St Barnabas’, Havana—John 15:1–8
I want to call your attention, if I may, to a Prayer Book collect (the collect is that short prayer said by the celebrant right before everybody sits for the first reading)—a Prayer Book collect, not the one from today, but the one from three weeks ago, the Second Sunday of Easter. It talks about how, in the Paschal Mystery, which is shorthand for the whole sequence of events that culminates in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead—in the Paschal Mystery, God establishes a “new covenant”—a new basic operating agreement between God and humankind—and the sign of this new covenant is … wait for it … reconciliation. A new covenant of reconciliation.
The theme of reconciliation—“vertical” reconciliation between God and humankind, and “horizontal” reconciliation between people—is certainly not difficult to find in the pages of holy scripture, particularly in the New Testament, and even more particularly in the writings of St Paul, who, when he’s not spinning out profound theology, is trying to persuade people in the churches he’s writing to to get along with each other. In Philippians he even names names—two women names Euodia and Syntyche, whom he tells, in effect, “You are both infinitely precious to me, but I don’t get the feeling you are precious to one another. Can we try to do something about that?” In II Corinthians, he gets very eloquent, and puts reconciliation in a theological frame: “
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
So, keeping in mind that collect I mentioned, along with the scriptures about reconciliation that I pointed to, here’s the thought question I want to put before you: What is the biggest scandal facing global Christianity today? What is the one thing we should be most embarrassed about as we consider how the world around us sees us?
I’ll give you my answer, and challenge anybody to show me how it isn’t the answer. It’s our lack of reconciliation. The very heart of the gospel, the core of the good news, springs from God’s passionate desire that we be reconciled. Yet, Christians are divided into multiple “brand names,” thousands of different “denominations,” and, despite serious good-faith effort over the past hundred years or so, it’s getting worse, not better. But the problem isn’t just global, it’s very much local. Christians are fickle in our parish relationships and commitments. I come to this conclusion after 22 years in parish ministry and 10 years as a bishop. Examples are too numerous to even know what to mention and what to leave out. You’ve seen the pattern, repeated multiple times: Somebody doesn’t like something the priest says or does, somebody feels slighted or ignored or bullied by another parishioner, so they just stop showing up on Sundays and other occasions. They may not be missed right away, but eventually they are. Sometimes somebody reaches out to them, but, by then, feelings have usually turned in on themselves, and the exchange is awkward, or they’ve just moved on to another congregation, whether of the same “brand name” or a different one. And, of course, there are the wars over doctrine and morality that have wrought utter destruction in the Episcopal Church over the last couple of decades. I am a veteran of those wars, and I have the battle scars to prove it, so I’m not claiming to be above the fray when it comes to avoiding reconciliation.
Today’s gospel reading, from the 15th chapter of John, is part of what scholars call our Lord’s “farewell discourse.” In narrative time, it takes place on the occasion of the Last Supper, the night before Jesus’ passion. In liturgical time, we always encounter it in the Eucharist during the weeks between Easter and Ascension, when Jesus takes leave from his earthly presence more permanently. This section of the Farewell Discourse, about Jesus being the “true vine,” contains both a carrot and a stick. The “stick” is from verse two: “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.” I mean, being on the business end of pruning shears is not an inviting prospect, right? And from verse six: “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.” Well, this is apparently not the warm and cuddly version of Jesus, I guess. The late Jesuit scholar Raymond Brown says about this material: “Life is committed life. Therefore, a branch that does not bear fruit is not simply a living, unproductive branch, but a dead branch.” The way John, and John’s Jesus, thinks, “There are only living branches and dead branches.” So, no “partially productive” branches, just living or dead. It’s binary: a one or a zero.
But it’s not just a stick. Here’s the carrot: the wonderfully complex and rich image of the vine itself. In the early 1980s, Brenda and I lived with our children in a house in Oregon, in a small town outside of Salem. Our house had a mature concord grape arbor in the backyard, rimmed on two sides by tall and slender evergreens, creating a wonderful space for several people to sit under on a summer afternoon and enjoy its shade. I was up on top of that arbor several times every spring, trying to judiciously prune it in ways that would foster growth and fruitfulness. My relationship with that grape arbor was one of the mystical experiences of my life.
Jesus tells us to “abide” in the vine—that is, him; we are to abide in him. He also promises that he will “abide” in us. The English word abide” is wonderfully rich. It, along with the Greek word that it translates in this case, means to persist in “staying with.” It’s not about just visiting; it’s about taking up residence. The leaves and the grape clusters on my vine in Oregon were only fruitful inasmuch as they stayed connected to the large trunk in one corner of the triangular arbor that was rooted in the ground.
So, how do we “abide” in Christ? What does that look like? I’ll cut to the chase and give you the short answer: We abide in Christ by abiding in the Church … the Church that, in the image developed by St Paul in several place, is nothing less than the very body of Christ. Or, to use today’s metaphor from John, the Church aggregately makes up all the branches of the vine that are connected to the trunk that’s rooted in the ground.
But we can make it one level more practical than that: the imagery of the vine points us in the symbolic direction of the Eucharist, specifically the eucharistic wine, the Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is the effective means by which we abide in the vine, abide in Christ. But the activity of abiding runs in both directions, as Jesus reminds us—Christ himself, through his abiding in his followers, provides the means for their faithfulness. We would not be able to abide in Christ if he did not first abide in us. This is why the Eucharist is, as the Prayer Book puts it, “the principal act of worship on the Lord’s Day.” Obviously, we can “live without it” for a season as necessary from time to time and place to place, and the Lord provides the grace we need in those times. But the Eucharist is literally our lifeblood. It is our connection to the True Vine.
When we fail to abide in Christ, we don’t just become unfruitful. We die spiritually. There’s a story about a new pastor at a church who heard about a formerly very active member who never came around anymore. So the pastor extended himself and went out to this guy’s house. He heard a litany of complaints from this former parishioner about all the ways he’d been mistreated by the church community. It was a cold day, so there was a fire in the fireplace. While they were talking, the pastor went over and very unobtrusively moved a small piece of wood away from the main body of the fire and into a corner by itself while carrying on the conversation. The pastor continued to stress the importance of remaining part of the church community because that’s the way we remain connected to Christ. The lapsed parishioner matched him point by point with reasons for him to keep staying away. Then the pastor invited his attention to the formerly glowing coal that he had moved to the corner of the fireplace. Apart from the main body of the fire, it was no longer burning, and had grown cold. His point, of course, was obvious. When we cut ourselves off from the Eucharist, from the community of the church, we cut ourselves off from Christ. We grow cold. We become unfruitful branches—indeed, dead branches.
When we do abide in Christ, when we stay connected to the church and to the Eucharist, we have life. We are reconciled to one another. You know, that’s the reason we have the Peace in the liturgy, because if there’s someone in the room we would not exchange the Peace with, we have no business presenting ourselves at the altar for communion. Think about that. But when we are, as the ancient words of the Prayer Book put it, “in love and charity with our neighbor,” we remove the scandal of disunity from our witness to the world. And what’s not to love about that?!
Alleluia and Amen.