A Homily for Quinquagesima
February 23, 2020
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: John 15:1-17
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
It’s late at night now and twelve men walk through the normally crowded streets of Jerusalem. They whisper together, and suddenly the teacher speaks “I am the true vine,” he says and their mumbling is hushed. Somehow they know that the night air is pregnant with suspense, this trip to Jerusalem had been weird, or at least weirder than some of their others. Their teacher had come into the city with songs of praise from the people, but he had spared no time in criticizing the elite, he had spared no time in upsetting those who lived as hypocrites or abused their of power.
Then tonight, one of their numbers had run out of their Passover feast, and John was saying that their leader had said this one would betray him. They may have wondered why they weren’t hiding, they may have wondered what that even meant. Some thought, maybe Judas had stolen money from their small treasury.
But none the less, now they walked to the garden where the teacher liked to go to pray, spending late night hours there talking to the Father, talking to God.
Little did they know in less than 24 hours He would be hung upon a cross, naked and full of shame, little did they know in just moments a crowd of religious leaders would meet them in that peaceful garden and arrest him. Little did they know that he would be lead away like a sheep to the slaughter, and they would scatter. Little did they know that their hearts would faint, while their world was turned upside down.
They thought they were strong, they thought they were ready for everything, and looking back, surely they saw then, what they couldn’t have seen in that moment. He had warned us, he had prepared us for what was coming, how could our hearts have been so hard? They must have pondered.
We need this backdrop to understand the staggering thing that is happening in our gospel lesson this morning – we find ourselves dab-smack in the middle of what is commonly called the Upper Room discourse, but I think that’s a misnomer. In Chapters 13 and 14, we get a description of the Last Supper, or the first, which we recall on Maundy Thursday, and then Jesus starts to teach.
Then at the end of chapter 14 Jesus says “Rise, let us go from here.”
And we see a transition, it seems Jesus and his disciples then leave and make their way to the garden where he is betrayed in chapter 18. Ultimately, whether they are walking through the city streets of Jerusalem with purpose, or still in the upper room, talking, does not matter as much as understanding, that in less than 24 hours Jesus will be dead, and the disciples would be scared and scattered.
And he proclaims “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
This past week a politician was found out to have made a strange remark about farming. He claimed “I could teach anybody… to be a farmer. It’s a process: you dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, and up comes corn.” You may have heard about this and know what I’m talking about. It was simplistic and rather condescending and untrue statement, as anyone who has tried to keep even houseplants alive knows. It takes effort and intentionality.
Last week we talked about the simple act of sowing seeds – and if we live our lives with congruency to the gospel of Jesus Christ which we claim to believe, we will naturally go about our lives sowing seeds – sowing seeds with friends, sowing seeds with neighbors, and co-workers and family members but even that takes work, even that is not so simple. But we must also remember that it is God who is doing the work of tilling the soil, assuring there is someone to water, someone to clear, someone to prune and tend to.
To farm, to care for plants is not so simple as this politician made it out to be and to grow in Christ – in one sense is tremendously simple, and in another – a challenge.
This week, when we read this chapter we start to get a picture of what it means to be tended to, to be a part of Christ’s family. Here we start to get the picture of the need for community within the church, to abide in Christ is not merely to be me and my Bible, which of course is important, but we need each other. We need each other to be Christ to one another, we need to abide in the vine.
The season of Lent which we are about to embark upon, is a season of self-reflection, a season of letting God reveal to us where our hearts have failed and faltered, and it would be tempting to not walk with others through that time in introspection. Yet, Christ remind us – that we are bound together – not by our hobbies or our interests, not by our demographics or educational levels – no we are bound together by Him. For he is the vine in which we abide, and in that vine we find life, we produce fruit.
And what of those branches that he cares for – he tends to them so that they are healthy. The first clause can be read in two ways “every branch in me that does not bear fruit” can either be “he takes away” or “he lifts up.” It is a bit ambiguous, but both are possible. In vineyards, it is not uncommon to lift up the vines so that they are healthier, but it is equally common to discard of the unhealthy branches. So regardless, there is a care for the health of the vine, and God does the work of pruning us so that we would be spiritually healthy.
Do all of you who were here last year remember when someone pruned the rosebushes out back?
I lived at the church I served at before I came here and it had a beautiful garden that was tended to by a master gardener. I loved to watch him work. He tended with care, and love for each plant, he made beauty in the form of the gardens, so that others would be able to enjoy it, and delight in that which he so tenderly cared for.
Had I not seen him cut back the roses bushes when I lived there, I would have panicked when these bushes were cut back, but I knew that roses like to be aggressively cut back, so that they will flourish in the season to come, and sure enough this past summer, our roses were big and beautiful yet again.
