A sermon from Linda Mackie Griggs for Easter 5
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.
Every year during this liturgical season I go on a mission to remind people that they can say “Happy Easter!” for fifty days, not just for one. For those of you counting along, today is Day 29, so that makes 21 “Happy Easter” days to go.
This isn’t just a liturgy-geeky fun fact. Easter as a season, not just a day, is important to the Christian life, if only because at seven weeks—that’s longer than Advent, longer than Lent—its length reinforces the impact of what has happened in the Resurrection. Easter isn’t just a holiday on our calendar—there and then gone—any more than the Big Bang was just a random cosmic pop in space. Like the Big Bang, Easter has transformational consequences. It transforms how we see the world, our neighbors and ourselves. The impact of Easter on our lives is a challenge and an invitation—asking a recurring question: What does it really mean to be People of Resurrection?
Today’s Gospel passage is from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, which he shared with his disciples in the hours following the Last Supper and before his arrest. These are Jesus’ final words of peace, challenge, and reassurance to his friends. Reading the discourse you get the palpable feeling of urgency—like a parent’s final instructions to a child heading out the door, or a teacher trying to cram vital information into the last lecture. Even before the Discourse, at the Last Supper, Jesus urgently needed to communicate his love and legacy in a way that the disciples would never forget; taking bread and wine, blessing them and offering them as himself with words that resound through the ages, This is my Body…This is my Blood.
And the Discourse is similarly vivid as Jesus tries in his last few hours to impress his wisdom on the hearts of his friends.
Today we hear him speak of abiding, of vines, and of fruit. What does it mean to abide in Jesus? In the Gospel and the three Letters of John, all of which were written by the same late first-century community, the word abide appears nearly 70 times. Seventy. Somebody is trying to tell us something.
“To abide” in the Johannine context is distinctive from other references in the New Testament—here it means to stay, remain, dwell, endure, await. It connotes the Benedictine idea of stability—sticking it out no matter what. To abide in Jesus and in God is to be in a consistent, steady, solid, but not always easy relationship. Abiding is both comforting and challenging at the same time.
Seventy times. Obviously, this is a core concept for John. But I don’t think it is necessarily a new idea that randomly popped up in his head. As I was reading this passage and seeing this word repeated…abide…abide…abide…it started reminding me of another phrase that I see over and over when reading the Psalms: Steadfast love. “Help me O Lord! Save me according to your steadfast love….His steadfast love endures forever…Let your steadfast love come to me…” The list of references in the Bible Gateway website goes on for pages.
There is a foundational Jewish ethical/theological concept called chesed. It is articulated in the Hebrew Scriptures as, yes, ‘steadfast love’, mercy or loving-kindness. It refers to the special relationship between God and God’s people, and it informs the relationship of God’s people to one another. Fundamental to chesed is what are called acts of mercy and compassion. In other words, God’s compassionate care for us is reflected in and expressed by our commitment and compassionate behavior toward others.
God’s compassionate care and steadfast love. Abiding love.
Related to chesed is the broader concept of tikkun olam, or ‘repairing the world’; a phrase that dates back to the first century, or about the time of Jesus and John. It encompasses those actions that serve to establish God’s Kingdom by bringing healing and wholeness to the world.
Jesus and John the Evangelist were rooted in the Jewish faith. They were plenty knowledgeable of the Scriptures and of the fundamental tenets of Judaism, including the concept of chesed. So it isn’t too much of a stretch to see how it might influence Jesus’ teachings.
The steadfast love of God invites and challenges us to reflect that love to the world in concrete ways; to contribute actively and intentionally to the healing and reconciliation of God’s people with God, Creation and each other.
To live in the steadfast love of God is to abide in the Vine. A thriving, glorious and prodigiously fruitful vine.
John uses the metaphor of being cut off for the isolation, alienation and emptiness that result from seeking to fill the God-shaped hole within us in exclusively self-gratifying and fruitless ways. We’re called to resist that. We’re called to be woven, entwined, even entangled sometimes, in relationship with God.
To be People of Resurrection is to understand in our minds and hearts that Jesus, the embodied Word of God, is the root and vine of all we do for the healing of the world. We are called to fruitfulness through acts of mercy and steadfast love; acts that are not just good because good people should do good things, but as part of a larger dream—God’s Dream– of a just and peaceful world. A Dream that exploded into Creation in the Risen Christ, and that still ripples through our lives if we have eyes to see it and ears to hear it.
The beauty of the image of the Vine is that the branches share the nourishment together—no one branch must bear the burden of producing all the fruit. The Dream of God is a big picture and we each choose how to respond to God’s call to fruitful living. The key is to begin somewhere and trust in the dream.
There’s a meme that I saw a few months ago that illustrates it: One character says to another: “Why so optimistic about 2018? What do you think it will bring?” Response: “I think it will bring flowers.” “Yeah? How come?” “Because I’m planting flowers.”
To be People of Resurrection is to plant flowers–to live a life of discipleship, connection and community, seeking to thrive and to help others thrive and live abundantly. It is to abide in the Risen Christ—to stay, remain, dwell, endure, await–plant—nourished with faith and hope through the Vine that empowers us to bear fruit that carries the DNA of the Kingdom of God.