It still doesn’t depend on us

Easter 6 – 2015

John 15:9-17

Marian Free

In the name of God – Lover, Friend, Enlivener. Amen.

Today will be the third time in three weeks that I have had cause to preach on John 15:9-17 – at the service to dedicate the windows, on ANZAC Day and now today. That tells you at least three things. One is that our scriptures are often put to uses for which they were not originally intended, a second is that they are to some degree pliable (that is they can withstand more than one interpretation) and a third is that our biblical texts contain so much depth and complexity that they can be viewed from a wide variety of angles and through an array of different lenses and so continue to reveal new and rich insights. This is certainly the case with John’s Gospel. Apparently simple, transparent texts contain layers of detail that only become obvious when we make the effort to really familiarize ourselves with them.

Take John 15:1-17 for example. Jesus declares himself to be the true vine – an image that he expands on in two ways. In the first few verses (those we heard last week) he elaborates on the image by comparing himself with the vine – the source of life for the branches. That seems straightforward enough until the reader begins to explore questions such as: to whom is Jesus referring when he speaks of the branches and whom does he mean by the branches that have withered? What does sort of fruit are the branches to bear? Does he mean doing good works or does he, as the reading suggests mean discipleship? If bearing fruit is discipleship what does that look like? [1]

Jesus expands on the question of discipleship in his second explanation of the vine. Discipleship according to this image is evidenced by self-sacrificial love for one another – love that like fruit flows from a believer’s abiding in him. This discussion is no less complex than the first. Here, Jesus turns his attention to the theme of love but he confuses the issue by adding instructions about keeping his commandment, about servanthood (slavery) versus friendship, about being sent and about answered requests.

In a ten minute sound bite, such as a sermon, it impossible to follow and elaborate on all of these different threads much as I would like to! I alert you to them so that you are aware that I am skimming the surface of and not plumbing the depths of Jesus’ analogy.

When John 15:9-17 is read on ANZAC Day, it is usual for the preacher to focus on just one of the verses: “Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends” (John 15:13). In that context of ANZAC Day, it is appropriate think of all those who, in times of conflict, have risked or given their lives so that others might live and it is comforting to understand that their lives were given not only for a good cause, but in response to the highest Christian ideal.

Jesus setting was not that of wartime, nor do I imagine that he spoke these words with that particular context in mind. In trying to come to grips with the text today it is important to ask: “What is the context that Jesus is addressing? To whom was he speaking? and What did he mean by that line?

A number of factors make it clear that Jesus is talking to believers,those who are already disciples. In the first instance, the setting in the gospel is Jesus’ last meal with the disciples – presumably the twelve minus Judas who has already gone out, but certainly an inner circle of followers. Secondly, Jesus is addressing those who abide in him – those who have not already withered and died. Thirdly, he calls the listeners “servants” a term that implies they are his disciples or followers. Jesus is speaking to his followers in the context of saying farewell to them and preparing them to be the church in his absence.

This is an essential detail in terms of working out the meaning for us today. Jesus is NOT encouraging us to do good works. The fruit we are called to bear is that of discipleship and discipleship is to be demonstrated in self-sacrificial love – not for the nation, not for those in need, but for our fellow church members, those with whom we meet week by week, those whom we take for granted and those whom we let get under our skin, those who agree with us on issues such as music and furnishing and those who want to turn everything upside down, those who encourage us and those who let us down, those whom we have known for years and those whom we have only known for hours. In one sense it is a much more homely love (less noble) than dying for another in battle and yet in another sense it is a much more difficult love because it means that issues that arise need to be properly addressed, differences recognised and dealt with and rifts mended. It entails recognising when to hold one’s ground and when to give way, when to be firm and when to be gentle. In one sense this sort of love is incredibly difficult, in another it is the easiest love in the world, because above all it not our love – it is God’s love, God’s love expressed through Jesus to us.

In the end then, love has little to do with us and everything to do with God. Our primary responsibility is to abide in the vine, to abide in Jesus and in Jesus’ love for us such that Jesus’ self-sacrificial, life-giving love flows through us, filling us, fulfilling our every need and freeing us such that we cannot help but to give that love freely and abundantly to others. We are called, each and every one of us to be in a relationship with God, a relationship with Jesus that is so all-embracing, so intimate that it is as if we are branches that are fed and nurtured and empowered by the life-giving love of the vine that produces the fruit of discipleship which is our love for each other.

Imagine a church community that truly and completely bound itself to God as branches in a vine, a church in which God’s love was abundantly and transparently clear. Who would not want to belong to such a church? Who would not want the love that its members showed to one another?

If we live in God’s love, God’s love will live in us and that love will be manifest to the world. It is my belief that in this community we know and live God’s love. Can know and live it better? Are we willing to know and live it better? If not why not?

[1] That is not taking into account the questions as to whether chapters 15-17 are original to the gospel and/or original to Jesus. Nor does it refer to the issue of Old Testament precedents.

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