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Sun, May 27, 2018

I AM the True Vine

Series:I am
Duration:17 mins 59 secs

Recognizing that all disciples of Jesus, including you and I, must answer for ourselves the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?” over the last several weeks we have been following the “I AM” statements of Jesus in the Gospel according to John in an effort to hear Jesus tell us who he is in his own words. For each time Jesus declares, “I am …” he reveals something about himself and his mission in the world. Thus, we have heard Jesus say to the crowds, “I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” “I am the gate,” and “I am the good shepherd.” After the death of his friend Lazarus, Jesus tells Martha “I am the resurrection and the life,” and then calls Lazarus to come out of the tomb even after he had been dead for four days! At a final meal with his disciples before his arrest, seeking to reassure them despite his impending departure, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Still at that final table Jesus declares, “I am” one more time and adds a “you are” as well. So, let us hear this Word of God as it is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verses 1-11.

1"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Today is a day of transition. It is the last day of a sermon series. This is the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, so it is the unofficial beginning of summer. Even more it is a weekend for remembering those who have given their lives in the service of their country. So yes, today is an appropriate day for us to do a bit of reflection.

A few years ago, in an email to his congregation, Pastor Scott Black Johnson of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City used the following questions to encourage his congregation to engage in just this kind of moment of reflection about their faith. He wrote:

Go somewhere quiet -- somewhere you will not be interrupted. Close your eyes. Now, take the pulse of your soul. Ask yourself, "How would I describe the current state of my faith?"

As you consider the question, try to be specific and candid. Choose the most fitting, most honest adjectives.

Is my faith growing, or shrinking?
Is it engaged, or yawning?
Is it mystical, or highly rational?
Is it far in the background of my daily life, or a clear lamp on my path?
Is my faith stuck in a rut, or is it changing?
Is the way I relate to Christianity, the Bible and the hymns of the church different than it was a year ago? Ten years ago?

My friends, I encourage you to spend some time this weekend or in this week ahead taking the pulse of your soul. How would you describe the current state of your faith? Or to use the language of our scripture text for today – are you bearing fruit?

Because in his final “I AM” statement in the Gospel according to John, Jesus says, “I am the true vine and you are the branches.” He then continues with what can sound like a threat: “Abide in me, “bear fruit,” or be pruned, wither, be thrown into the fire, and die! Maybe I have watched too many mob movies in my life, but I think if we are not careful we can hear Jesus’ words in this text like a mob boss threatening the disciples into remaining loyal even though Jesus is “going away for a while.”

But if we listen carefully, we discover that Jesus does not just say, “Abide in me.” Instead he says: “Abide in me as I abide in you.” As pastor David Lose has written:

That changes everything. The other statements about pruning and withering and the rest are not threats of intimidation but rather statements of fact, descriptions of what happens when we do not abide in Jesus, when we are separated from his love and acceptance, when we run or hide or think we can do it on our own or decide to stand alone or whatever. Branches don’t do that well when separated from the vine. At best they, like cut flowers, have a burst of color and bloom but then fade and wither.

So, it is not a threat when Jesus talks about the branches withering and being thrown to the fire. It is an invitation to abide in him as he abides in us. Now, I know that “abide” is not a word that we use all that much anymore. In Greek the word is “meno” which means stay, last, endure, live with, remain, and dwell. So, to abide in Christ means to live with or dwell with Christ over the long haul. And we recognize that to live with someone not just for a day or two, but to dwell with another is pretty close. You know that the people you dwell with know just about everything there is to know about you. They know what your hair looks like when you first wake up in the morning. They know if you are the one who wakes up without an alarm, with an alarm, with just a couple of snoozes on the alarm, or with more than a couple of snoozes on that alarm. They are the ones who know our favorite foods and those things that we cannot even stand the smell of. They are the ones who know about our pet peeves and the things that really annoy us. The ones we abide with are the ones who know how much money we have in the bank. They know our deepest struggles and our deepest fears. Yes, that is pretty close. And Jesus says, “Abide in me and I in you.”

I believe that all of us today in the midst of our American culture are looking for a place to abide, a place to land, a place to rest. We struggle with the daily demands of life, work, and families. We go to bed tired, we wake up tired, and trudge through our days tired. We are searching for that place where we can truly dwell and find the rest that we so desperately need. So often our culture encourages us to find that rest in stuff. If you have a bigger TV then you will enjoy the game more on Sunday afternoons. If you have a bigger car then you can rest as you sit in traffic because in your mind you will be cruising the open road. If you have enough money in the bank you can retire early and rest through your 50’s and 60’s. We are seeking a place to abide, to rest, and our culture says that if we accumulate enough stuff then we will be happy. And yet, somehow no matter how much we stuff we get, we never find the rest it promises.

All this brings us back to Jesus’ “I am” statement in this text. “I am the vine and you are the branches.” As the vine grows, so do the branches that abide in it. For branches abide in the vine. If we Christians have any hope of “bearing fruit,” “keeping commandments,” and “glorifying God,” then the first step is to take a step back, to stop our busyness, and to abide in Christ, remembering that abiding in Christ does not just mean sitting on a lounge chair with some sweet tea. No abiding in Christ means to go where he goes and to be where he is – meeting deepest hungers, bringing light into darkness, giving his life for the world, and showing others that he is the way, the truth, and the life that really is life.

No, abiding in Christ is not necessarily an easy task, but my friends I want you to know that Jesus offers us this invitation not to make us feel guilty and not to empower us to work harder. No, Jesus tells his disciples these things so that his joy may be in them; so that their joy may be complete. Yes, Jesus has joy and he wants to share. He desires that his disciples know it, share it, and have their joy be complete. Jesus wants them to be filled with joy and so he invites them to “abide in him.” Yes, joy is a gift. It is a gift that we do not earn. It is a gift we do not deserve. It is a give we do not have to achieve. Christ offers you and me his joy for free.

Pastor Mary Luti puts it this way:

So it was all about joy.

It was for joy he was born, for joy he befriended and healed, for joy he offended the powers, for joy he said love one another and love the world even though you don't belong to it and it's never going to love you back. It was for joy he endured the terrible shame, for joy he was raised, for joy he said peace be with you and pardoned us everything, for joy he went to sit at God's right hand, for joy upon joy he will return, the first mercy and the last. It was so that his joy would be in us, and our joy would be complete.

And all this time you thought it was about duty, so you've been doing it. You thought it was about making an effort, so you've been making one. You thought it was about becoming a better person and making the world a better place, so you've slogged away. You thought it was about you, about what God wants you to do, about the difference you should be making, about getting the holy job done.

But it was always about joy. The joy of his company. The joy of his grace. The joy of his love for God. The joy of his justice. Even the hard joy of his suffering. It was about being branches of his vine, sheep of his flock, drinking from the living waters of his deep, deep well. It was about doing just and saving work with him, in him, and through him, not for him, like some boss, not to merit a star, and not until you drop.

No, it was for the joy we know when we know him. It was always about joy. It still is.

My friends, take the pulse of your soul. How is the current state of your faith? For Jesus says, “I am the bread of life;” “the light of the world;” “the gate” and “the good shepherd;” “the resurrection and the life;” “the way, the truth, and the life;” and “the true vine.” That’s who he is in his own words. And as we know him, we discover the joy he brings.

It was always about joy. It still is. Do you believe this?

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray.

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