Sermon by Stewart Burrows!
Our gospel lesson today finds Jesus continuing his discourse to the apostles at the Last Supper, as he invokes the great image of vine and branches. We are the branches, he says, and he is the vine. As branches cannot bear fruit unless they rest in the vine, so must we bear fruit only through rest in Christ. This is once again a reflection of the depth of communion to be experienced via Christianity. It is a reflection of the depth of communion both through Father and Son and through disciples, believers.
In making the analogy of the vine, Jesus enters into a didactic lesson on loving one another. Jesus explains that: When it comes to love that what is true about Him is also true about us. Jesus has kept the father’s commandments, and thus has abided in the father’s love. In leading by example, he instructs his disciples to keep his commandments, and thus abide in his love. Jesus received joy by following the commands of God.
Therefore Jesus instructed his disciples to experience this same joy in their own obedience. Jesus loved the disciples, and therefore Jesus instructed the disciples to love each other as he has loved them. Jesus will lay down his life for his friends. Therefore Jesus instructs his disciples to emulate him in love.
As his analogy, Jesus said to the disciples, "I am the vine." Now, out in the wild, vines are a hard and robust plant, capable of growing to great length and for long periods of time, to great size. Jesus is like the vine who has withstood centuries of persecution, observed all sorts of atrocities by we humans and continues to be with us in spite of the lack of respect he has been given. In ancient Palestine the growing of grapes was a primary resource for the people. So when Jesus referred to himself as the vine, they understood what he was talking about. In this area our primary source of income is through manufacturing and agriculture. You could say that here, Jesus would refer to himself as the factory or the field. Our lives are dependent on them for survival and if we disconnect we lose our primary source of income.
Jesus also told the disciples that they could not bear fruit unless they remain connected. The vine who’s roots are severed, will soon wither and die. When we disconnect from the Jesus, we lose focus. We are lost. We are cut off from the life giving resource of God’s sustaining love. Our faith becomes weak and consequently we lose hope.
The same thing is true in business: A company that is overbuilt and is too liberal in its credit practices is a business that is bound to fail. Manufacturing or farming or anything that ceases to bear fruit will wither and die. Notice that Jesus also says, "Apart from me you can do nothing." He didn’t say "you can check in and out whenever you feel like it."
On one hand we have those who are completely separated from the vine doing their own thing. They invest their energy in impermanence and easy solutions. Without a connection to the vine they will not survive.
And, in another case, there are those whose faith is totally private. These are the folks who make no mention of their connection to the church or never get involved in the life and activties of the congregation. They keep their faith in secret; in the closet. You can’t be connected and be invisible.
And this is a problem found throughout our lives: Our faith is not something we talk about. The weather, the playoffs, politics and elections dominate our conversations, while matters of faith rarely appear at all. Yet, Jesus said we are to be bearers of fruit. Each of us is a branch. Each of us who are connected to the one true vine, represent the church wherever we go. And when we are faithful it is contagious.
Take the church we’re sitting in this morning: People from this community take notice when things happen here: They notice when the trees are pruned, when the parking lot is full or when painting or remodeling takes place. Friends and neighbors come to our functions, and hold an interest in this place. Just as the church is a visible presence of God’s abiding love, each one of us is a visible presence in the community.
Our modern, “connected” society is doing us a tremendous disservice. We are conditioned to believe that we can go it alone. We are taught to be independent, but staying connected and relying on each other makes life easier and also brings us great joy.
Facebook and email, Twitter and YouTube, cell phones, texting and all kinds of convenient “quick fixes”: These are the connective “tools” of a new generation and they are all useful as an adjunct to human contact; but connection without contact is just a different degree of solitude.
Our young people sit in front of flickering screens, “friending” people they don’t really know, sending anonymous missives out across cyberspace, and don’t even know what they’re missing.
If you have watched the people in a town where there has been a tragedy, like in the west where fires have ravaged the countryside, you have witnessed their togetherness and their cooperation and teamwork. See how an entire province came together last year as massive forest fires destroyed Slave Lake in Alberta. People came together, for the common good and the common spirit, to share tragedy, tears and triumph together. Faith is not private. It is social. It is corporate. By being together, by staying connected our faith is made strong.
Ezekiel said (ch. l5), that "a vine that cannot produce grapes is only good for burning." And Jesus told the disciples that they needed to "bear fruit".
Last spring my father and I topped the tree in our back yard. It was suffering from a blight. The blight put the well being of the tree in jeopardy, and we thought that by pruning the tree it might have a chance to survive. The tree could be put out of its misery by chopping it down, or we could give it another chance by cutting away the dead wood. Every year the dead wood needs to be cut away. We need to prune away the dead parts, so that the young parts can have a chance.
Cutting away the dead parts gives us new life, but we need to be careful not to cut too deep, for destroying our roots disconnects us from the one true source of life. Our faith is in jeopardy of dying unless we remain connected to the Church, the Word of God and Jesus Christ. Branching out is part of our responsibility but without maintaining an adequate root system, our faith will perish.
