May 02, 2021 homily on Psalm 22:25-31 John 15:1-8 by Pastor Galen Zook
Well today is the first Sunday of May, and here in the Northeast we have a saying: “April showers bring May flowers.” And what do May flowers bring?
Well, for many of us, may flowers bring seasonal allergies! This time of the year is particularly bad for my allergies. I think it’s the tree pollen.
Now I’ve found a type of medicine that works pretty well, and keeps my allergies under control. This medicine actually works so well for me that after a few days of taking it, I don’t feel any more sinus pressure, or experience sneezing, or itchy watery eyes. (Don’t worry, this sermon isn’t going to be an infomercial, there’s a point I’m going to make here!)
The problem is that the medicine works so well, that after a few days I start feeling great, and I start thinking to myself, “I guess my allergies are gone! I guess I don’t need to take this medicine anymore!” And so I stop taking it. And guess what happens? The sinus pressure, and sneezing, and itchy watery eyes returns with a vengeance!
The reason I was feeling great was because of the medicine, not despite it. And so if I want to keep feeling great, I need to keep taking the medicine.
I think this is a common experience for many people who take medication, or exercise regularly or try to eat healthy foods. We start feeling great, and so we think we don’t need to take the medicine, or to keep exercising, or watching what we eat. And so we grow lax. But when we do, we start feeling awful again.
The Vine and the Branches
In John chapter 15, Jesus was preparing his disciples for what was about to come. Jesus and the disciples were about to experience an incredibly difficult time. Jesus was going to be arrested, tried, and crucified and would remain in the grave for 3 days before being resurrected. Most of the disciples would scatter for fear that the same people who arrested and crucified Jesus would come for them as well, and the disciples would be hiding in fear that the same people who crucified Jesus would come for them as well.
But then Jesus would appear to them in his resurrected body, and Pentecost would come, and Jesus would send them the promised Holy Spirit who would be with them, and who would empower them to go into all the world to proclaim the Good News of Jesus’s death and resurrection to people of every language. They would baptize new believers in the name of Jesus, and they would make disciples of people from every nation.
But the problem was that after all of this, Jesus knew they would be tempted to think that they didn’t need him anymore! Jesus knows our human tendency towards self-sufficiency, our inclination to overestimate our own strength and power. He knew how much we like to think that we don’t need God or anyone or anything else in our lives. He knew his followers would think that we could operate on our own strengths and giftedness.
And so Jesus gave his disciples and us this image of a vine and branches. The image of a vineyard had been used throughout the Hebrew prophetic literature to describe the nation of Israel (see for example Psalm 80:8-19), with the idea that God was the one who planted and tended the vineyard. The Hebrew prophets believed that God was working through the nation of Israel to produce something beautiful – a beautiful harvest — that would be a blessing to the whole world.
Here in John 15 Jesus adds to this image, again saying that God the Father is the vine grower, but here Jesus depicts himself as the vine, or what we might think of as the trunk (if it were a tree), and he says that we — his disciples – are the branches. And, just as a branch can only bear fruit if it stays connected to the vine, in the same way, we as Christ’s followers need to stay connected to Jesus.
“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” (John 15:4-5).
We cannot operate out of our own strength. We need the power of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, coursing through us if we are to bear good fruit.
It’s a lot easier for me to remember to take my allergy medicine when I’m sneezing. And in the same way, it’s so much easier for us to remember our need to stay connected to the vine when we’re going through trials and tribulations. It’s easy to call out to God when we’re in trouble.
But the minute things start going well, we’re so often tempted to think, “I’ve got this. I’m good. God, I’ll call you if I need you!”
The story is told of a man who was running late for a very important meeting and was frantically looking for a parking spot downtown. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation like that before, but it’s situations like that that have often prompted me to pray. In this case, the gentleman cried out to God. He said, “God! If you help me find a parking spot, I promise that I will go to church faithfully every Sunday for the rest of my life! I will serve you. I will devote my life to you!”
Just then a parking spot opened up, and the gentleman looked up at the sky and said, “never mind God, I just found a parking spot all by myself.”
