St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 8.26-40; Psalm 22.24-30; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8
Did you know that Jesus expects you to be a radical? As I have said before, Jesus came making radical claims, bearing a radical message, and calling us to a radical action. Radical means “of, relating to, or proceeding from a root;” in this case the root is God’s love. We see this in the lectionary readings for today.
Let’s begin with one of Jesus’ radical claims: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower” (John 15. 1; NRSV). Why was this a radical statement? The Hebrew scriptures contain several references to Israel as the vine or the vineyard; perhaps the most noted is Isaiah 5.1-7 which portrays Israel as God’s vineyard and announces God’s judgement for its failure to produce good fruit. Note the tone of love which quickly turns to bitter disappointment: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (Isaiah 5.1-2; NRSV). The prophet laments as he observes the extent of God’s love and faithfulness, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it” (Isaiah 5.4; NRSV). The coming judgment is then pronounced: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard, I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I shall make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briars and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it” (Isaiah 5. 5-6; NRSV). Note that God is not the wrathful, vengeful Destroyer: God simply removes God’s protection and care -- the hedge and the wall, stops hoeing and pruning, and commands the clouds not to rain upon the vineyard. Once God’s providential care is removed, destruction ensues of natural accord.
The prophet again turns to lament and employs a very clever play on words: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting: he expected justice (mishpāt), but saw bloodshed (mispāh); righteousness (ςedhāqāh) but heard a cry (”ςeʽāqāh)” (Isaiah 5.7; NRSV). The subtle changes in these words is brought about by the removal of a critical letter (perhaps mirroring the removal of God’s care). Instead of the justice and righteousness expected, we have bloodshed and a cry. This passage from Isaiah was well-known to those whom Jesus addressed. Jesus radically proclaimed Israel was no longer the vine; Jesus himself is the true vine. This is shocking!
And now, for the radical message. God, the vinegrower, lovingly tends the vine. God removes the dead and diseased branches that bear no fruit; God prunes the healthy branches that they may bear even more fruit. If we are to bear fruit, we must abide in the vine, in Christ Jesus; we can bear no fruit of our own – we must be part of the vine. Those who do not abide are cut off and burned. Through bearing much fruit and being Christ’s disciples, we bring glory to the Father.
And what is this fruit? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5.22-23; NRSV). Although love is mentioned first, all the other fruits are reflections of love. Love leads us into joy and peace. Patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control are reflections of our love. Love is the sap which feeds the vine and the branches; we can bear fruit only as we abide in Christ, the vine.
In 1 John 4, John the Elder exhorts us to love one another through the love that God has given us. If we love, we are born of God and we know God. If we do not love, we do “not know God, for God is love” (I John 4.8; NRSV). If we do not love, we are not part of the vine.
How have we come to fully know God’s love? We read, “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” (I John 4.9-10; NRSV).
As in Isaiah 5, note God’s action in preparing a vineyard and planting a choice vine that we might have life and have it abundantly! We know that we abide in the vine, in Christ, for God “has given us of his Spirit.” The role of the Spirit is crucial, for St. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 12.3, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (NRSV). In that we are grafted into the vine, “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” (I John 4.14-15; NRSV). John continues by saying that those who stay, or abide, in love, that is, those who exercise or act in love, “abide in God and God abides in them.” If we have carried this love through to completion, if we have perfected this love, “we may have boldness on the day of judgment.” On that day, we shall have no fear, for “perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4.18; NRSV). If our love is perfected, we will love God and our brothers and sisters. John concludes this section of the discourse on abiding in love with the statement, “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (I John 4.21; NRSV).
By now, you should have come to the realization that the radical action is love. In Jesus life and example, we see love perfected. We see another example of love in action in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. According to Deuteronomy 23, eunuchs were to be excluded from the assembly of the Lord, though the prophet Isaiah notes God’s inclusivity toward eunuchs. The Spirit instructed Philip to join the eunuch’s chariot. Philip acts in love, explains the scriptures the eunuch is reading, and shares the good news of Jesus Christ. In his belief, the eunuch, seeing some water, asked if there was anything which prevented him from being baptized. Philip baptized him and was then taken away by the Holy Spirit. Philip obeyed the call of the Spirit and shared the love of God.
How do we apply all of this to our own lives? As Christians, we have life in Christ, life in the vine so long as we abide in Christ and bear fruit. But note what Jesus said in John 15.2-3: “God removes every branch . . . that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you” (NRSV). Being pruned is painful. In Hebrew 4.12 we read, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (NRSV). The Holy Spirit moves and acts upon us as we read and study God’s word. It convicts us and leads us to change our sinful practices; it helps us to love others more than we can do so of our own accord. Remember, if we are not part of the vine, we can do nothing. The Holy Spirit prompts us to act in love. When we are faithful to God’s call, we receive the gifts of the Spirit -- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is the life for which we were created – it’s a radical life, rooted in the vine.