holy cross sermon for the fifth sunday of easter, may 3, 2015

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Listen again to the Gospel

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15.1-8)

 Jesus is the true vine. We have been grafted onto him, like branches, by baptism. It should be obvious, but it bears emphasizing that Jesus is talking about Christians when he says, “my disciples.” “I am the vine, you are the branches,” he says. And the purpose of a cultivated branch is to bear fruit. A branch that bears no fruit merely uses up resources that might otherwise be allotted to productive, fruit-bearing branches. Which is why such unproductive branches are “taken away” by the vine dresser, who is God the Father, and who gathers the unproductive branches together into a heap, and burns them.

Jesus is here alluding to the fate of Christians who do not act like Christians, and it’s not a pleasant image. How does one avoid it? Jesus tells us: “Abide in me, and I in you…. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” I want to talk a little about this “abiding.”

There is an intimate depiction of this abiding in the Gospels, a few chapters before today’s Gospel reading, in chapter 13. Today’s reading comes from the 15th chapter of John, but both of these chapters are about events that happened on the same evening – the evening of the Last Supper. The 13th chapter of John says that one of Jesus’ disciples, the disciple whom he loved, “was lying close to the breast of Jesus,” at the Last Supper. (Ancient Middle Eastern people didn’t sit in chairs, but reclined on cushions on the floor to eat.)

Its this disciple, whom Jesus loved, whom Biblical scholars refer to as “the beloved disciple,” and who is traditionally identified as John himself – the author of the Gospel and the New Testament epistles that bear his name – this is who was reclining close to the breast of Jesus at the last supper. This is the point: this beloved disciple, lying close to the breast of Jesus, is a beautiful still-frame of the kind of intimacy with Jesus that he himself exhorts his disciples to: “Abide in me, and I in you,” and so bear fruit, and so glorify the Father, and so prove to be an authentic disciple.

John is called “the beloved disciple” for good reason. His writings positively drip with the theme of love. Look again at today’s epistle reading. Variants of the word “love” appear 27 times in fourteen verses!

 “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world.” (1 John 4.14ff)

 Notice that John says that it is the confession of God’s love in sending his Son into the world to save the world – it is THIS that constitutes the “abiding” that leads to the bearing of fruit, that leads to salvation. “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.”

People today don’t understand what love really is – and the ramifications of this misunderstanding are being manifested up and down our society. GOSPEL love, the kind of love that Jesus enjoins on us, has little to do with emotions, and it is certainly not a flaccid agreement not to bother anyone. The motto of this kind of love is NOT “live and let live.” God did not send his Son to die for us on the cross because of a kind of a warm and fuzzy disposition or a vaguely benevolent indifference.

God’s love is rather intimately concerned with our affairs – both as individuals and as communities. And it is on account of THIS love, this intimate concern, that Blaise Pascal said “Christ is in agony until the end of time.” And Blaise Pascal wasn’t the first to say that. St. Leo the Great said it in the 5th century (cf. Sermon 70). Christ is in agony until the end of time because he LOVES us until the end of time. Remember what Soren Kierkegaard said: the perfect Lover is the INJURED ONE – the most injured of all.

And what does John say in today’s Epistle? “…as he is, so are we in this world.” St. Paul painted a vivid picture of Gospel love, intimately concerned, agonized love, in 1 Corinthians. He said,

 “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.” (1 Cor. 4.11ff)

 A hundred or so years ago, the Lord appeared to a young woman named Gemma Galgani. He said to her: “‘Look, My child, and learn how to love.’ He then showed her His five open Wounds. [Then he said] ‘Look at this Cross, these thorns, these nails, these livid marks and lacerations. These wounds are all works of Love; of Infinite Love. See to what extent I have loved you.’”

I think we all saw something akin to this kind of love, this agonized, intimately concerned love, this past week in the remarkable video of a mother, Toya Graham, whipping her son, whom she recognized among the rioters on the streets of Baltimore. She later said in an interview that she didn’t want her son to become another Freddie Gray. I wept when I saw the video on social media. Agonized mothers often move me. Which drives to the heart of the reason I love Mary so much. Just think for a moment about Mary at the foot of the cross: a mother’s agonized love. Unimaginable love. Unimaginable agony. The kind of abiding-with-Jesus that costs much, but bears much fruit.

What’s the point of all this? Two things: 1) if you don’t want to be among the fruitless branches that the Vinedresser gathers and burns, you had better abide in Jesus. And you can’t do that without prayer. I mean the kind of prayer that dwells on Jesus, on his words and actions in the Gospels – that dwells, ultimately, on his PERSON. Some saints (Pope Benedict) have called this SEEKING HIS FACE. You have to seek the face of Jesus in prayer. And 2) you have to be ready and willing to suffer – because as he is, so are we in this world, and he is in agony until the end of time, on account of his intimate concern for you and me. You can’t love anyone authentically if you are indifferent. You have to cultivate an intimate concern first for Jesus – and the things of Jesus – his priorities and commandments, and his WILL – and also an intimate concern for the things and the people for which and for whom he is intimately concerned.

And for whom is God intimately concerned? John 3.16: “For God so loved THE WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son…”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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