It is the same with our hearts – they need nearly constant pruning in order to continue to bear fruit. I’ve had this conversation with several friends – where we seem to find ourselves free from one overt sin, finally plucked away only to find deeper a more dreadful sickness in our hearts. We cut back the bramble and wash away the mire, to discover that which needs to be carefully tended to. We may no longer get visibly angry with someone – but we find our hearts rife with jealousy.
It is no surprise that as we draw closer to Christ that the nature of our heart is slowly revealed – that at each step we find there is more dross to be burned away, more dead branches to be pruned off, more brokenness to be healed. This is a part of the process of Lent, this is a part of why Lent is so hard, because we intentionally ask God to reveal to us how we need to grow.
To be pruned is a hard but good thing. To allow God to explore our heart and be receptive to that which he reveals may bring momentary pain – but it brings us into health.
This is ultimately what our Lenten disciplines are about – not about self-righteous proving that we can do some mighty spiritual act – not about proving ourselves to God – but about being brought low, so that God may rise us up, about allowing God to prune our hearts so that we may bear more fruit, that we may be remade all the more in His image.
Then Christ declares that his disciples have already been made clean because of the words spoken to them.
My friends – in this passage we find that tension between the reality that we are made clean when we meet Christ and are brought into his family, and the reality that we still sin, we still find the mire of sin all over us.
When we come to Christ we are made clean, made new – and then we are called to remain in Him, to abide in Him and in His Holy Word. That that word may do a transforming work in our heart. We like to complicate things – but these are the simplest instructions – abide in Christ through knowing His word, by being in fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, by breaking His bread and drinking from His cup at His table.
To abide in Him means that we will bear fruit – what is this fruit? It is the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These fruits – if truly born, make all the difference, make all the difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us, they bring glory to God, and let his light shine before others.
I was talking with someone about one of my favorite verses – Matthew 5:16 – “let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” The person I was talking to pointed out – that perhaps good should really be read “beautiful works.” Our good works, or beautiful works are those works that come from us abiding in the vine, and in abiding in the Holy Spirit. They are the works that come from being in Christ, they are the works that are endued with the spiritual fruit of knowing God.
But now, comes a hard warning – “if anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
First – we are called to abide in Christ – if we are not abiding in Him we will dry up, our hearts will become hard. As I read this, this past week, I couldn’t help but think of the branches you find while out in the woods, they’ve sat on the forest floor for a week, or a month, or a year. If you pick it up they snap without so much as an effort.
I know in times I’ve wandered from God – at times, when I grew discouraged, or sin seemed more tantalizing than walking with Christ – that I was fine at first. At first, I was happy and nothing really changed, but a week or a month went by and soon my heart felt dry, soon, it the fruit of the spirit started to dry up and die. Soon, I was brittle and dry, ripe for the fire.
If we do not abide in Christ – if we do not attend to being in the word daily, if we do not give up our lives in prayer, if we do not join in fellowship with the rest of the vine, soon our hearts will be hard, soon we will bear no fruit but jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, licentiousness, and things like these. Christ brings life in a dying world and outside of him is pain and angst.
But friends – there is a second warning here – as we gather together – we are not playing around, this is not a social club, but we are called to something incredibly holy, we are called to a mighty thing – in worship we are called into the presence of the glory of God and in fellowship we are called to share in His love for one another.
An author once said when we gather together to worship God, we shouldn’t hand out bulletins and hymnals but crash helmets and life preservers. As a body we enter into the presence of the Holy, as a body, we enter into a Holy task and this should give us pause, this should humble us. So, let us renew our desire to abide in Him for Christ is our only security, Christ is our only hope in this world.
My friends – let us abide in Christ day in and day out, renewing our commitment to grow in Him, let us submit ourselves to His tender care.
But now we need to clarify verse 7 – “if you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” This is one of those verses that are so often abused by those in the health and wealth movement, but here’s the kicker. If we are abiding in Christ, the more spiritually healthy we get, the closer we come to the heart of Christ, the more our prayer shifts from “I want this, I want that,” to “not my will, but your will be done O Lord.” The more intimately we come to know Christ, the more we delight in His will being done in our hearts.
So, if we abide in Christ, what we will want more than anything is that the Father’s will would be done with our lives, the more we abide in Christ, the more the Lord’s prayer becomes our prayer, and the more we delight in knowing that the Father’s will would be done.
And now we come to this beautiful passage “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love just as I have kept my Father’s commandment and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
Remember the point I made at the beginning of this sermon? That Christ is knowingly walking to his crucifixion? That soon the disciples’ world would be turned upside down?
We can easily reduce these three verses to empty sentimentality but Chris is preparing his disciples, his students, his friends for the horrible thing that is about to happen.
