Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter

(Sermon 5/10/09, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8)

Love According to John: True Vine

I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m a planner. I’ve generally had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do in my life and when I wanted to do it by. I like having plans and schedules, and completing what I’ve set out to do. If you’re a college student, or the parent of a college student, and lamented to me about not knowing what you or your child will major in in school, searching for direction, trying to choose a course of study, I will tell you that tons of my friends in college changed their majors many times with no problems, and went on to have wonderful careers in fields they’d never imagined that they’d fall in love with. But I can’t really tell you that about myself, because, after a little initial confusion over what to study when I was thinking about college as a senior in high-school, by the time I actually enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan, I knew that I wanted to be a pastor, knew exactly what steps I need to take to achieve that task, and went about getting it done. I literally had a pamphlet hanging on my wall that listed the steps into ordained ministry that I kept posted all through college and seminary. I planned it, and made it happen. I haven’t been such a planner because I’m just so superior in my organization skills than everyone else. I’ve been a planner because it give me comfort to know what direction my life is headed, to have a specific goal and know exactly how I’ll get to it.

And yet, despite my careful planning, when I look over my life, some of the times that God has acted most clearly in my life have been times when my plans have been upset, when my decisions have been vetoed by God in favor of something I hadn’t been expecting, or wanting. I’ve told you before, for example, that I wasn’t expecting to move to New Jersey to this church when Bishop Devadhar called and asked me to come here. Truthfully, I was planning on coming to New Jersey eventually – I wanted to go back to school and pursue a doctoral degree. But I had a different timeline in mind, and I planned to simply take an appointment to school, not pastor a church, while in New Jersey. But my plans and God’s plans were apparently not the same, and I found myself here, serving among you. And once I was here, I adjusted my plans, started to make new plans to accommodate my new situation. And now, quite outside of what I had planned given my new situation, I find myself heading back to Central New York. Once here, I planned on staying in New Jersey for a while, and planned on returning to Drew for more schooling at some point. And while certainly my return to my home conference is driven in large part by my desire to be near my family, I must tell you that I’ve also had a sense of trying to force my plan, to make my new plan be God’s plan for me. And I can tell you that forcing our plans onto, over, through, or around God’s hopes for us and calls on our life is pretty much never a good idea – it never works out for us like we think it will. And so I’m making new plans for myself yet again, but I’m learning, or trying to learn, that things will be more deeply rewarding for me if I keep myself open to truly following God, instead of following the map I sometimes too carefully craft for my own life.

Hold that thought for a bit, as we take a look at our scripture lessons for today. From our gospel lesson, we find another one of Jesus’ “I am” statements. Throughout John, Jesus spoke about his identity in everyday images that his contemporaries could have related too, instead of describing himself in the sometimes-distant theological language. Two weeks ago, for example, we heard about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an image that meant a lot to the agricultural community where Jesus lived. Today, Jesus presents us with another image that ties into the land and the people that were close to him. “I am the true vine,” Jesus declares. “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” God is the vinegrower. Jesus talks about how the branches – us – can’t have live if they are separated from the vine – himself. And as branches, we’re meant to be the bearers of much fruit – fruit that we’re able to grow because we abide in him as he abides in us. We literally take our life from the vine, and through the vine, we can become fruit-bearing disciples.

From the epistle lesson, John picks up the theme of abiding in one another, God and God’s children. John focuses his passage on God’s nature – God is love. We love because God is love and we’re born of this loving God. If we don’t love, we don’t know God. The best love we can know is in God’s loving us, and because we know this love, we ought to love one another. When we do this, even though we can’t see God, John says, we get something better – God lives in us, and God’s love dwells within us. So God is love, John says, in case we missed it, and abiding in love we abide in God because God is – that’s right – love. Not just any love – perfect love – love that is so perfect that there is no fear in this love. And we love because God loves us first. And we can’t love God if we don’t really love our brothers and sisters, John says logically, because we can’t even see God, and we can see our brothers and sisters. How could we more easily love that which we can’t even see? So, if we claim to love God, we know how to show it: in loving others.

