Jesus said, “I am the vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…” Again, Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers…”
In our present moment, these words lend themselves to a divisive reading. It is tempting to use this, and similar passages in John, to make a distinction between “true disciples” or “believers” – the branches that remain grafted into the vine and produce fruit – and “false disciples” or “unbelievers” – the branches that refuse to remain in the vine. But this line of interpretation misses the point and only works to expose the reality of division and antagonism that permeates our culture. This passage is not about who’s in and who’s out. Jesus is not threatening his disciples with punishment. Rather, he is naming the reality that the disciples’ capacity to bear fruit in their common life is contingent on the nutrients the branches receive from the vine. The portrait that John paints with Jesus’ words here is one that equates “bearing fruit” with “life.” Throughout his gospel, John names this reality over and over again – what Jesus offers us is not a program, it is not an ideology, it is not a doctrinal outline – rather, it is life, true life, abundant life, abiding life.
We must remember about our current gospel passage that Jesus is sitting with his closest disciples at an intimate dinner. He has been trying to get them to understand what faces him and them; he has been trying to prepare them for what he knows is coming. These words that Jesus speaks to his disciples at this time and in this place are not threats of punishment, nor are they intended to identify and then sort the “saved” and the “unsaved.” Jesus knows that the events which are about to unfold will shake the disciples’ faith and will ultimately cause them to desert him. In the words that he speaks to his disciples, Jesus offers them an anchor, encouraging them to hold fast even in the face of the confusion, disappointment, and fear that will grip them in the coming hours. But Jesus’ words also bear on more than just the immediate future; they point beyond the imminent circumstances of his betrayal to a time when the disciples will be commissioned to carry on the work of reconciliation that Jesus began. All that Jesus taught in ministry pointed to the reality he would enact when after his resurrection he would extend once again the hand of fellowship to those who were about to desert and betray him, and it is this ministry of reconciliation first extended to the disciples that they then are commissioned to take up, to carry on, to bear witness to – The Good News of Jesus Christ is that nothing can separate us from the love of the God who created and sustains all things.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says. Just as the branches of a vine cannot bear fruit unless they are attached to the vine, the source of nutrients, so the disciples will not be able to carry on the ministry of Christ apart from remaining in relationship with him. And the expectation that is set with this image is that the branches, the disciples, receive life and nutrients and sustenance from the vine for the very purpose of bearing fruit. The analogy of “bearing fruit” is used in a variety of ways and contexts in Scripture and has been picked up by mystics and spiritualists to describe the growth and development of virtuous qualities in the Christian’s life. We often equate the notion of “bearing fruit” with one of Paul’s lists of the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But this is not the connection that John wishes us to see. For John, bearing fruit refers to the generative nature of the gospel, the spread of liberation from sin and death as we respond to the ever-deepening invitation of God to embody the Good News of Jesus Christ. When Jesus exhorts his disciples to abide in him, he is not admonishing them to adhere to a programmatic to-do list. Rather, he is telling them, and us, that the life-source in which we must abide, remain, reside in, is tangibly defined by the love with which Jesus loves us.
God’s love is not sentimentality; it is not motivated by familial likeness or affinity. God’s love is the very fabric of God’s being, manifested in God’s free choice to not be God apart from us. It is characterized by sacrifice, by forgiveness, by fecundity. It is the very source of life for all that exists and if we are to accept God’s invitation to participate in divine nature then we must abide in that love, allow it to permeate our very being so that we might in turn become conduits of that love in the world. The writer of 1 John compels us to recognize the God who is Love as both the source and the aim for all the kinds of love we experience. Our capacity to love in any way is the clue to the reality that we can love only because we are ourselves beloved of God, and it is this realization that breaks all barriers to love that are founded in fear. If the God who is love, who created all things, who sustains all things, who is refashioning all things according to the pattern of divine love, if this God loves me, then there is nothing to fear in sharing the same kind of love with those around me. But it is so much more than that! Because this love that John speaks about is not the same as affinity, it is not grounded in attraction or sameness or likeness; it is generative and requires more than just “me,” more than just an aggregate of “me’s.” It’s scope is cosmic and empathic rather than individualistic and narcissistic. God’s love is expansive, drawing all things into itself so that all things might reproduce according to the pattern of the love that sustains it.
“Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God.” Scholars have debated what the writer of this epistle meant by these words. Who, exactly, makes up the “one another?” Some commentators think this command is inclusive only of those who profess to be believers in Christ. They see here a link back to the new command Jesus gives his disciples just a few chapters earlier in our gospel today and they see there too a command that is limited to those who are counted among the people of God. Again, we return to a theme with which we opened, the divisive nature of determining who’s in and who’s out, of who qualifies for and deserves the love that we are commanded to share. Left in the isolated contexts of the individual lections for this Sunday, I might find myself agreeing, even if only a little, that perhaps there is some truth in our tendency to want to discern some who are worthy and others who are unworthy of our love.
But the genius of the lectionary (though it is not always so obvious) is that it operates under the assumption that both the immediate contexts of the passages themselves and the variety of the lections themselves on a given Sunday are taken into consideration during the process of interpretation. In other words, the entirety of our lectionary readings ought to offer insight into the nature, character, and content of the gospel message being proclaimed in this and all gathered communities on this particular day. And on this Sunday, it is the Acts passage that challenges us to recognize that the generative nature of the gospel, the love that produces and reproduces according to its divine pattern, cannot be hoarded and contained in a community that protects and polices its boundaries of inclusion. Abiding in Christ, abiding in Christ’s love, will inevitably lead to continually re-defining the boundaries of inclusion in an ever more expansive direction.
We should recall that just before our story in Acts, the young church experienced persecution from religious and political authorities. Stephen, the first recorded martyr of the faith, had just been
stoned to death for bearing witness to the gospel. A pharisee by the name of Saul took it upon himself to organize a large-scale inquisition to root out followers of the Way. As a result of this persecution, Christians fled Jerusalem and scattered into the outer regions of Judea and Samaria. Philip, one of the seven chosen as deacons by the apostles, preached the gospel as he went along into Samaria. People responded eagerly to his message and were baptized. Philip’s evangelistic ministry marks a shift in the narrative of Acts when the gospel begins to spread across ethnic, geographic, and national boundaries. The Good News of salvation could not be fully possessed and controlled by one group to the exclusion of others. No, in Christ there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can separate us from the God who is love. The Ethiopian eunuch was clearly connected in some way to the religion of Israel. He was reading a scroll of Isaiah, he had just been to Jerusalem to worship there. And yet, the religion through which he found the one true God was not fully accessible to him. He could never become a full participant in worshiping this God. Whether he was born a eunuch or he was castrated as part of his grooming to serve in the Queen’s court, his status as a eunuch prevented him from becoming a full convert to Judaism. As he reads the passage of Isaiah, he sees himself represented in the image of a sheep humiliated and denied justice as it is led to its slaughter. He wonders whether this image means that the God he is barred from fully belonging to might yet have mercy and extend communion to those cut off by the cultic and ritual practice of God’s people. Is it possible for him to hope for something different than what is? Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch where he is at – both figuratively and literally. He takes his evangelistic queue from the very question that the Eunuch asks in desperation and from there, he proclaims that the love God offers in Jesus Christ has no boundaries and the fullness of reconciliation is open to all who will believe.
This story in Acts challenges us to not grow stagnant in our love. Bearing fruit as disciples occurs every time we love beyond the world’s categories of worth and value, every time we step out of the familiar and the comfortable and engage in mutual relationship with those who are unlike are us, every time that we demolish that line that determines “who’s in and who’s out.” The deeper that we abide in the love of God, the more nourishment we pull from the source of our existence, the more we find that the question most needed to be asked is not “who’s in and who’s out,” but “what is to prevent us from…” (fill in the blank).
And I wonder if this is the message we need to hear today, as this particular community of St Paul’s, as we journey through this interim time, as we begin to reflect and discern who we are and who we believe God is calling us to be in the next chapter of our life together. What branches within our common life together need to be pruned to make room for new life? What are the boundaries we have set for ourselves in our actions of love? What fears are keeping us from crossing those boundaries? My prayer for us, dear people of St Paul’s, is that we would be so attuned to the God who is love, that we would cut away all barriers that limit the expansive nature of that divine love, so that we might experience the blossoming of new fruit, the growth of our community, and deepening of our faith as we live it out in love.
May God give us the desire to bear the fruit of the gospel and empower us to do the s