By Ellen Sims
Texts: 1John 4: 7-21; John 15: 1-8
I get a little nervous when Bible verses put God in the vicinity of dangerous objects. I guess sometimes I’m tempted to treat God as I would a toddler—being ready for the hugs but wary when the Unpredictable One gets near sharp instruments or fire. So today I’m worried. I’m a little worried about a God out in a vineyard using a pruning hook and playing with fire. You’ll be squirming a bit, too, when you start to wonder how God might use a pruning hook on imperfect people, which is all of us. You may soon start wondering if that bonfire of discarded branches, described in today’s Gospel lection, represents hellfire.
But don’t. That’s not what this Gospel reading adds up to. Certainly not what the overarching biblical story affirms. That vineyard bonfire isn’t described in ominous hell-fire terms, is it? And cutting away dead branches has a salubrious effect. In this analogy these processes bring life, not death. If we peek ahead to verses in next Sunday’s reading, we hear these comforting words of Jesus: “As the Father/Mother 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 have kept my Father/Mother’s commandments and abide in that love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Then Jesus reiterates the love commandments: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
The Jesus Vine produces—through his many branches—only love. The punishing, angry God who does make appearances in the Bible at times—is not the god Jesus points us to. Coercion or threats do not make truly virtuous people—and certainly not loving people. The God of Love, therefore, does not evoke or expect fear. For those who abide in Jesus the Christ, anything that is not loving is excised. The Jesus Vine does not produce death or hate or fear. As Richard Rohr has said, “The people who know God well—mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.”
We altered the words to the “Sanctus” this morning to make this same point. Tradition would have us sing to the God of “power and might,” but we sang to the God of “powerful love.” Love is God’s power. God’s love is mighty. But too often the church, in its quest to wield power, has forgotten that Jesus’s power derived from powerful humility, powerful sacrifice, powerful meekness, powerful love. Red-faced, ranting Christians can sound as if they are seeking first the kingdom of power, of law and order, of property and wealth. We choose our words carefully so that we remember what kind of power is operative in God’s realm.
Today’s companion Epistle Reading connects the fruit of love to the lack of fear. I hear a lot of fear today—in Baltimore and the reactions to Baltimore. Listen again to 1 John 4:8: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
The idea that fear, not hate, is the opposite of Love is illustrated in the poem “AIDS” by May Sarton. Writing during the worst of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, Sarton bore witness to the physical devastation of the disease as well as the emotional despair as family and friends abandoned HIV-AIDS victims, and society in general damned the diseased and persecuted the sufferers. It points us to a love that replaces fear and closes this way: (Although the entire poem was read in the preached version of this sermon, I don’t believe I have permission to share the entire poem here.)
As closed hands open to each other
Closed lives open to strange tenderness.
We are learning the hard way how to mother.
Who says it is easy? But we have the power.
I watch the faces deepen all around me.
It is the time of change, the saving hour.
The word is not fear, the word we live.
But an old word suddenly made new,
As we learn it again, as we bring it alive:
Love. Love. Love. Love.
What a terrible lie was told when preachers said AIDS was God’s punishment. 1 John 4:18 is clear: “There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” 1st John 4:20 continues this way: “Those who say, ‘I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”
The vineyard bonfire of the branches in John 15 does not signify God’s punishment for those who don’t bear fruit. Love doesn’t produce fear. But the fire into which the unloving branches are cast may symbolize a natural consequence of those who don’t produce the fruit of love. If we do not love—if we are not drawing from the Vine’s nourishing love—if we are not ABIDING in love—then we wither and dry up. Barren branches become useless because they do not produce the fruit of love.
How do we cultivate that kind of love that the world needs—and that we are created to produce?
Well, that’s just it. We can’t achieve love; we receive it. If we stay stuck in a childish religion of rewards, requirements, and punishments, we’ll miss the mature spiritual experiences of transformed consciousness. Richard Rohr explains: “Very practically, this is experienced as being moved from a God-view of scarcity and limitation to a God-view of infinite abundance. If this is not an earthquake to your understanding, you have not yet had the experience.”
If God doesn’t have any requirements for God’s love, then we can’t very well withhold our love from people if they don’t meet our standards. If we are branches of the vine, then it’s not up to us to do any pruning. The branches don’t do the pruning. Some Christians take on the role of the vineyard owner. Although they are actually branches themselves, they declare other branches need to be lopped off. But it’s not up to us to excise people or groups from the Jesus Vine. Throughout Christian history, despite this teaching of Jesus, groups and individuals have tried to cut off others from the Vine. That is not our job. Another person may interpret scripture differently, worship differently, believe differently—but we assume he or she is still part of the Jesus Vine as long as we see evidence of love. And even if love is lacking, it’s still not up to us to remove them. We are the branches.
Our job is to abide. Maturing spiritually is not about achievement and striving. Jesus, in his last instruction to his followers, puts it this way: Just “abide in me as I abide in you.” Jesus, our guide for spiritual maturation, certainly didn’t get to God by adhering to religion’s rules or obeying religious authorities.
What does it mean for us to abide in Love?
Carrie Newcomer’s song “Abide” may be helpful. It’s really a love song one lover sings to another. But I think we could hear it, if we stretch our ears and minds, as a love song from God, an invitation simply to abide in Love, to abide rather than strive:
Home. Our abode. Where we abide with God.
We turn finally to the last two verses from today’s Gospel lesson—to look at the idea of prayer. If we are abiding with God, then prayer is the way we talk with our roommate, right? John 10:7-8 reads:
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father/Mother is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
This is the section of today’s reading that causes me the most concern: “Whatever you wish, it will be done for you.” Really? It’s easier for me to trust that, in some divine union, I am abiding with God and God with me—than it is for me to believe that “whatever I wish will be done for me.”
But that promise is grounded on the premise that we are abiding in God. If the love of Jesus is coursing through us, and all the individual branches connected to the Jesus Vine are likewise rooted in love, then what we pray for, wish for, yearn for . . . IS love. That is God’s dream for the world. And so it will become reality. If we are abiding in God and God’s words are in us, then our prayers are always for love.
Prayer: Lord, make me a branch that produces your love.