loves a hilarious giver (2 Cor. 9:7). And this love invites us to be hilariously creative and innovative. 

At some level, we know this in our heart of hearts.  But it’s so easy to forget all of this—and whenever we forget this, we sin, we fall.  All sin is essentially forgetfulness.  When we forget who God is and who we are in relation to God, we sin, we fall.  It’s clear that John knew the church needed to remember that “God is love.”  Now, we don’t know which church the author of 1 John was writing to. Maybe he didn’t have a church in mind, perhaps it was written for every church. These letters of John (1, 2, 3 John) are sometimes called the catholic epistles, catholic meaning “universal,” letters for everyone. The church, then and now—every church—needs to remember that “we love, because God first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).  And because God’s love is operative in us through Christ, we love the world in a different way, a more radical way. 

We will love in ways that the world will consider ludicrous or risky or foolhardy or zany or wasteful.  Don’t be surprised by their response.  Don’t be surprised that people don’t get this.  “Do not wonder, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you” (1 Jn. 3:13)—hates you for the way you love.  We live from a different set of rules, under a different authority; we are not bound by the forces of death, but are determined and shaped and loved by that which yields to us life.  In fact, John tells us we can test the spirits to see whether our lives are being shaped by death or life.  He says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love one another” (1 Jn. 3:14). Enacted love is the proof.  “By this we know love, that [Christ] laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn. 3:16).

And then John presses the point even further. We have a responsibility for our neighbor. “But if any one has the world’s goods,” that is, if you have money, resources of any kind, any amount, “and you see your sister or brother in need, but then close your heart against her, how can you say that God’s love abides in you?”  Love does not hold back. It gives. You see, this love, God’s love is more than a feeling. It’s more than a theological platitude.  It’s more than an idea.  It’s more than things church people like to say to sound pious. “Little children,” John says, a term of endearment.  “Little children…dear ones, let us not love in word or speech,” he says, “but in action and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18). I like how John Calvin (1509-1464) beautifully comments on this text from 1 John: “Let us not profess by the tongue that we love, but prove it by the deed; for this is the only true way of showing love.”[2]

And we love, not because it’s a command, not out of duty. Well, yes, it is a command.  Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). But remember it’s a command that comes from the one who is love, whose mission is love.  We love because we are the objects of God’s love. This means, if you think about it, by virtue of our existence, by virtue of the fact that you’re breathing and your heart is beating, by virtue of being alive in this beautiful creation, by virtue of being here, we are right now participating in God’s mission of love.  This is the Missio Dei, the mission of God.  Missio meaning “sent.”  Missio Dei is an old designation that goes back to Augustine (354-430) and Aquinas (1225-1274).  God’s mission of love is seen in God sending the Son and the Son sending the Spirit and the then the Spirit sending us. God is the sending God, the missional God,  God with a mission. And we are God’s emissaries, a people sent.  Jesus said in his priestly prayer, “Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world” (John 17:18).

Stressing the missional dimension of God is really important for us to remember in the church.  We often think of mission as all the good deeds and projects and works done by a particular church or done by missionaries, done “out there” beyond the walls of the sanctuary, somewhere in the so-called “mission field.” We think of mission as one aspect of ministry done by a church, along with others forms of ministry, such as Christian education or caring for the sick or ordering worship.  This is often what we associate with the word “mission” and how we use it.  Sometimes it’s a synonym for “charity.”  But these views don’t really serve us well and biblically/theologically-speaking they hinder us from serving the Kingdom.  And mission is definitely not another word for charity.

For the past century, theologians such as Karl Barth (1886-1968), Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), Lesslie Newbigen (1909-1998), David Bosch (1929-1992), Jürgen Moltmann, Alan Hirsch (who spoke here at CPC more than ten years ago) have tried (and, for the most part, have failed) to get us to think differently about mission.  We need to reframe this.  We need to turn things around, turn our understanding inside out.  “It’s not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world,” Moltmann insists, “it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.  There is a church because there is mission, not vice versa.”[3]  The mission belongs to God.  In other words, the church doesn’t have a mission; God’s mission—God’s mission of love—has a church.  The church is the “container,” or, better, a conduit, a channel of God’s mission.  The mission doesn’t belong to us, it’s not ours, but God’s.  God determines the mission and the church’s task is to figure out how to make it happen—which means that we have to make sure we’re not standing in the way, that we’re not obstructing the mission (which the church has a habit of doing). God’s mission of love moves through every aspect of the church and is not limited to what we call “mission.” All that we do flows from and expresses God’s mission.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) said, “Faith in action is love and love in action is service.”  

Love is service.  I stand in awe of the many ways this congregation demonstrates God’s love. In several minutes, we will ordain and install women and men to particular works of service.  As trustees, deacons, elders, you are call by this congregation to lead us as we together live out the mission of God. Ordination in the Presbyterian Church, being set apart, is not to status or privilege but to service; you are set apart to do a particular work.  Yes, at times there will be long meetings that are tedious, frustrating, and even mind-numbing (some, certainly not all), but never underestimate what God is doing through you.  Never, ever underestimate how God’s love is at work through your season of service.  This is true for all our trustees, deacons, and elders.  As you serve, I invite you to ask yourself and to pray: how can I best serve God’s mission through this community of faith? This is a good question for all of us. Love in service.

Love in action. Shortly, Alex Hall will share this year’s Envision Fund awards, providing grants totaling $140,000.  Consider the potential impact this will have, both here in Catonsville and around the world.  This is God’s love at work through us. Hilarious generosity flowing through us!  We’ll be reaching out to the community, strengthening the ministry and outreach of CPC, helping those in need, serving as agents of healing and hope, providing a future for God’s people, here and in Howard County, and Baltimore City, and in the Presbyterian Church (USA), in Tanzania.

God’s mission of love, friends, the work of the gospel, is alive in us and through us transforming the world! We don’t have a mission, God’s mission has a church: you and me, together. Remarkable.  Isn’t this exciting?  Amazing?  How can anyone say the church is boring?  Well…sometimes the church is boring. When we’re only caring for ourselves, worrying about our own self-preservation, that is boring and lifeless and soul-crushing—and certainly not what the church is for.  

It’s an extraordinary gift, friends—dear ones—a priceless treasure, to be part of the church of Jesus Christ when we consider what God is doing and will do—right now—through us.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: III. Paradiso, trans. John D. Sinclair (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), Canto XXXIII, 485.
[2] John Calvin, Commentary on the Catholic Epistles, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom45.i.html.
[3] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).