Last week, the Gospel of John provided the image of a good shepherd to describe the close, caring relationship between God and Jesus, and between Jesus and us. Perhaps we're not herders of sheep, or at least not all of us, but we get the idea of what John is talking about.
First of all, the shepherd image is familiar to us from the much-loved and often-memorized Psalm 23, which we read last week; "The Lord is my shepherd." And, from childhood, we've seen many paintings of Jesus with a little lamb over his shoulders, the flock grazing peacefully around him. Ok it was a little white Jesus with the perfectly clean cloak tending to sheep and children. How come Jesus never appears disheveled or dirty and yet he worked with mud, traveled all over the country side, got on his hands and knees to wash feet. This is the miracle that is never spoken of.
Of course, Understanding ourselves as little lambs, enfolded in God's care, is reassuring, and reassurance was what the disciples and the early Christian community needed, especially John's community. Just as the disciples must have been bewildered by some of the things Jesus was saying, and anxious about the negative response of religious and political leaders, so the early Christians a generation later, kicked out of the temple, their religious home, also needed a word of tender reassurance from the risen Christ, telling them that they weren't alone or abandoned.
In this week's reading, John uses the image of a vine and its branches, to help--and challenge--that early community, and ours today, in order to claim our close relationship with Jesus. In Jesus' time, people would have been familiar with the vine metaphor; it appears in the Hebrew Scriptures several times to describe Israel. Around here the image is all but too vivid, yet even if contemporary Christians in other parts have never tended a vineyard, most of us have seen a grapevine at one time or another even if just a photo.
Looking closely, we see the many entwined branches, winding their way around one another in intricate patterns of tight curls that make it impossible to tell where one branch starts or another one ends. This image is replicated in earthen ware, stained glass windows, on wine glasses …we have seen this image of vine and branch and grapes everywhere. This is not just intricate; it's intimate, and the vine shares with its branches the nutrients that sustain it, the life force of the whole plant. Even closer than the shepherd there on the hillside, this vine is one with it’s branches.
Father Nicholas King points out that “This passage starts off with the powerful image of Jesus as the Vine; the image has a double point to it. First, the believer is invited to belong to Jesus but, second, the pruning associated with this belonging is an uncomfortable activity, although we may reflect that it is more comfortable than ‘being thrown into the fire and burnt’.” (page 2046)
This reminded me of something I saw on Facebook from Bishop Yvette Flunder
First I guess I should fill you in on who she is…Bishop Yvette Flunder, Rev. Dr. Yvette A. Flunder is an unapologetic disciple and proponent of the radically inclusive love of Jesus Christ, who has raised her voice for justice from the church house to the White House and steps of the Supreme Court.
Yvette is a native San Franciscan and third generation preacher with roots in the Church of God in Christ. Bishop Flunder is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and holds both masters and doctorate degrees in Ministry from the Pacific School of Religion and the San Francisco Theological Seminary, respectively. In 2003, she was appointed Presiding Bishop of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a multi-denominational coalition of over 56 churches and faith-based organizations from all over the world.
Bishop Flunder is an active voice for the Religion Council of the Human Rights Campaign, as well as for the National Black Justice Coalition. Bishop Flunder is a highly sought after preacher and religious educator as evidenced by her having spoken at divinity schools nationwide including those at Duke, Yale , Drew, and the New York Theological Seminary. She is the author of Where the Edge Gathers: A Theology of Homiletic Radical Inclusion, published by Pilgrim Press. In addition to her memorable sermons, Bishop Flunder is also known for her beautiful singing voice, made famous through her gospel recordings with Walter Hawkins and the Family, the City of Refuge Choir and Chanticleer.
That said she asked this question on April 21Facebook… “I have 2 questions that I would love to hear honest answers to...
Would you love or serve God differently were you to find hell non-existent?
Could you welcome people into a deeper relationship with God without the threat of hell?
You know the whole concept of being thrown into the fire and burnt… this question had over 168 commenters and shares so far the very first response was “NO” plain and simple…ok
The next response came; “Leilani Webb Bishop, I would still serve God if hell was nonexistent. Honestly, I chose God because He chose me, I didn’t choose Him because of hell, I chose Him because I could live with Him! I serve a master who isn’t petty, who doesn’t pose harm or the thought of harm, but a master, who loved me enough long before I made it here to this planet to die for me! He loves me and that means life to me, my life! I would still witness God to the masses! Blessings”
“Darrell Ferrell Melton 1) No 2) I already do! My journey to salvation had more to do with a personal hell. God saved me from my self-destruction. When seeking salvation as an adult, hell wasn't my reason....”
“Rebecca Voelkel This is one of those moments when I am keenly aware of the differences within Christian tradition. I have simply never believed in Hell, nor the threat of damnation. I know it is a weapon used by many in our tradition, but it has never been part of my theology, my worship practice, nor how I was raised. I am so deeply grateful to you, Bishop Pearson and others who are able to speak into the parts of our community who have been so wounded by the threats of hellfire. But my motivation and hope in the gospel is all about the extravagant love of God and call to authenticity and liberation- personally and in transforming systems of oppression. Love you, Bishop!”
And I will share one final quote from Rev. Dr. “Durrell Watkins If someone were to convince me that hell was real (especially for not holding certain opinions/beliefs), I would STOP worshipping God. 1. How good could that God’s heaven be? 2. If ppl are excluded from heaven for any reason then the overwhelming grief of those who made it would keep it from being heavenly. 3. If belief is required for eternal security then grace is a lie...belief just becomes the currency with which we purchase salvation. 4. If god created a hell and doomed ppl to it for any reason such a god would be tyrannical, and tyrants must be resisted at all costs.
