St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 10.44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17
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. We clearly see the radical aspects of Jesus’ life, ministry, and message in John 15 and 1 John.
John 15 begins 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 the wild grapes as 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). 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! It is a radical claim.
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. 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.
What is the nature of this love, the nature of God’s love? And 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).
In his farewell speech, Jesus is preparing the disciples for what lies ahead. Jesus continues to develop the theme of abiding in his love: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15. 9; NRSV).
How do we go about that – how do we abide in Christ’s love? Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15. 10; NRSV). In 1 John 5.3, John the Elder writes, “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments’ (NRSV). If we love God, we will strive to keep his commandments. Is this some onerous burden? Not if we have allowed the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. John the Elder continues, “And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (Vs. 3b-5; NRSV).
In John 15, we further read: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Vs. 11; NRSV). God wants us to experience joy, to live joyously. So many times we are convinced that we can find joy through seeking and working to fulfill our own willful desires, but as Solomon has reminded us, “All that comes is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11.8c; NRSV). Solomon closes this book of wisdom with these words: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12.13-14; NRSV).
Earlier in the farewell discourse, just after telling the disciples they could not come where he was going, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13.34-35; NRSV). Now Jesus reiterates the new commandment: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15. 12; NRSV). Then Jesus comments on the extent of love and tells the disciples of their new status: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15. 13-16a; NRSV).
And once again, John brings us back to the theme of bearing fruit, for Jesus told the disciples, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (John 15.16b-17; NRSV). The fruit we are called to bear is the fruit of God’s Kingdom; such fruit does not spoil or decay – it lasts forever. But what of this notion that the Father will give you whatever you ask in Jesus’ name? I have always thought it would be nice to own a BMW Z4 – does this mean I should “name it and claim it” as some prosperity gospel preachers would have us believe?
In that Jesus is speaking of fruit that will last, I do not think that is what Jesus had in mind. I am not expecting a Z4 – as a matter of fact, I haven’t even asked for one! I think we stand a much better chance of receiving what God would give us if we ask for growth in grace and love, for a bit of pruning, that we might bear more fruit.