In this week’s reading, John uses the image of a vine and its branches as a challenge to his community and to us as well. It’s a challenge to examine our relationship with God. We’re invited by this text to “remain” in God and in turn God will remain in us. Now, back in Jesus’ day, people would have been familiar with this vine metaphor because it appears in the Hebrew Scriptures several times to describe Israel. Now, this image might be a little more foreign to most of us because we’ve never tended a vineyard. But even though you’re not vinedresser, chances are you’ve seen a grapevine with its many intertwined branches. You’ve probably noticed how the winding branches make their way around one another in intricate patterns. Patterns that make it almost impossible to tell where one branch starts and another one ends. But as a symbol for Israel, we’re intended to see that these patterns are more than just intricate; their intimate. The vine shares with its branches the nutrients that sustain it, the life force of the whole plant. The vine is one with the branches.[i]
Another example of this same kind of interconnectedness are the giant sequoia trees of California. They can measure hundreds of feet in height and up to ten feet around the trunk. These amazing trees can live for thousands of years, and yet, sequoias have very shallow root systems. So, how do they keep from falling over when the first strong wind blows? Well, they intertwine their roots with all the others sequoia trees in the stand, thus drawing their strength from their interconnectedness with each other.[ii]
Now, contextually speaking, this interconnectedness between the vine and branches works in much the same way. John uses this illustration to symbolize the interdependence of community. Community is key to understanding John’s Gospel and the mission and ministry of Jesus. But one of the problems we have in the Christianity today, one of the places where I feel like we’ve “jumped the tracks” in our theology, comes when we devalue community and reduce Jesus to nothing more than a “personal relationship.” This “remaining” that we read about today, however, wasn’t originally written in the form of an I/thou relationship. John was clearly talking about the whole community “remaining” in Christ.
Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying that an individual relationship with God is a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it’s vital. As people of faith, we should always be seeking a closer relationship with the Divine. We must create a time and space to be in God’s presence every day. And we can all do this through prayer, devotional reading, and personal reflection.
But, problems arise when our personal relationship with Jesus overshadows our calling to participate in community or when our personal view of Jesus clouds the movement of our church toward peace and justice and service. Why do I say this? Well, right here in this passage, Jesus says, “a branch can’t produce fruit by itself. [But] if you remain in me,” ‘abide’ is the word used in older versions of the Bible, “but if you remain in me and I in you, you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.” And here’s the clincher. John ends this passage by saying that God is glorified when we produce an abundance of fruit and “this is the way,” he says, “that you prove you are my disciples.”
Disciples. Plural. Sometimes there are linguistic challenges when we translate words from Greek to English. But not in this instance and for a good reason. The word used here is plural because this remaining, this abiding, is a communal process. It’s not just one disciple being challenged to “walk in the garden alone” with Jesus, but the whole community together. A faith community then, is defined by how is “remains” in Christ and that “remaining” is proven by the fruit it produces.
So, here’s the obvious question: What does this fruit look like? Well, for John producing fruit is summed up in a single word, love. We often hear the word love in John’s writings. For John, love is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, love is the measure of faithfulness, and love is a state of being that compels us to serve others. As a matter of fact, I would contend that love is the central verb in today’s passage and our shared faith journey.[iii]
Here’s and illustration of what I mean. I first met Linda about three years ago and in that relativity short amount of time, I came to view her as an inspiration. She was the type of person who, when you went to visit with her, would enrich your soul and renew your spirit. Every time we talked, she reaffirmed her belief that God was present in her life. Even as she came to terms with her own impending mortality, Linda knew that God was walking right there beside her, because she was walking beside God. And an important part of that walk, maybe the most important part of her walk with God, was sharing love with others. You see, Linda shared with me that her faith wasn’t something she hid away, but rather it was to be lived out every day with and though her faith community. Her faith was demonstrated through loving acts of kindness.
Now, I’m starting to see some smiles around the room because some of you have figured out that I’m talking about Linda Hoover. Now, for all the times I went to Linda’s home, I couldn’t tell you the color of her refrigerator. I don’t know because the it was literally covered with pictures of family and friends, inspirational sayings, and pieces of Scripture. And when her refrigerator door would become too full to add any more, she would frame everything and hang that framed collage on the wall in the kitchen creating room for more stuff on the refrigerator door.
Now, I mention Linda’s refrigerator door today because of a phrase displayed on it that jumped out at me: in big, bold letters it read, “Love is a verb!” Love is the underpinning of our action as people of faith, love is foundation of the church and of her mission and ministry. And love, love in action, is what sustains us as we journey through this life and into the next. If I learned nothing else from my relationship with Linda, it’s to remember that love is a verb; a verb that needs to be lived out in community by serving our neighbor. And in a similar way, this is the type of community that John was speaking about in this text. He understood that love was the motivation, the foundation, of the community that Jesus sought to create.
Now, in our context, this foundation of love is what defines us as a church; it’s the difference between a church and a social organization. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with clubs that do good-works. I used to be a Rotarian. Rotary International does some great things to assist and advance humanity. But the underpinning of Rotary finally isn’t spiritual, instead, it comes from a place of wanting to connect with a diversity of people from across the globe.
The Church, however, finds her foundation in our unique relationship with the Sacred. And it’s this longing for the Divine that fuels our desire to connect with a diversity of people from outside our inner-circle, sharing our faith through our actions and good works. Do you see the difference here? Social organizations start with a desire to help and through helping better themselves and their community. A faith community starts from a sacred center and from that connection with a higher power, propagate the desire to help others and better our community.
Contemporary author and theologian, Richard Rohr, affirms this notion when he says that “…true religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good.” In other words, there’s something almost indescribable going on deep within our being when we participate in acts of service. Something beyond making ourselves feel good or carrying out a commandment. And I think, that “something” is the intrinsic interconnectedness between God and the faith community and between the Church and those beyond our four walls. An interconnectedness that’s fueled by love.
You see, when we remain in Christ, we when we abide in and share the love of God we become a part of something larger than our selves. We are called as followers of Christ to be a part of a larger community. A community that’s bigger than individual religions or nations. A community that’s joined together by a shared love and a challenge to bear the fruit of that love in the world today.[iv]
One final thought this morning. Gandhi once said, “Where there is love there is life.” My friends, as we continue this journey of faith today, tomorrow and beyond; as we continue to remain in God and as God remains in us, might this be our mantra. “Where there is love there is life.” May it be so. Amen.
[i] Katheryn Matthews. Love Abides. (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018
[iii] Fred Craddock. Preaching through the Christian Year B (www.ucc.org/samuel) 201
[iv] Ibid. Stephens.