Being a Christian is not something we do, it is something God does in us

Easter 5 2012

John 15:1-8

Marian Free

 In the name of God who creates, sustains and enlivens all that we are and all that we do. Amen

I am sure that you would all agree that human nature is fascinating. Even though most, if not all of us, are not related in any way to the people who travelled on the Titanic we still feel connected in some way to that tragedy. One hundred years later we watch television programmes and re-enactments trying to come to grips with what happened. In our imaginations we identify with the travellers and think we have some idea of how awful it must have been to survive or how terrible it must have been to remain on the sinking ship.

The sense of connection between strangers is not restricted to tragedy but is also found when people embrace common causes or when nations or groups succeed. Think for example of the sense of solidarity that many Australians felt in 1983 when Australia II won the America’s Cup, or of the bonds that supporters of a sporting team feel when they are cheering on their side. Complete strangers become instant friends when the referee makes what is perceived to be a wrong call, or when the team that they support scores a goal. No matter what their background their common purpose draws them together as one. If only for a short time, they cheer together, get incensed together and feel a sense of warmth and solidarity that would otherwise belong to family or to life-long friends.

All kinds of events and situations serve to join us to others just as, sadly, events and situations serve to tear us apart.

The sort of unity that Jesus is describing in today’s gospel goes much deeper than the superficial and often temporary experience that I’ve just described.

One of the key themes of John’s Gospel is that of union or unity. The theme of union between the Father and Son permeates John’s gospel. “I and the Father are one.” “If anyone has seen me, they have seen the Father.” Over and over again Jesus makes the claim that there is no real distinction between Father and Son, that knowing one is to know the other, that what the Son does is what the Father would do and so on. Jesus’ life and ministry is wholly determined by his relationship with God. He claims that he does nothing on his own – “only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does the Son does likewise.”

In today’s gospel part of Jesus’ farewell speech, he goes a step further than the relationship between the Father and the Son. Here he insists that the disciples participate in him, in the same way that he participates in, and is one with, the actions of the Father.  In order to make this easier to understand, Jesus uses an agricultural image that would have been familiar to his listeners. Vines were commonplace and everyone would know that a branch broken or cut off the vine would die. Detached from the source of its life the branch would be unable to fulfil its function of producing fruit. While it might still be exposed to the life-giving effects of the sun, the severed branch would no longer have access to the nutrients  and moisture from the soil which flow through the stem and into each branch.

Using the image of the vine, Jesus describes a connection with himself, that is so intimate and close, that it is as if the blood flowing through him could flow through those who believe: that, ideally, their life is animated and sustained by their connection with and absorption into Jesus in such a way that all that they do is fed and nurtured by their association with and in him. A disciple is called to be so integrated into the life of Jesus that their life cannot help but be a reflection of his life, which in turn is a reflection of God’s desire. In this way, just as a branch of the vine cannot help but produce grapes, so a believer who is truly attached to and one with Jesus will not be able to think or act in a way that does not reflect their connection with him.

The image of the vine is a stark reminder that, in one sense, being a Christian is not something we do, rather it is something that we do not do. That is, that our own efforts are not only limited by our short-comings, but they also serve to illustrate that we are separated from the spring of our life, the source of our fruitfulness. When we understand that our faith is measured more by what we do not do, then we allow ourselves to be completely connected to and absorbed by the life of Jesus and our own lives will of themselves reflect the presence of God within us. Our thoughts, words and actions rather than coming from ourselves will be directed and determined by our relationship with God.

The fruit that we bear as a result of this relationship will be fruit that stems from that relationship. How we behave as a consequence of this “not doing”, will be God working through us rather than ourselves acting alone. This concept is both liberating and terrifying. It is liberating because it means that if we have the courage and confidence to abide in God and allow God to abide in us, then we can be certain that we are doing what God desires. It is terrifying because in order to bear this sort of fruit, we have to learn to trust the presence of God within us and – perhaps more difficult still – we have to allow the presence of God within us (not our own intellect or will) to determine what is and what is not good fruit.

This is what Jesus means about remaining in the vine. It is not up to us to decide what is and what is not good. We achieve little if we spend our time doing so-called “good deeds” only to get to the end of our lives and discover that we have produced bananas or pomegranates instead of grapes, to discover that our branches were not firmly grafted and rooted into the vine but were instead supported by something else altogether.

The task of our lifetime then is to let go of our ambitions, to give up our concepts of what God wants and seek instead to be so united to God in every way that our lives may be lived in and directed by God and the fruit that we bear will be fruit that will last.

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