May 3, 2015
So how will we understand this passage I’ve just read about the true vine, the vinegrower, and the branches that Jesus tells at the Last Supper? We will understand it according to the view of god we already hold. Often our view of god, what we think god is like and how god acts, is unconscious, meaning we are not aware of it. We may not even give it any thought that there are countless views of god and that these views operating below the level of conscious awareness determine how we see everything. As Richard Rohr is fond of saying, “How we see anything is how we see everything.”
Mostly we just assume our view, whatever it is, is right and true.
If I believe that God is the contract god, (which I mentioned a couple of months ago) that is, the god who requires that we fulfill our half of the contract, in order to receive the promises of salvation, then this passage says to us: We must pray hard to abide in Jesus and work hard to bear fruit, so that god will bless us and keep us.
And if we fail at prayer and good deeds then, watch out—watch out—because the contract god will come with a sharp pair of pruning shears and lop us off and throw us into the fire of eternal rejection.
Therefore if we are serious about our spiritual life and want we will want our preachers to tell us what to do in order to avoid this horrible fate. We will want to know the right way to stay on the good side of the contract god and thus avoid the pruning shears.
Of course, we preachers love to tell people what to do because it makes us feel so useful. I mean, we can’t order tests like doctors or prescribe anti-depressants like psychiatrists. All we can do is spout theological abstractions and scriptural exegesis no one cares about. Telling the people what to do makes us feel like we’re bearing fruit and keeping on god’s good side.
Conservative preachers, who believe in the contract god, will tell their flock the ethical positions to hold, the votes to cast, and the causes to work for that will please god and get them a longer stay on the vine. Liberal preachers who worship the contract god will also tell their flock the ethical positions to hold, the votes to cast, and the causes to work for so they too can get a longer stay on the vine.
If all these sermons do, however, is tell people what to do then in neither church is the gospel being preached. Martin Luther was convinced that when preachers tell worshippers what to do to please god they are preaching the law and not the gospel.
But then Luther didn’t believe in the contract god, but the covenant God, the God who loves us unconditionally before the foundation of the world, the God who while we were still sinners sent Jesus to save us; the God who was in Christ reconciling–who– only the good people, only the Christians, only those with the correct social and political beliefs—no, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” 2 Corinthians 5:19
When we read this passage from John’s Gospel from a belief in the covenant God we understand that Jesus is the vine and by his grace we are the branches and that there is nothing we can do to become a branch. We are created a branch by the vine and are eternally connected to the vine, flowing with the love, peace, and healing that comes from the vine and producing the fruit that the energy of the vine and the skill of the Covenant God create.
The gospel is the proclamation that in Christ God is eternally abiding in us, flowing through us, not because of what we do, but because of the grace and love of Father, Son, and Spirit for us.
To talk first about what we must do to bear fruit or the work we must do to abide in the vine is to put the cart before the horse, or, in the language of this passage, to put the grape before the vine.
But some will clamor—tell us what to do! We pay you to tell us what to do!
Luther would respond: believe the good news that God is for you and that at this very moment Jesus is eternally abiding in you and that the Spirit is working through you. Wake up to this and see what happens. Abide in the vine that eternally abides in you and the grapes will come—at home changing diapers and wiping runny noses, at work in science and service, in the city in social justice and compassion, and in the world in peace and prosperity for all.
Any energy the branch spends worrying about whether it is good enough to please God is energy that could be spent resting in the power of Jesus flow to through it.
So Philip, set apart by the Holy Spirit to be one of the first deacons in the church, trusts the good news that in Jesus Christ God eternally abides in him so that one day when he hears an inner voice telling him to go down to the highway heading south. He doesn’t know why he is being called to do this but it feels good to obey this voice, so he goes and pays attention to what is going on around him. Once there he sees an odd sight: an Ethiopian eunuch riding in a chariot reading a scroll.
Philip again obeys the Spirit and draws closer to this outsider and finds, much to his surprise, the eunuch is reading the Bible. Before long Philip baptizes this outsider in whom Jesus Christ also eternally abides. He baptizes the eunuch, not to make God like him better, but to proclaim to the eunuch and to the world that God accepts even someone as broken and strange as himself—that there is no limit to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So Philip’s fruit issues out of Jesus who eternally abides in him and the Spirit who speaks in him. He does what we might call today a liberal act by talking to and then welcoming through baptism this outsider, since Deuteronomy 23:1 says: “No one whose testicles are crushed…shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
He does what we might call today a conservative act by talking to this man about the Bible and “the good news of Jesus.”
As we wake up to the fact that we are already made new in Jesus Christ there are no liberal acts or conservative acts, there are only Jesus-shaped acts which proclaim the oneness of vine, branches, and fruit.
But really Bill what do we do?
When we become aware that we are acting as if we believe in the contract god (which happens to me a lot) we return in faith to the fact that by grace Jesus Christ abides in us and we in him and we listen to the Spirit so that when She says engage that person over there we do so, because the race, nationality, or sexual identity of the person do not matter to us. All that matters is that this person also comes to know the love of the covenant God for him and wakes up to the fact that we are all one in Christ.