(2 Corinthians 3), John 15:1-8, 1 John
Changed from Glory into Glory: Branches
For the next several weeks, we will be focusing on the theme Changed from Glory into Glory. I planned to explain our theme for the month in our May newsletter, but as most of you know, I have been away at General Conference in Tampa for the last two weeks. I just didn’t make it with a newsletter article. I was pretty impressed with myself for even sending Bill my sermon titles for the month! So, I want to spend a little time this morning explaining this theme: changed from glory into glory. It is based on a passage from 2 Corinthians 3. In it, Paul is talking about a text from Exodus that we just studied in our Bible 101 class. The Israelites have been freed from Egypt, but are wandering in the wilderness. Moses keeps visiting with God to receive commandments for living as this new community in a new place. But after so much time one on one with God, his face is radiant, and the holiness of it scares the people, so Moses wears a veil, so that the people don’t have to look at his radiant face.
Paul, speaking to the Corinthians, new followers of Jesus, says that the glory Moses experience had to be veiled – which put a distance between the people and God. But in this new covenant, with life in Christ, with God-made-flesh in Jesus, the veil is lifted, the distance we put between us and God is closed, and instead of seeing a dim glory, covered, we see the radiant glory of a perfect mirror reflection. We are transformed from one glory, a veiled glory though, into another glory, unveiled. Changed from glory into glory. It isn’t that the relationship the people had with God with Moses as mediator was meaningless or valueless. But it was laced with fear of God, with fear of going deeper and experiencing God in more direct ways. When we follow Jesus, the risks are greater, the radiance may be blinding, but there is no veil of separation. Paul calls us to be changed from glory into glory.
Our time together as pastor and congregation is going by faster than I can keep up with. We have just a handful of weeks together really. Of course, it has been on my mind what I can say to you, what I want to and must say to you in this time. In a couple of weeks Rev. Lauren Swanson, pastor at Erwin First United Methodist and Church Consultant, will meet with us after worship to help prepare us for this time of transition, to talk with us about our church family, our relationships, how we live and work together, how we handle conflicts, and how First United can prepare to move forward with mission and vision at the core of all we do. And I have been thinking that we are called to move from glory to glory. Where we are is not bad, but sometimes I think we let our fears get in the way of the deeper relationship God is calling us to. We hover on the brink, wondering if we can follow where Jesus leads. He calls us from glory to glory, and I hope, in these next weeks, to help us be ready to go with him, even if our paths will be somewhat different.
Our scripture lessons today from the gospel of John and the epistle 1 John go hand in hand with each other, and touch on how we relate to one another, and the fear that sometimes gets in our way. In the gospel, Jesus declares, “I am the true vine . . . I am the vine, and you are the branches.” God is the vinegrower. Jesus talks about how the branches – us – can’t have life 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. We are all branches – we can’t have life apart from the vine, and we can’t have life in Christ apart from each other either, because we are connected through the vine.
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 word ‘abide’ here means literally, as I have shared with you in the past: “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.’ Another repeated word in our epistle lesson is this weighty word “perfect.” As I have shared with some of you, every person ordained an elder in The United Methodist Church is asked the so-called historic questions that have been passed down since John 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.” 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– how can we be perfect, or even bother trying to be perfect? But 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.”
Wesley’s words about walking in the light as God is in the light are right in tune with our text from 1 John. 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. I have been growing seedlings, some of which my brother Todd did not actually kill during my two-week trip to Tampa in my absence. Before I left, I had to thin the plants, pull some weaker plants up so that the stronger plants had room to grow. Pruning is similar. 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. 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?
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: Loving one another, those we do 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 I was asked at my ordination, 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.