A Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Texts: 1 John 4:7-21; St. John 15:1-8
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Risen Lord, the True Vine. Amen.
The college students were getting ready to deploy to, as their trip leader called it, “the devil’s home turf,” a place of “24/7 spiritual warfare” – that’s right: Daytona Beach. Their mission, should they choose to accept it: to evangelize the heathens of Bike Week and Spring Break, bringing them to a point of decision and “accepting into their heart” Jesus Christ as their “personal savior.” The instructions were clear: start with innocuous questions like, “Who’s the greatest person you know?” or “What’s the greatest thing that has ever happened to you?” If the answer is anything other than “Jesus Christ” or “Getting saved,” it’s time to kick the conversation into high evangelistic gear and lead that person down the so-called Romans Road.
Author Kevin Roose recounts his experience as a sort of “undercover reporter” among these missionaries during his time at Liberty University in the book The Unlikely Disciple, but I would wager that many of us have been on the receiving end of these questions. I’ve had my fair share of interactions with street preachers; UGA was always a popular target (I can’t imagine why…) and I don’t think I’ve ever managed to actually convince a single one of them that I’m a Christian. Nope, no matter what, I always seem to end up among those who have been “cut off” and am destined to be “thrown into the fire.”
Within the Church, there exists a vocal group focused on a “personal relationship” with Jesus as your “personal savior” – to quote the band Depeche Mode, your own “personal Jesus.” This tradition tends to interpret today’s Gospel as a threat of condemnation against unbelievers, or at least, their definition of unbelievers. The entire Christian faith, in this view, is reduced to a private experience between the individual believer and God. The Christian faith is boiled down to what goes on within your own head and heart and God’s own judgment against you.
Such an individualistic view has a long history in this country, dating back to the period of revivals known as the “Great Awakenings” with sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” – especially the second wave of revivals, when preachers such as Charles Finney would employ tools like the “anxious bench,” a seat right up front where individuals on the cusp of making a personal decision would wait for the “altar call” – a time to accept Jesus into your heart. And of course, many of us remember Billy Graham’s more gentle approach, with stadium-packing crusades, the many refrains of “Just As I Am” and the hundreds and even thousands of newly formed “personal relationships.”
This morning, though, our Lord challenges our individualistic view of the Christian faith. “I am the vine; you are the branches.” The phrase itself assumes that faith extends beyond the individual; note that it’s a plural, branch-es, not a single, solitary branch. Such a lonely vine would be unhealthy indeed. No, this is a lush, productive vine, stretching for well over a hundred feet, with uncountable branches hanging heavy with good fruit. Or, as our own Bishop Gordy translated the text earlier this week, “I am the vine; y’all are the branches.”
So often when Jesus says “you,” he’s really saying, “y’all.” Even just in today’s passage:
“Y’all have been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to all y’all.”
“Abide in me as I abide in all y’all…”
“My Father is glorified by this, that y’all bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Christ is our vine, and we are being grafted into Christ; we are all part of that same vine. Our faith may be very personal, but it is never individualistic or private. I can no more be a Christian on my own than a single rootless branch can produce good fruit or a single grape can become a vat of fine wine.
We are all members of Christ now, joined and united together into one vine. It’s not “my relationship” or “your relationship” or “Anne’s relationship,” but rather our relationship – with God and, through our union with God, with each other. It’s not the fruit that I produce, your produce, or Lars produces, but the fruit that we all bear together through Christ.
Through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, we are united into the Body of Christ. We are grafted together into the True Vine, becoming one with Christ and with each other. Living into new life in Christ, living as people of the Resurrection, means living together, united by the Holy Spirit, into one Body. In Baptism, we cease to be individuals; instead, we become members of Christ, branches on the vine.
What does such a vine look like? It looks like our love for each other.
The Lord who abides in us and invites us to abide in God strengthens us to love perfectly. Consider the Sacrament of the Altar: even as we consume the Body of Christ, we are consumed into the Body of Christ. In the mystery of the Eucharist, God feeds us, giving us physical and spiritual nourishment. We are fed here, at this Table, by Christ’s Body and Blood, made present by the grace of God. But kindred, we are members of the Body of Christ! We are what we eat! You and I are part of that nourishment! God gives us to each other to feed and support each other.
And here, I pray, you are nourished by the work you have called me to do as your pastor; for my part, I know that I am nourished by the work God has called y’all to do as the Church of the Redeemer.
More than that, though, we are part of one, holy, catholic (that is, universal) Church. Beyond the bounds of this parish, across the traditional lines dividing denominations, through the centuries, we are united. We are blessed by fruit born out by our siblings: the writings of great theologians of the past like our sister, Teresa of Avilla,the struggles for equality in the Church hard fought by pastors like our brother, Absalom Jones, the writings of our brother Francis, the current Bishop of Rome. And we are set free to work across these bounds even today, joining with the Episcopalians to minister to the many campuses in Macon, and to move ever closer to sharing Holy Communion with our Catholic neighbors – to bear these fruits in order that we might be a blessing to our descendants.
What, then, of pruning? How do we understand the threat that we might be cut off and burned? If we are to fully and truly understand our unity in the Body of Christ, what do we make of the street preachers’ threats of hellfire? What do we make of their interpretation that God is hacking off people from the vine to be burned?
In a vineyard, a healthy and well-established vine may lose 90% of its mass; even the branches that bore fruit are trimmed away and burned in order that the vine can produce more and better fruit the next year. Pruning isn’t about destroying the unfruitful branches but about caring for the vine in order that it produces good fruit again the next year. It’s not about the branches; it’s always about the vine.
Dear ones, God is the one at work pruning, the master gardener with the shears in hand, and God is love. For the Body of Christ to be healthy, we must love each other; and our Lord is clipping away that which is not rooted in love. Our Lord is cutting away our pride, our envy, our greed, our fear, our hatred. A small snip here, a larger one there. It may hurt for a time, but it is necessary. God is pruning away the dead material that we might become all the more fruitful, bringing forth more love. The Vinegrower prunes to bring forth more fruit. This is not a threat of condemnation but a promise of sanctification, of the Holy Spirit at work within us. The street preachers have it all wrong: God isn’t coming after individuals with a pruning hook to cast them into hellfire. Rather, the Vinegrower is cultivating us that we might, together as the Body of Christ, bear good fruit.
Christ is our True Vine, the root of our very being. We are grafted onto Christ, united into his Resurrection and joined as members of his very Body. And God is carefully and lovingly pruning us that we might bear the good fruit of true faith.