I don’t need the threat of hell to be a person of faith. In fact, such a threat would hinder belief in a truly loving, good god (for me)”
I enjoyed the dynamics of this discussion and I think it points to an important part of todays Gospel reading. In the United church of Christ, we proclaim that we don’t take the bible literally, but we do take it seriously. This is one of those moments.
I do not believe for one moment that there is anyone burning in hell…that said I do believe that when we get to heaven our hearts and minds (so to speak) are so open to understanding all that we have done and haven’t done through the lense of the great I am, the greatest of all love, pure love that the only thing that could be possibly more profound than our own remorse would be the grace , the abundant love and all loving forgiveness of God.
That is not a free pass. I pray my missed marks; my transgressions are few and small enough that the grief of full divine comprehension is surpassed by the joy of reunion with the source of all love. The key here is Love. Johns whole Gospel is about how to love. This passage is about Love.
You see this little passage is about the community. The community working together shall bear much fruit. It is not I am divine and single, individual you are de branch… Gail R. O'Day finds the "anonymity" in this metaphor "stark." John isn't interested, she says, in "distinctions in appearance, character, or gifts."
O'Day contrasts John and Paul's writings, with Paul using the differences between the members of the body to define "what it means to be a body." On the other hand, John, instead of highlighting our individual gifts and roles, "challenges contemporary Western understandings of personality, individualism, and self-expression." For John, O'Day writes, "The mark of the faithful community is how it loves, not who are its members" (John, The New Interpreter's Bible).
We often hear that word, "love," in John's writings. Love is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Love is the way we live in community and the way we relate to each other. Our recent readings from John have been having us tread in the warm waters of love. "Love" can be a state of being, a way one operates in the world by living through and living out love. This is the word abide as it appears in today’s Gospel. Fred Craddock understandably calls it "the central verb" in the passage and emphasizes its importance in the entire Gospel of John (Preaching through the Christian Year B).
Sometimes hearing this from another translation allows it to land more fully on the heart …
The Vine and the Branches
15 1-3 “I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.
4 “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.
5-8 “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant.
Eugene Peterson, the Author of the message, renders "abide" in verse 4 a little differently, but with the same meaning, as Jesus teaches his followers, "Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you" (The Message). Just as we need the air to breathe, so we need food and nourishment to live. We need shelter and community; we need a home. Christ is that home. The home that is a safe place, a warm place, a place that every home should be…The early Christians, who had in a very real sense lost their spiritual homes and perhaps, along with them, their family ties and their physical homes, were undoubtedly comforted by this thought.
Now what do we do with this love we are living into? That we are making our home? What is it we are called to do? It would be good to just sit here and abide in Christ’s love. Wouldn’t it be good to be stagnant on a branch and just let love grow and do nothing with it. Wouldn’t it be just SOOO comfortable sort of like staying in a warm bed on a cool foggy morning?
Yet the fruit of the vine must be used other wise it withers and dies on the vine.
So here is an interesting note this discourse is part of a long farewell speech. Jesus has just finished supper. Judas has left, and Jesus has predicted Peter will deny him and then this speech starts. He explains the comforter to come. It’s a good two paragraphs and then the last sentence answers the question I asked. Just before Jesus starts this discussion of abiding in love he says;
“Arise let us go from here…”
The I am the vine you are the branch is given on the move. The speech is not given in a stagnant moment but a vibrant active moment. We are learning of the love we are called to abide in, but we are on the move.
Charles Cousar doesn't skip over the significance of that last verse in chapter 14 or its connection to what follows: "Jesus' words are a call to get moving." Jesus is speaking to his followers, a community whose witness and service (perhaps it would be better to say "witness of service") expresses a "distinctiveness from the world" that provokes "distrust and hatred (15:18-19)" (Texts for Preaching Year B).
In a way, there's a tension here: the word "abide" could suggest "planted" (like a vine, perhaps?), in place, rooted, fixed. But Jesus' command to "rise up" puts us in motion, in mission, in works that bear witness and bear fruit at the same time. Sarah Henrich is helpful here: "Bearing fruit does not create disciples," she writes; "bearing fruit reveals disciples. Both of these activities are dependent on abiding in Jesus, the real vine" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
This is a call to each of us as individuals but more importantly to the church as a community. This is written to a community in exile seeking revitalization. This is written to us today as we seek out our own revitalization. we find words that are front and center for a church that seeks new life: connectedness, permanency, vitality. I love the image of green plants for church vitality, and we can associate the image of bearing fruit with growth, usefulness, and nourishment.
This calls for us putting aside our own individuality and to work for the community. Work as a congregation to stand against the powers that be at play in the world today. One commentator asks “What would happen if our congregations spent less time talking and worrying and working on our survival and more time on putting ourselves in the line of fire, as Paul, Anthony, Francis (and Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Archbishop Romero and the four American churchwomen murdered in El Salvador, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and the rest did?
There is a little video on you tube call the UCC’s to do list…It says
Do all the Good you can…
By all the means that you can…
In all the ways that you can…
In all the places that you can…
At all the times that you can...
To all the people that you can…
As long as ever you can…
Rinse and repeat….
What does this mean to us? How do we abide in love? As a congregation that loves and cares for each other you are good…You got that down now…. How do we renew or make new connections out in the community? Are their non-profits that we can partner with more boldly? Are their places where we used to be visible that we feel called to be visible again? Or is there something new you may feel called too?
Arise let us go form here abiding in Christs love and take that out into the world.
 yvette flunder, Yvette Flunder facebook page, accessed April 25, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/yflunder.
 Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, accessed April 25, 2018, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_29_2018.
 United Church of Christ, The UCC Lesson for today, March 1, 2018, accessed April 25, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvG5ENQMOuk.