How often do we do the same thing? We cry out to God when we’re in despair. We say “Lord heal me, deliver me” or “Lord help me get through this trial.” But then we get through it, and we’re on the other side, and we think to ourselves “Wow, I’m good! I was able to get through that really difficult time all on my own. I’m pretty amazing!”
But the reality is that no matter what we’re going through, whether we’re going through good times or bad times, we are completely and utterly dependent on the goodness and mercy of God in our lives. And so we need to stay connected into the vine. We need to stay tapped in to that source of power, and strength and nourishment. If and when we try to go off on our own, we might be able to make it for a little while, we might be able to run for a little bit on our own steam, but eventually we’ll lose the spiritual energy, strength, and vitality. On our own, we’ll start to make poor decisions, we’ll flounder and we’ll fall. As branches we need to stay connected to the vine, or we’ll never be able to bear fruit that lasts.
Abiding in God’s Love
The good news is that even if and when we fail, and even if we fall, even if we become disconnected from the vine, Jesus is always ready and waiting to welcome us back home again. Jesus’s grace and mercy are abundant and free. And so we don’t need to live in fear that our failures will disqualify us from experiencing the fullness of life that God has for us. This is why Jesus said to his disciples, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). And so we don’t need to operate in fear, but instead we can rest in the promises of God’s love for us. We can remain, abide, in God’s love.
The word that Jesus uses here to describe what it looks like to stay connected to the vine – this word “abide” or “remain” is the same word that John uses when he describes the Holy Spirit coming down out of heaven and resting, or remaining, on Jesus when he came up out of the waters of his baptism. John the Evangelist uses this same word in 1 John chapter 4 when he says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Jesus is inviting us here to rest in him, to make our home with him. To draw our strength and energy and sustenance from him. Jesus says that if we abide in him we can bear much fruit (John 15:5), and that we can ask for whatever we wish, and it will be done for us (John 15:7). What an amazing promise!
The Other Branches
Now there’s one more reality about being a branch that I want to highlight. And that is that if we’re connected to the vine, then we are inextricably linked to the other branches. As much as I might like to think that it’s just about me and Jesus, the truth is that we are linked to each other – the other branches through the vine, and so therefore what affects the other branches affects each one of us, and what affects us affects the other branches.
In 1 John chapter 4, John the Evangelist goes on to say “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). And later in the chapter, “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” (1 John 4:20).
Abiding in Christ, staying connected to the vine, inherently involves loving our brothers and sisters in Christ and fellowshipping together with other believers. Encouraging one another, praying for and supporting one another, assisting even with the physical needs of brothers and sisters in Christ, as the opportunity arises.
And this doesn’t just mean that we’re connected to the other believers here in our own congregation. No! Being connected to Jesus means we’re also connected with those believers who worship differently than us, who think or act differently than us, and who believe differently than us. As much as we might often try to distance ourselves from those “other Christians,” the reality is that if we’re connected to the vine, and if we’re abiding in Christ, then we are also connected to those other believers, including those with whom we might vehemently disagree.
This is why when we take communion, we do so together as a church community, but also remembering that we are part of the global Church. Yes, communion can be a reminder to us of our individual need and dependence on Christ. When we partake in communion, we remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for each and every one of us by giving his life for us on the cross. This can be a meaningful and intimate experience with God.
But communion is not just about communing with God, it’s also about communing with one another. And so in our communion prayer we ask that by the power of the Holy Spirit God would make us “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”
Typically in pre-COVID times, we would invite everyone to come forward to the front of the sanctuary and to kneel along the alter, and we would all take a piece of bread from one common loaf of bread, and we would dip it into the grape juice as an experience and a reminder that communion in a communal celebration. We’ve had to make some adjustments to the way we do things during this season due to COVID, and now we use prepackaged, individual cups and wafer. But the spirit of the communion service is the same. When we receive the communion elements, we are participating together in this holy mystery. And not only with one another here in this sanctuary, but with fellow believers all around our city, all around our nation, and all around the world, and throughout time and history.
And so this morning, let us remain in the vine. Let us not try to do it on our own strength. Let us remember our need and dependence on the love and grace of God, and the communion that we have with one another. May we not just call out to God in the bad times, but in the good times as well. Let us never forget the love that Jesus has for us, and let’s extend that same love and grace and forgiveness to others as well.