[Jesus said] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just 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. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” – John 15:1-9
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 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. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” – 1 John 4:7-21
This week and next week both of our scripture readings are from the apostle John: one reading from John’s gospel and one from John’s first letter. And – since I have the rare privilege of being with you for two weeks in a row – I’d like to do a sort of two-week mini-series.
The subject John is writing about is LOVE. This week we’ll be focusing on loving others, and next week on loving God.
Love is such a huge subject… where does one begin to talk about love? On the one hand people stretch the meaning of the word too far: I love my car, I love my job, I love my nails. On the other hand, finding real love in action can be hard to do sometimes. We all know what it is to feel love, but how do you put those feelings into words?
The first thing we need when talking about love is a working definition. I have to confess I’m no expert on the subject. I can’t even live up to my own standards where it comes to love, let alone God’s standards.
But I can say this: God is love. And the apostle John says the same thing in our reading from I John this morning. “God is love” – this statement does not mean God-equals-love in the sense that you can switch around the wording like a math problem and say love-equals-God. A lot of people make that mistake. But as Christians we don’t worship love. We strive for love, but we worship God.
God is the source of love; love is not the source of God. When scripture says “God is love” it’s describing God’s nature. It’s like saying “rain is wet”. If rain ever stopped being wet it wouldn’t be rain… if God ever stopped loving, God would not be God. I think this is what the apostle Paul means when he says in 2 Timothy 2:13, “if we are faithless, [God] remains faithful– for [God] cannot deny himself.”
But we still need a working definition of love: what is love? The best definition I’ve ever come across is Paul’s description in I Corinthians 13. It’s a familiar passage – often read at weddings – and rightly so, but it was not originally written for people who were in love. Just the opposite: Paul wrote these words to a church where the members were fighting among themselves (those of us who have been in the church for any length of time have no idea what that’s like!).
The Corinthians were fighting over the spiritual gifts: which ones were greater? Paul, trying to help bring peace to the church at Corinth, praises all the gifts (such as tongues and prophecy) but then he says “I will show you a more excellent way.”
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast [that is, as a martyr], but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-8
Does this not describe God’s love for us? Patience; kindness; unwillingness to lord over us how much greater God is than we are; God is never arrogant or boastful towards us, or rude to us. God doesn’t even insist on his will being done – God waits for us to pray ‘thy will be done’. God is never irritable or resentful; God rejoices in the truth. God bears – and has borne – all things. God’s love never ends.
As we grow in the faith, and as we grow closer to God, our aim is to become more like God in the way we love. Which in a large part is what John is getting at in both of our readings this morning.
Starting with I John, I’d like to pull out three points and then do a quick tie-in with the gospel reading.
First, from I John: the source of real love. John says, “Let us love one another…” because love is from God and those who love are born of God and know God. In some ways this seems obvious, but in other ways it’s kind of deep and mystical.
If you’ve ever seen Les Miserables, in the last line of the story, Fantine says to the hero Jean Valjean who is dying, “to love another person is to see the face of God” – I think what the apostle John is saying is the same thing Victor Hugo was trying to say. When we love with the love that God gives, we catch a glimpse of God, because love is from God.
We love one another because God loved us first. God set aside the glory of heaven and became flesh and lived on earth, ‘moved into the neighborhood’ as The Message Bible puts it, died for us so that we can live, and God sends the Holy Spirit to guide us into love.
The second thing I would point out from John’s letter is this line: “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” I am becoming more and more convinced of the truth of this with every passing day. This is why I pray in the pastoral prayer every week that God will inspire in the hearts of our people a faith that does not fear.
So much of what we hear and experience in our world today is designed to make people afraid. If you can scare people you can motivate them – whether it’s to buy more insurance, or to do something morally questionable in order to keep a job, or to villainize people who vote for that ‘other’ party, or to look the other way when someone’s being bullied.
Love cancels out fear, just like light cancels out darkness. Fear cannot exist where love is. And so God says to us: ‘put an end to fear and instead, love’.
The third thing John shows us is that the love of God in our lives cannot be separated from God’s salvation. John says, “…the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.”
The world would have us believe that it is possible for humans to love with a perfect, selfless love, without God; that we as humans can love the way people need to be loved, with all the power and self-giving the world needs to be healed of its ills, without involving a deity. That’s a misconception at best, because (as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous) we all worship something, and whatever we worship controls us. If we’re not turning our lives over to a ‘higher power’ (as AA would put it), then something else, something less honorable and less trustworthy than God, is controlling us.
That’s a hard truth to come to terms with. But Jesus makes the same point in our gospel lesson. Jesus says, “I am the true vine”. Jesus does not say “I am a true vine’ or ‘I am one of many possible vines’. I double-checked the Greek just to be sure. Jesus is saying “I am the one true vine.” In order to bear fruit for God’s kingdom we need to be tapped into, connected to, the one true living vine, which is Jesus himself.
So when Jesus talks about vines, what is he getting at? This is obviously metaphor, so what are the characteristics of vines that might apply to us?
When we think of vines, we think of plants that grow quickly and spread all over the place and cling to houses and are impossible to get rid of. There are some interesting spiritual possibilities in those characteristics. But when the writers of the Bible talk about vines they’re usually talking about grape-vines.
Where it comes to grape-vines, there are vines and there are vines. There are vines that look like grapevines but aren’t, and they don’t bear fruit. There are vines that are wild grapes, and they bear fruit, but it’s bitter – that’s where the term ‘sour grapes’ comes from.
Jesus says ‘I am the true vine.’ Real fruit from the real vine does not set your teeth on edge. It’s sweet and succulent and it makes great wine.
Grape-vines also have one very long main stem and the branches and leaves and fruit grow from that main stem. So each of us needs to stay connected to the main stem in order to bear good fruit.
Speaking of fruit, what kind of fruit is Jesus talking about? John doesn’t say specifically, but my educated guess is he’s pointing to the fruit of the Spirit… which brings us back to I Corinthians 13. At the end of his great chapter on love, Paul lists the three greatest gifts of the Spirit: faith, hope and love. In Galatians 5:22 Paul also gives us a list of the fruit of the Spirit, which includes “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Against these, he says, there is no law. And all of these things could be considered aspects of love.
Jesus says, in John’s gospel, that God helps us in our efforts to love and to bear fruit by cutting away the dead branches: anything in us that isn’t really alive any more, God breaks away and gets rid of it. And God also prunes the vine so it can bear more fruit. Pruning may seem harsh sometimes, because it cuts away living parts of the plant (as opposed to dead ones). But as any gardener knows, what appears harsh will actually make the plant more productive. I’m thinking right now of my hydrangeas, poor things. A few weeks ago I cut back last year’s stems and except for a few green leaves at the base of the plants they look like dead sticks sticking up out of the ground. I know by July they’ll be gorgeous, but right now you’d never guess it.
I think sometimes God’s work in our lives is like that. Sometimes we can feel like God has cut away too much. Sometimes the very best we can manage is to just hang on and trust God knows what God’s doing. As Jesus says, “abide in me as I abide in you… and those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit.”
The good news is that, as we are connected to the vine, fruit will happen. It is the nature of a grapevine to produce fruit. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort… you never see a grapevine trying to push fruit out!… it just happens. The connection with the vine makes the fruit possible.
The best way that we can love others is to live in God and allow God to live in us… staying connected to God the way branches are connected to a vine. Godly love is a supernatural thing; it’s a miracle. It comes from God, and flows through us, and bears fruit to feed a hungry world. The closer we are to God, the better we will love others. Pray for this: for ourselves, for each other, for our churches, and for our neighborhoods. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.
Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/3/15