04/29/18 – Staying on the Vine


April 29, 2018
5th Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40; Ps.22:25-31;
1 John 3:16-24; John 15:1-8
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


Last week we read one of Jesus’ “I am” statements from John’s gospel: “I am the Good Shepherd.” Today, we read another: “I am the vine.” This reading always comes after Easter when many of us are thinking about plant growth, whether it be the joy of planting or the frustration of having to mow grass again. Winter, we hope, is over and with the arrival of Spring, the earth is greening up with Resurrection glory.

In an agrarian society of Jesus’ time, the grapes to make wine and the wheat to make bread were critical for human life. Water was in short supply in the land that was formerly Israel before the days of the Roman Empire. Water also carried diseases, so fermented grape juice, wine, was safer, as well as more pleasurable, to drink. Bread was truly the “staff of life.” For all except the very wealthy, it was the main source of one’s caloric intake for the day. So, John’s audience would resonate with the image of God as the master gardener, or vine-grower; Jesus the vine, the people the branches, and the loving and righteous acts brought forth from our life-giving relationship with God and Christ as the fruit.

In John’s gospel, the word translated as “abide” was the word employed to describe how the branches are connected to the vine. The writer of First John, written later than the gospel but by someone from the same faith community, also uses the word, “abide.” “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.” Both writers also identify God as the source of love: “God is love.” The epistle writer of First John explains the matter succinctly” We love because he (God) first loved us.” Referring back to Jesus’ Greatest Commandment: “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself,” First John states unequivocally: “Those who say “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or a sister whom they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen.”

This is what Jesus preached; it is what he taught his followers; this is what he lived. Where did he get this revolutionary idea? He got it from reading God’s Word, his bible. What else could the Word of God Incarnate preach? He got what the worldly would call this “foolish” idea from his intimate relationship with God who was his only authority. As Jesus only preached God’s Word, so too do those who preach today have that same obligation – to preach the Word.

Jesus’ preaching threatened those who held worldly power. We heard from our readings last week that Jesus’ preaching got him in trouble with the Sadducees, a group of Jewish leaders who enjoyed the privileges they had by accommodating their religious beliefs to Roman political authority. As we have read in the book of Acts, the disciples, Peter and John also got in trouble with this group of leaders. Jesus’ preaching got him in trouble with the Pharisees, another group of temple leaders, because he healed people on the Sabbath and sat at the table of people they considered unworthy of such respect, much less God’s love. Jesus’ acts of love angered the Pharisees because they feared losing the power they had as enforcers of the Law. Following laws was so much easier than following the Spirit of the Law – the Spirit infused with God’s love.

When asked by a temple lawyer, egged on by a group of Pharisees: “What is the greatest [of the Ten] Commandments? Jesus finished his response, known as the Greatest or the Love Commandment, with the words: “on this hang all the laws and the prophets.” Jesus referred to himself as a prophet when he addressed the angry hometown temple crowd. If you recall from Luke’s gospel, Jesus first publicly announced his identity and his mission in his hometown synagogue when he preached.  On that Sabbath day, Jesus read this passage from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good
news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and
recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the
year of the Lord’s favor.”

The “year of the Lord’s favor” referred to the Jubilee, God’s proclamation that every 50 years the land should be returned to the families, which had been taken from them by the wealthy landowners to cover debts. Their debts occurred when their crop yield for the year was not enough to pay the money required by laws and contracts set by the political and financial powers. There were no government subsidies for farmers in Ancient Israel. The year of the Jubilee prevented great disparity of wealth in society and an underclass that suffered a cycle of poverty. These conditions occurred when rates of taxes and the rates of financial loans, set by those in power, favored those who held power. After reading the Bible, what we call the Word of God, how could any Jewish or Christian clergy not pray that all citizens of this country benefit from the laws set by their political representatives? Or, how could elected representatives of the people become angry over a member of the clergy including prayers for the poor? For those that claim God as their highest authority, is that not what they are compelled to do if they truly love God and are obedient to God above all other authorities? The number of elected leaders of our national legislative branch of government who do not claim to be either Christian or Jewish is minuscule. Every president in modern history has claimed to be Christian. What has happened to us when we become offended by the Word of God?

After reading from the book of Isaiah, Jesus announced that he had been sent to fulfill God’s promise, announced by the prophets, to send Israel a savior. A prophet speaks truth to power. One of the most powerful examples is from the story of the prophet Nathan challenging King David about his sin of using his power to use another man’s wife for his own pleasure and then covering up his responsibility for the resulting pregnancy. The cover-up, which we know can be worse than the crime, was accomplished by having her husband, Uriah, killed. King David did not deny his guilt by self-justification when Nathan challenged him. David did not say: ‘God punished Uriah for having an unfaithful wife.’ David did not say: ‘I didn’t know anything about Uriah being sent on a suicide mission. Some lower officer must have done that.’ David listened to the words of the prophet Nathan, confessed his guilt and repented.

Jesus spoke truth to power – power from wealth, power from the luck of birth into royalty or high social status, power from military dominance. The gospels tell us the Roman authorities, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees acted against Jesus out of fear — fear of losing their own authority. Our reading from First John today tells us: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” It was those who maintained privilege in their own spheres of power and feared any threat to that power that wanted Jesus crucified. That is the terrible Good Friday truth that continues to challenge us.

The kind of love the authors of John’s gospel and First John wrote about was “agape” love. This love, unlike other types of love, has no boundaries and no self-serving motives. “Agape” is distinguished from other types of love in that it wills good for others. Christians used this word to describe God’s love for us and our love for God. This “agape” love is the love that Jesus spoke about when he proclaimed, “the Greatest Commandment.” Last week, from our reading from First John, we heard that the love that comes from God is self-sacrificing. From this “agape” love comes justice, mercy, and compassion. God’s ultimate act of “agape” love was to send his Son to redeem the world. The Son, Jesus, gave up his life that all God’s children, his brothers, and sisters, might truly live – their salvation promised with the forgiveness of sins.

In John’s gospel, we read that God’s Holy Spirit was planted within Jesus and sustained him. As the book of Acts tells us, the Holy Spirit within Jesus the Christ made it possible for his disciples to connect with him like branches on a vine and to grow more branches. As long as the branches sought no other source of life and remained connected to the vine, they would produce the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus explained that the vine-grower, God, at times needs to prune the branches to allow for healthier and more productive growth. Some branches become unable to grow and produce fruit – they become separated from the source of Life. Every vintner knows that the grapes that grow nearest to the vine are the best for producing good wine.

Jesus spoke to his followers using the Old Testament image of the messianic banquet to explain the kingdom of God. He demonstrated God’s love and desire for all to be fed, both spiritually and physically, by accepting dinner invitations from and inviting to his own table all who would eat with him. He corrected, in no uncertain terms, those who demanded places of honor at the table or who went so far as to exclude others from sitting at the table. How can we come to the Lord’s Table in truth when we harbor the unloving convictions that our own tables be reserved for people we consider worthy, people like ourselves? The Bible tells us ‘We cannot truly love God if we do not love our brothers and sisters’ and ‘love with words not demonstrated in actions is no love at all.’

In this season of Easter, we are not to celebrate the Resurrection and pretend Good Friday never happened.  We must never stop asking ourselves the question of the Holy Week hymn, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” Ever mindful of the answer we are prompted to ask that other old hymn’s question: “What Wondrous Love is This?” Only by truthfully answering that first question can we start to understand the second. Then, we can begin to become the answer for the sake of God’s eternal glory and for the love of our neighbors.

The Word of The Lord. Amen.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois