May 2, 2021

John 15:1-8
1 John 4:7-21

“Love In, Love Out”

When we gathered on Zoom earlier this week to read and discuss today’s Gospel text, the very first thing that was noted was how many times Jesus tells his disciples to “abide.” Some of our Bible translations said, “remain.” They could also have said, “stay put,” and that would have sounded so familiar in these pandemic times of “staying put” at home as much as possible.

But in this case, the instruction to “abide” from Jesus is not intended to keep us separate and safe from a virus, but its goal is to keep Jesus’ followers close and connected to one another and to him so that they will be spiritually nourished and equipped to minister to others in Jesus’ name.

And hasn’t that been one of the big challenges of the Covid-19 Pandemic for the church? We’ve had to figure out how to stay physically distant, but spiritually close – remaining apart from one another to guard our physical health and well-being, while finding ways to keep on abiding in Jesus and the Christian community for our spiritual health and our ongoing mission in the world.

This is the second week in a row that our Gospel text has given us a passage from John’s Gospel with a metaphor to describe what our relationship to Jesus and God can be like. Last Sunday we heard Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd, and you are the sheep.” Today he tells us, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.”

John’s Gospel is absolutely brimming with wonderful metaphors like this, known as the “I AM” statements. These “I AM” statements guided the early Christian community by confirming the identity of Jesus and describing their relationship to him.

It may be helpful to know that John’s Gospel was written at the end of the first century in the context of an early Jewish Christian community. It consisted of Jews that had come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was not just a prophet or teacher, but that he was God’s Son, the divine presence in human form, the Saviour of the world in whom all people were invited to believe.

When this community told the story of Jesus, their account was filled with expressions of their faith that this man was truly from God, that he was truly God’s offspring among us. The Gospel according to John has Jesus declaring, “I am the Light of the World,” “I am the Bread of Life,” “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

And every time a Jewish person heard that phrase, “I AM,” they would have thought of Moses, standing before God at the burning bush and asking, “What is your name? Who should I say it is that sent me?” And God replied, “I am who I am.”

But while some in the Jewish community embraced the good news that Jesus was “I AM” (God with us), others could not accept this preposterous and potentially blasphemous idea, and they began to be in conflict. Tragically, it resulted in division, and the newly Christian Jews were excluded from the synagogue for belief in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God.

I’m so glad that our need to worship in our homes these days is not because of conflict or division, not because we have been kicked out of the church or separated ourselves because we could not agree on a point of doctrine. It may give us pause to think about the unity of the Christian community, however. Which of our beliefs are so central that we cannot remain in community with those differences? And what holds us together in spite of our disagreements on some theological points?

John’s Gospel provides us with a beautiful metaphor to describe the relationship between Jesus (the vine), God (the gardener), and Jesus’ disciples (the branches of the vine). And we can imagine that these words would have functioned to console and sustain that early Christian community that was likely traumatized by exclusion from the synagogue as well as by Jesus’ death.

Having been separated from their community of origin, John’s community is here given to understand that community relationships are restored to them along with an intimate connection to God. They may not be welcome to worship with their former community, but their primary source of life, hope, joy, and fruitfulness is going to come from their spiritual connection to Jesus himself.

The passage expands on the metaphor with further details: The gardener’s goal with the vine and the branches is to produce abundant fruit. Here, we might think of the fruit of the Spirit that Galatians 5:22 says includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control. Those are the things that God, as the gardener, wants to grow in our lives.

The fruit is going to grow on the branches, of course, but the branches cannot accomplish this alone. They need to be connected to the vine, the source of the water and nutrients needed to grow fruit.

As the vine, Jesus is the source of spiritual nourishment that we need to produce spiritual fruit. We need to stay connected to Jesus – to receive the love, mercy, courage, and care that he gives us through the Word – so that we will have what we need to love others generously, to cultivate peace, to experience and share joy, and to fill all our relationships with kindness and goodness.

Today’s passage from the pastoral letter called 1st John expresses something similar as the apostle advises Christians on the importance of loving one another. And perhaps we can imagine how difficult it would have been for some of these early Christians to love their neighbours, even after having been rejected by them and excluded from the community.

But the apostle is firm: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a sibling whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

How will we have the ability to do this difficult loving – loving the ones who have hated us, forgiving the ones who have hurt us, showing kindness to those who have rejected us? The author of 1st John repeats what the Gospel of John had suggested – we must abide in God. For “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Imagine yourself, or imagine our little Christian community, as a branch of the vine – not a separate entity on our own, but growing out of the vine, almost indistinguishable from the vine itself. And by virtue of that connection, we are drinking up the nourishment we need to grow, to sprout leaves, and ultimately to produce fruit.

Imagine that nourishment as God’s love being fed to us – through the Word of Love in Scripture and in the life of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit’s comforting and encouraging presence, and through the loving care of the community embracing one another and holding each other up as God’s beloved children.

We are invited to abide in that love. Remain in the community, stay in relationship with Jesus, and let that love flow into our hearts and our lives. And what comes in must come out. Love comes in through Jesus, and love flows out as we are empowered to love others.

If you’ve been trying, during this pandemic, to love your family, or help your neighbours who are struggling, or encourage folks who are suffering, but you haven’t been taking much time to worship or pray or soak up God’s love for you, I think you’re going to struggle. The branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine. Love cannot flow out from you unless it first flows in from God in Jesus Christ.

Or, by contrast, maybe you are coping through this ongoing pandemic by taking every opportunity to be nourished by God’s Word in worship, and prayer, and meditation on the gift of God’s love for you in Jesus Christ. But if you aren’t allowing that love to guide you to new opportunities to share it with others, then there still won’t be any fruit.

I wonder if that’s where the pruning becomes important. When the branches are connected to the vine, but they’re still not producing much fruit, the gardener prunes them. The point is to ensure that the nourishment isn’t just going into growing thicker or longer branches, but into the production of actual fruit.

Likewise, Jesus’ love for us is not just supposed to make us feel good about ourselves and content with our belovedness. It has the higher purpose of growing love, joy, peace, and all the rest of that spiritual fruit for the sake of the world. Maybe it takes a little pruning of our self-serving goals, priorities, and choices for that love to be re-directed into God’s mission of love.

The love that flows in must flow out to bless the world, and that’s when God will be glorified – when we become Jesus’ disciples that bear much fruit. And that’s when our joy will be full and complete as well.

Remember those conflicts, those disagreements, those differences that threaten to break relationships and cut off communities from one another? Some of that may be worked out through dialogue and determined efforts to understand one another and find agreement at least on the essentials. But ultimately, it’s love that heals those broken relationships. Love that recognizes each one as a child of God, love that empowers forgiveness and sacrifice, love that grows mutual respect and care across difference.

Love in, love out. Love flows into our hearts through Jesus, and love flows out from us to heal and bless the world.

Isn’t that beautifully good news for us in our world that is so much in need of love? Isn’t that gloriously good news for us when we are trying so hard and struggling to do love with our own strength and determination?

Love in, love out. Let us abide in the vine, dear friends, and may God’s love flow.