You’ll notice that in both passages today, the word “abide” appears repeatedly – six times in the epistle, eight in the gospel. The repetition helps signal us of the importance of the concept. The word ‘abide’ here is from the Greek word meno^, which means literally, “to stay or to remain at home.” So when Jesus and John speak of “abiding,” we can think of them as speaking about ‘remaining at home.’ If we go back through the passages and substitute this phrase where we see the word ‘abide,’ we get a clearer picture of what these passages are about. In First John we would read, “God is love, and those who remain at home in love remain at home in God, and God remains at home in them.” In the gospel, we would hear Jesus saying, “Remain at home in me as I remain at home in you . . . those who remain at home in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

Another repeated word in our epistle lesson is this weighty word “perfect,” and this week I just kept coming back to it. Every ordinand in The United Methodist Church is asked the so-called historic questions that have been passed down since Wesley’s days: “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” The expected answer to both questions is “yes.” John Wesley was known – and ridiculed – in his day for his belief in the doctrine of Christian Perfection. His peers thought what many of us would think on hearing the phrase – how can we be perfect, or even bother trying to be perfect? But John Wesley insisted they didn’t understand true, scriptural perfection. Answering a hypothetical question about perfection, Wesley wrote, “But whom then do you mean by 'one that is perfect?' We mean one in whom is 'the mind which was in Christ,' and who so 'walketh as Christ also walked;' [one] 'that hath clean hands and a pure heart' . . . To declare this a little more particularly: . . . one who 'walketh in the light as [God] is in the light.” (1)

Wesley’s words about walking in the light as God is in the light are right in tune with our text from 1 John. John writes here that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is perfected in us . . . Love has been perfected among us . . . there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . . whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.” For Wesley, for John, being made perfect is a process we go through as we learn to let God’s love – God’s very essence – completely take over our lives, so that as God is love, we too are love, made bold by God’s love, casting out fear and being filled with God’s perfect love. The more we love, the more we become like Jesus, the more we are filled with God, and the more we are, in the best sense of the words, being made perfect. “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” With God’s help, yes.

If we turn back now to our gospel lesson from John, we can read these images of the vine and branches and pruning and good fruit in light of this understanding of perfection. Jesus tells us that we are the branches, and that the branches can’t bear fruit unless they abide in the vine, Jesus himself, and in turn, the vine abides in the branches, and unless the branches are pruned by God, who is the vinegrower. When I hear Jesus talking about being pruned to bear good fruit, abiding in him as he abides in us, I see it as another way of saying that we’re being perfected in love, as John says, as Wesley says. Pruning, as you might know if you are familiar with gardening or landscaping, is a way of removing certain branches and leaves from a plant to make the plant stronger and healthier overall. Sometimes branches that are removed from a plant are diseased or weak, but other times, branches that seem healthy enough have to be removed because the pruning will make for a better, more fruitful plant or tree over the long run. Pruning, then, is a way of perfecting a plant, you might say.

What does that mean for us? How do we get pruned? For me, the most important thing for us to remember here is to remind ourselves who does the pruning, who does the perfecting, in our texts. We’re made perfect by God’s abiding love. We’re pruned by God the vinegrower. We are the branches, and branches don’t prune themselves, or prune other branches. God does that. So often, we look at our neighbors, and feel like we know what branches we’d cut in their gardens, so to speak. We know what decisions they should make, and are ready to call them out for the bad fruit we see. But we’re not the vinegrower, not the gardener of their souls. And what’s more, we’re not meant to do the pruning in our own lives either! And that’s harder control for us to give up. As branches, with God living right within us, abiding in us, we’re meant to be open enough to God’s perfecting love that we can trust God with tending to our lives, pruning where things need to change and be redirected, guiding us on a path which will help us bear good fruit, even if we can’t see the way yet.

John says that we have hope of being made perfect, hope of living a life free of fear. We can be perfect! – if we’re willing to be perfected, pruned. As I look at my own tendencies in planning out my whole life, I’ve found that the best things seem to come my way when rather than doing the planning, the leading, the scheduling, instead, I do the following – that’s discipleship after all – when rather than filling my life up with my own plans, I try to remain open enough to be filled up with God instead. If “abiding” means “being at home in,” I have to have enough room in my soul for God to find a place to dwell within me. If I’m already full of my own stuff, already unwilling to let any pruning happen, where will God make a home in my life?

So how do we start? How do we begin to get back into the right place – to let ourselves be branches instead of trying to all be the true vine, or the vinegrower? How do we move towards this perfection that casts out fear? That part is easy. John reminds us that God is love, and that to know God, you must know love. The more we love, the more we know God, who is love, and the more we love, the more we imitate Christ who is love. John leads us in the direction that Jesus was always leading us – through loving one another – those we see around us – is the only way we can really love God – who we don’t see ‘face to face.’ The more we love, the more room we make in our lives for something other than our own wants and desires, the more we make room for God, the more we understand what being made perfect in love is all about.

So, I ask you the questions that are asked of all who seek ordination in The United Methodist Church, because they’re really more questions about discipleship than questions about being a pastor: “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” I hope your answer is yes.

Amen.

(1) http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/Wesley/perfection.stm

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