St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • Abiding in Jesus’ Love – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    May 02, 2021

    These words today from John’s Gospel are from the farewell discourse – 4 chapters of text in which Jesus is speaking to his disciples immediately after the last supper in Jerusalem. In other words, it’s at this moment that Jesus knows who is coming after him and is certain of what will happen.  And he wants to offer a summation of his teaching for his students. He wants to give them something to take with them for when he is no longer with them.

    And for the past couple of years, we’ve heard these words recited as we strip our altar on Maundy Thursday: I am the true vine.  God is the vinegrower. The disciples (that, is, we…) are the branches called to abide in the vine and bear fruit.

    Jesus offers these words as a metaphor, of course. Because he wants his followers to understand the nature of love. And that what he is doing, what is about to happen to him – to die a humiliating, state-sponsored death – he is doing because he has become what he was always meant to be: The Incarnation of Love on earth.  And this act is not meant to be the end of Jesus, but the beginning of new life for the Body of Christ.

    It may help to understand a little about vines and branches and how they work.  Vines, it turns out, function much like fruit trees. And here in the Hudson Valley we have some experience with that. People that have vineyards and orchards, cultivate rootstock. This part of the plant remains in the ground permanently and new branches (or cuttings) are grafted onto the rootstock. Once the graft heals, the branch and the rootstock function as a single unit, even though they have distinct genetic makeups sometimes.

    Red Vineyard at Arles by Vincent VanGogh

    This is not new science.  It’s been done for thousands of years. And it’s obvious that those who heard John’s Gospel, were familiar with how vineyards were grown so they would have known how to interpret Jesus’ words here.

    Jesus has become a true vine, a rootstock that stays rooted in God’s Love – a direct conduit of God’s unbounded, neverending Love. You see, because the rootstock lasts. As one website about grapevines says, “Planting a vineyard is hard work, but here’s the good news – once a vine is planted and established, it’s pretty hard to kill.”

    I find this metaphor helpful.  Jesus, the true vine.  God, the vinegrower.  And we are the branches. We come and go, sometimes fruiting, sometimes not. Parts of us offer fruit, other parts don’t. And Jesus says, it’s God who removes the branches that bear no fruit, the parts of us that are not helpful for us to be bearers of God’s Love.

    I find this metaphor helpful because this is how God’s love works. When we abide in God’s love and allow ourselves to be grafted on so that we may be nourished by God’s love, what we come to realize is that we are more capable than we could have ever imagined.

    We may not always get things right.  This actually can get incredibly messy sometimes, as a matter of fact.  But messiness is not what matters.  What matters is that we believe in Love, we abide in Love enough that we take the chance to show up… again. Even and especially when we feel uncomfortable. This is the perfect love that casts out fear.

    The First Letter of John contains some of the most beautiful language in all of scripture.  “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment… those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

    Considered to be a part of the Johannine writings, this letter is attributed to the community of John.  This means it’s written, not necessarily by the same author as the Gospel of John and the Revelation to John, but through the same school of teaching as those books of scripture.

    The entire letter is only 5 short chapters, but it contains the most essential teachings of what a community centered in Christ is called to manifest for one another and for the world – this connective force which is God’s Love.  It is through Jesus we are able to do this.  Jesus reminds his followers that he is the true vine, the manifestation of self-giving love in the world. Jesus, the one who teaches us that to offer oneself in love is the greatest way to receive love, because it is in giving that we receive.

    And one of the big questions for Christians, I think, is: Who is Jesus today? Is it this one person who lived over 2000 years ago and said these wonderful things but died because he made people uncomfortable? Is that the only Jesus there is?

    I think Jesus is found in the faces around us – the person who doesn’t have any place to stay on a cold night, the person who struggles with mental health, even the person who believes they have to steal to get what they need. I think this is where Jesus is for us.  The people that take us out of our comfort zones, who challenge us to pull apart our well-tuned judgements of who is right and who is wrong and who is worth my time and who is not. Because I think these are the people who teach us most how to break our hearts of stone open and love with abandon.  We may not always get this right.  It is messy to love.  But Jesus always seems to show up.

    It’s a mature understanding of what love is about. We don’t measure love by what we receive, but by what we give that is, if we can measure love at all.

    As Americans, I know we have trouble truly living into this. Well, as humans, really.  I know I have trouble with this. The message of God’s love runs counter to what the culture around us tells us we’re supposed to get or how we’re supposed to protect ourselves.  We want a return on our investment, right?  We want more for our money.  We tend to feel foolish if we don’t receive something for what we give and we feel gullible if we believe in people.

    Cynicism and skepticism give us a sense of control, so we won’t look stupid if someone proves to disappoint us. We demand punishment if someone does something wrong, thinking that, unless someone is made to feel bad, we won’t feel better. We don’t believe in God’s power to transform others so how can we believe in God’s power to transform us?

    This is fear, not love.  And fear kills community. Because when we are too busy in our fearful wanting and protecting, we inevitably withhold exactly what we are asked to give. It’s almost as if we say, “You want me to give?  Prove that you’re worthy first.” And sometimes we say exactly that.

    And this is precisely how we cut ourselves off of the vine that is Jesus.  Every time.  And that’s, perhaps, the most important lesson – listen up. We think we’re cutting other people off, but we’re really cutting off ourselves.  How can we expect to receive nourishment from a vine if we’re not willing to be fully a part of it, if we’re not willing to fully abide in it?

    When we abide in Jesus, he abides in us.  When we offer ourselves to one another, when we stop living in the fear that we won’t have enough, we are given so much more than we could possibly imagine.  Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

    Now, this isn’t about thinking of God as a vending machine because God is not a vending machine who does our bidding.  We don’t pray to God to get what we want.  God is not Santa Claus.  Jesus is saying that the practice of offering yourself, which is what it means to abide in Jesus, will change us, will fill us up, will complete us.

    And we will have all we need. We will have all we could possibly ever want.

    John’s letter to us reminds us that God’s love is not about personal salvation. God’s love is about salvation through community, through loving one another as fully as we can.  About saying “Yes.”  As we abide in God, God abides in us. And this is not done individually, this is done collectively – through loving one another, begin grafted onto Christ, a conduit of God’s love that is everlasting and not only challenges death but conquers death.  Making Love itself the final word because we have been raised with Jesus from our tombs of death.

    This letter was written to a community, not to an individual. “Since God loved US so much, we also ought to love one another… Love has been perfected among US in this… because as he is, so are WE in this world… WE love because he first loved US.  Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

    This is the perfect love that casts out fear. Why would we fear when we know for certain that we are connected to something larger than ourselves?  We are the branches, connected to God’s crazy, unrelenting love through the one who asks us to break our heart open and meet them where they are, to give what we have.

    Because why would we fear giving of ourselves as completely as possible if we truly realize, that we will receive whatever it is that we give away?

    This is not an easy task, to always remember, to always give so completely of ourselves.  We have so much in this world that tells us otherwise.  But take heart, because more than anything else, Christian community is about practicing this love – this perfect love that casts out fear.  It’s not that we will ever be perfect, but we practice.  We get messy sometimes but we continue to practice living into this perfect love.  We practice abiding in Jesus.  We practice loving one another. We practice saying “Yes.”

    And I know we miss it, but this is our Eucharistic practice – to become what we receive… Love.  So that we take Love to the world around us, the community we serve, becoming a bridge of God’s Love – connecting, inviting, sharing, and serving.