Sermon for May 2, 2021

Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2021
John 15:1-8

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said:] 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2My Father removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit my Father prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

If we took the time to read again this passage from John’s Gospel, engaging it slowly, savoring it, what words would stand out and continue to echo, reverberating in our minds and hearts?

Surely one such word is ‘abide.’ Listen again to Jesus’ words reported in John: “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…. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

The word, ‘abide,’ appears 8 times in this brief passage, clearly an important word in John.

Abide. What does it mean? If we allow our minds free play, other related words appear on our mental horizons which help reveal the meanings of abide – to remain, wait, delay, dwell, remain behind, survive, expect, to suffer, stay, continue, endure, last, pause, reside, sojourn, stand firm. And more perhaps.

Abide is an Old English word. And the New Testament Greek word also has many the senses of the words I just listed.

What’s striking to me is just how countercultural it is to abide. Abiding involves slowing down, staying in one place for a while.

Our fast-paced, multi-tasking contemporary world and its routines seem to demand the exact opposite of abiding.

We are today beckoned to live like humming birds in almost constant motion, flitting from one thing to the next.

Scholars and pundits and we in our common experience are beginning to become increasingly aware of the toll our multi-tasking busyness is taking on our mental and physical well-being.

Certainly, one of the silver linings of the pandemic, at least for the privileged, has been the gift of slowing down the pace and extent of our involvements. Many are beginning to realize that they don’t necessarily want to go back to their old frenetic ways.

As a popular antidote to too much fast-paced busyness, mindfulness has become all the rage as a form of largely secular meditation. I don’t want to denigrate this, as I think it has significant merits.

But what may be missing in more secular approaches to abiding in mindfulness is the whole question of with what and with whom are we abiding, dwelling.

To abide suggests that we remain somewhere, in a particular place, and quite significantly with another or others. With whom do we abide? And where?

For Christians, clearly our abiding is with Christ and the place of abiding is Christian assembly in community.

That’s certainly what the Gospel writer John has in mind in recounting the sayings of Jesus that appear in today’s gospel reading. The place is the vineyard where we abide with Christ as the vine and with each other as the branches attached to the vine of Christ.

Abiding with God in Christ is also the focus of the author of 1 John in the passage which is today’s second reading. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John4:16b)

A stanza from the hymn writer, John Whittier, gives a good, palpable sense of what it is to abide in God in Christ: “Oh, Sabbath rest by Galilee, Oh, calm of hills above; where Jesus knelt to share with thee the silence of eternity, interpreted by love!” (Stanza 3, LBW 506)

But Jesus is not with us in Galilee with its beautiful hills. Jesus is not present to kneel with disciples the way he did long ago in a distant land.

Thus, what is it now to abide with Jesus Christ? How do we seek such abiding?

Lutheran Christians gravitate toward the objective, externally available means of abiding with Christ, namely God’s word read, proclaimed, studied, the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, the announcement of forgiveness by those ordained so to do, and also the mutual conversation and consolation among those in the family of God.

Baptism serves to graft us as branches onto Christ the vine, where we live and grow in baptismal living according to the features of the baptismal covenant, “to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth,” (Affirmation of Baptism, ELW, p. 236). Baptism and the baptismal covenant is one such means through which Christ abides in us and we in Christ.

Holy Communion is another source of such abiding. We are fed and nourished, vine to branch, in the holy food of the Eucharist, a focal point in our life together of abiding with Christ which we pray we’ll return to soon.

We abide with Christ, the Word, as we dwell with the hearing and proclamation and study of the scriptural word.

We abide with Christ with each other in our holy conversations in Christian community, hearing words of forgiveness and mercy from pastors and from each other.

We encounter Christ and abide with Christ through all of these means.

The challenge and opportunity in our busy, complicated lives is to slow down to really be engaged by the means through which Christ is made known to us, the one who abides with us, to grow in deepening awareness of the life-giving presence of Christ available in our faith practices in community.

Whenever I go on monastic retreat, I am consistently struck by the distinctive ways monastic communities conduct the same liturgies which are celebrated in our congregations. The monastic pace is slower, more deliberate with many occasions for silence interspersed in worship.

A slower pace, more periods of silence – these are means through which to deepen our awareness of what is already going on in our life together with Christ, as Christ intimately relates to us individually and communally as vine to branches.

Thus, the opportunity for me and for us is to slow down, breathe, be still, listen, stand firm in close connection to the full range of the means of grace that God in Christ makes available to us in the power of the Spirit.

Abiding with Christ and Christ abiding with us also is a quality of our interactions with each other and not just with the other holy things. Here I turn to the story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian official on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza recorded in today’s first reading from Acts.

The Holy Spirit directed Philip to muster the courage and take the time literally to sit in the chariot with the Ethiopian official to help in the understanding of the scripture the Ethiopian was reading. Philip did this much in the same manner to how Jesus opened up the scriptures to his followers on the Road to Emmaus at the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel.

The encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian led to baptism right then and there. But the Ethiopian official was catechized by Philip in a relational, personal, conversational engagement with God’s word.

So it is that we can and do in our busy world abide with Christ in Christian community. Our conversational interactions with each other, along with the other means of grace, are thus integral dimensions to and expressions of Christ abiding with us.

And through these multifaceted ways of Christ abiding with us, we bear fruit.

We cannot rush the ripening of fruit. Such ripening unfolds organically, slowly, first the vine, then the branches, then the fruit over time without a lot of apparent activity. But in the places unseen by the naked eye, a lot is going on organically until at the time of harvest, the fruit appears and is ready to be offered to the world.

So also in the church, in our life together, fruit bearing takes time.

And what is the fruit that we bear by abiding in Christ? In short, it is God’s love revealed in our love for our neighbors, whoever they may be.

Listen again to the words from 1 John, today’s second reading: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God… 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…. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (cf. 1 John 4:7-16)

So it is that we can attempt to love others. As John records Jesus as having said, “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.” (John 15:4)

May the Holy Spirit inspire us to slow down to grow in our life-giving, faith renewing and faith strengthening awareness of Christ who abides in us and among us as we are gathered in community around the means of grace as branches to the vine.

And all of this for the sake of bearing the fruit of God’s love for the sake of the world. Amen.

And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:

  • Recall occasions when you have been keenly aware of Christ’s abiding presence in connection with our usual Christian faith practices in community.
  • In what ways might you modify your routines and pace of life to enhance the quality of time in worship, devotion, study, and prayer?