I want to suggest that we should not read “abide” here, for I’m not sure we really grasp what that means – but rather we should read it “remain in my love.” Christ is saying to them “you are about to see something awful, you are about to experience the darkest day in human history – you are about to watch me die
– remain in my love –
I promise you my friends! It is going to seem dark, it is going to seem terrible – but remain… remain… remain.
For – I am going to remain in the love of the Father.
The crucifixion is an act of love. I mentioned this a long time ago – but atheists often criticize the crucifixion and say “If Jesus really was God – then he could of ripped himself off of the cross.” To which we rightly respond “yes, of course he could have, but because he is God, His love for us kept him upon the cross.” The cross is an act of love – and Christ makes that perfectly clear.
And what is more amazing – Christ knows he is about to take the cup of the wrath of the father, he is about to drink the dregs of it, he is about to take every last ounce of what we so rightly deserve, and he is going to drink every drop for us, but even in this he does not doubt the love of the Father.
The crucifixion is an act of God’s love for humanity and there we see our invitation into the loving community of the Trinity, in Christ’s loving submission to the Father, we are called to abide in the love of Christ, we are called to remain in that love, we are assured – no matter where the path brings us – Christ remains with us. Just as Christ has experienced the worst – he can guide us through the worst we might experience and just as Christ has experienced the most intimate love – he is bringing us into that love – that our joy may be complete.
In a world that hurts, in a broken world, in a world where backbiting, nitpicking, and cruelty persists so clearly – Christ’s love brings us into complete joy – heals our broken hearts – and says “rejoice, again I say rejoice always.” For God’s love has redeemed our brokenness and in that our joy is complete.
And then – he flat out tells his disciples what is about to happen – he is about the give up His life for them, he is about to give up His life for us, that we might have true life and true joy.
Next, Christ says something amazing – “no longer do I call you servants,” or slaves, “but I have called you friends.”
Think for a moment about those sins that have dogged you for too long. (pause)
Think, if you can remember it, about the time before you came to Christ or a time you wandered from His love and how you lived. (pause)
Think for a moment about the effects of sin in your heart, and where you would be without Christ. (pause)
In sin, we are slaves – in sin we are like a leaf on the wind, blown about not by our own will but by the will of the flesh, chasing the next high – whether it be a literal high, whether it be fulfilling our desires of lust, whether it be chasing after power, whether it be gluttony, whether it be lust – do not be deceived – to be in sin – is to be a slave to your flesh and your passions.
And we are freed from that slavery – we are freed to become servants of the father – but Christ says something here – something incredibly beautiful – we are no longer called servants or slaves, we are no longer slaves to sin, nor are we merely servants in the house of God, though that would be enough, we are called friends of Christ, we are friends of God.
And this friendship, isn’t simply as one who we see on occasion and our spouse, or companion asks “who is this person you just said hi to?” and we flippantly say “oh, that’s my friend,” when we really mean that he is an acquaintance.
No – our friendship with Christ is a call to be on intimate terms with Him. It is to be known and to know Him. We are invited into intimacy with Christ. Can you imagine anything better? Can you imagine anything more beautiful to be known intimately by the one who created the heavens and the earth?
This is what Christ has invited us to – intimate friendship. How good and beautiful that is.
And what does Christ ask of us?
That we obey his commandments.
And what are these commandments?
At the center of the commandment is this – that we will love one another.
At the center of the Christian community is that we live out the love that Christ displays on the cross,
we live out an active obedience to God the Father,
we live out an active obedience to the guiding of the Holy Spirit,
we live out a self-giving, tender affection to our brothers ands sister in Christ. It is that we bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit that in our beautiful work – we would glorify the Father.
Wednesday marks the start of Lent, again this week I have provided you with a sheet for reflection for this week.
Too often, I sort of stumble into Lent, and by the grace of God, I wanted to be more intentional this year. Lent is a great time of introspection, and renewed intimacy with Christ – but let us also remember Christ’s commandment – that we would love one another, let us remember too what St. Paul has said – that without love we are nothing but a clanging gong. As we enter this season of repentance, season of self-reflection – let all that we do be done in love for God and love for our neighbors.
As we wrap up our service this morning – I will read the second long exhortation starting on page 86 of the Book of Common Prayer. I would invite you to read along, and take some time to reflect on the words that are being said. This was more typically used in parishes that did not have regular communion. But it provides a good outline for reflection in the week preceding our entrance into the season of Lent.
Let us not miss this good opportunity to flee from the slavery of sin, and into the arms of Christ. Let us rather learn to abide and remain in the Love of Christ. Let us take the opportunity to dwell richly in Him, and He in us. That all that we do would glorify the Father.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works… your beautiful works and glorify your father which is in heaven.