Now, as Jesus continued his lesson, he went on to speak about “friendship”:
Jesus reminded the disciples of their special relationship with him. He told them that they were not uninformed servants but initiated friends. Servants and friends; there is a difference between the two: Servants are not always aware of their master’s grand plans. Friends, however, have intimate knowledge of each other’s dreams and goals. The dreams and goals of Christ are a new community where service and love create righteous justice. It is in this new community that the disciples’s joy will be complete.
Mark Twain said, "The holy passion of friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime….. if not asked to lend money!" Friendship... Friendship is clearly a wonderful thing.
If it has never occurred to you before, note that Jesus’ companions were called "friends" before they were called Christians. So, a little history lesson: The New Testament says, "it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called 'Christians'" -- long after the death of Jesus and the dispersion of his disciples in the early days of the church. But Jesus himself said to the disciples, "I have called you friends." Think about that. Let it sink in. "I have called you friends." Before anything else, "I have called you friends."
What are some of the characteristics of a good friendship? Think of a few. Friends care about each other's welfare. That makes sense. If you are my friend, I want the best for you. I want people to think well of you. I want no harm to come to you. In fact, deep friendships are often forged in the midst of common suffering. Soldiers returning from the battlefield will always speak angrily of the ugliness of war and yet, in the same breath, they will talk with warmth about the friends that they made. I can guarantee you that, as you and I are sitting here, deep friendships are being formed in Syria and across the middle east, as folks deal with terror, uprising and upheaval. People, who were initially perfect strangers, having passed together through a terrible storm, an earthquake, or some other natural disaster, will suddenly feel themselves to be the closest of friends and years later will sit and reminisce about their shared experiences.
Speaking of sharing, that is something else friends do: Material things, of course, and even money…. despite Mark Twain's humorous caveat. And more important, friends share what is inside. C. S. Lewis says, "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'what, you, too? I thought I was the only one.’"
Friendship often requires sacrifice of some sort, and, in some rare cases, even the supreme sacrifice. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."
A story: During the Vietnam War, a rural village had been bombarded with mortar shells and some shells landed on an orphanage run by missionaries. The missionaries and a few children were killed outright. Several other children were wounded, including an 8-year-old girl who had multiple injuries and was bleeding profusely.
In response to a runner sent to a near-by town, a young Navy doctor and nurse came with only their medical kits. The young girl was in critical condition and in need of an immediate blood transfusion. Blood typing indicated that neither American had the right blood. However, several of the uninjured orphans did.
The Navy doctor spoke some pidgin Vietnamese and the nurse some high school French. The children spoke no English, but some French. Using what language they had and sign language, they tried to explain to the frightened children that unless they could replace some of the girl's blood, she was going to die. They asked if anyone would be willing to give blood to help. Wide-eyed silence met their request. After several moments of eye-searching, a little hand went slowly up, dropped down, then went up again.
"Oh, thank you!" exclaimed the nurse in French, "What is your name?"
"Heng," came the reply.
Heng was quickly laid on a pallet, his arm swabbed with alcohol, the needle carefully inserted in his vein. After a moment he shuddered, covering his face with his free hand.
"Is it hurting, Heng?" asked the doctor. Heng shook his head no, but he kept sobbing, his eyes tightly closed, his fist in his mouth to stifle his sobs. Something was very wrong.
Just then a Vietnamese nurse arrived to help. Seeing Heng's distress, she spoke to him in Vietnamese, listened to him, quickly answered him, stroking his forehead, soothing and reassuring him. After a few moments, Heng stopped crying, opened his eyes, and a look of relief spread over his face. Looking up, the Vietnamese nurse explained to the Americans, "Heng thought he was dying. He misunderstood you. He thought you asked him to give all his blood to save the little girl."
"But why should he be willing to do that?" asked the Navy nurse.
The Vietnamese nurse repeated the question to Heng, who answered simply, "Because she is my friend."
Have you ever known a friendship like that?
I have heard of one: The friendship culminated on a hill called Calvary, outside the city wall, and overlooking the town dump. It was there that your friend and my friend died that we might live. From today’s lesson: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."
How do you get to be Jesus' friend? Jesus told us: "You are my friends if you do what I command you." But even as simple a statement as that could lead some to misunderstand if we take it out of context. Friendship with Jesus is not simply about following some rules, as that sentence might lead us to believe. Remember what the command IS: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." In other words, if you want to be my friend, be a friend to my other friends. That sounds so simple. But we know it is not.
For whatever it is worth, we have not come upon this relationship with Jesus casually, nor by accident. As Jesus reminded the twelve in that Upper Room, "You did not choose me but I chose you." And what else did he say? "That my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete?"
Filled with joy! Life abundant! What a friend, what a friend indeed!