Homily for Easter 5, Year B, 2009
Sunday, May 10th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 15:1-8
“You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you.”
When we hear the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John about the vine and the branches, we are often captivated by the fate of the branches that bear no fruit, the ones that are pruned away and cast into the fire. While it is important to consider all aspects of this passage, I would suggest that it may not be fruitful for us to find ourselves entirely obsessed with this portion of the text. To focus disproportionately upon this aspect of the text may indeed draw us away from the point of the passage altogether and the message Jesus has for us. It is clear that John’s Gospel is characterized by a very strong polemic, casting in stark contrast those who are inside the community and those who are outside. Indeed, it is a polemic takes on cosmic and eternal overtones. This polemic may seem very jarring to us. We must never forget, though, that the community to which John initially wrote, of which he was a part, was a community cast out of the synagogue for its faith in Christ. Thus, he is pressed into using such language that is clearly a response to the church’s ejection from the community. This ejection caused upset in both communities in a number of ways, not the least being the tearing apart of families. The religious and social impact of such a break must have been enormous. In such events of social crisis, language tends to escalate and polemic heightens. The temptation for any of us, when rejected, is to reject in turn those who rejected us. Rejection upon rejection, slander upon slander. This is likely the social context from which this passage emerges, and in such wise does John interpret the words of Jesus. But again, I suggest that we probe beyond the polemic of the story and focus not on what has been pruned away, but rather what abides, for it is in these words, that I believe Jesus speaks directly to the Church of this and every age.
It is natural for any of us to feel that we are not included in the life of the community; that we may not be “in.” How many of us have wondered if we really are Christians when we compare ourselves with others who are zealous in their faith. But our faith is not a faith built on fear. Consider for a moment, how Jesus addresses the hearers of this passage. He does so in a form of direct address, using the second person plural, “You have already been cleansed.” To whom does he speak? Of course, in the context of the story, he is speaking to his followers, his disciples. But his words cut across time to others as well. As John wrote these words, they were words directly addressed to the community of his day, to a new generation of disciples in a new situation. They became the “you” to whom Jesus spoke. Now, as the Gospel is proclaimed in this assembly today, we become the “you” to whom Jesus continues to speak. Through the Scriptures, Jesus’ words continue to speak and we believe that through Holy Scripture, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we encounter the Living Word of God.
Thus, I ask, do you believe he is speaking to you, that this is a word address to our community today, the baptized faithful? If we do indeed believe that Jesus speaks his word directly to us through the words of Scripture, I ask, do you see yourselves in the collective “you” addressed by Jesus in today’s text when he says, “You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you?” And if the Christian faith is new to you and you are inquiring as to whether Jesus might be the Lord you are seeking, do you hear a word being spoken to you, seeking you out, calling to you?
The noted Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Raymond Brown reminds us that the word used by John for cleansing and pruning are the same Greek word. Thus, when Jesus says, the Father “removes or prunes every branch in me that bears no fruit,” Brown offers the following translation, “trims clean every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Thus, when he goes on to say that “you are cleansed already,” this suggests that we have already been “trimmed clean.” It suggests that we are indeed branches that will bear fruit because anything in us that does not bear fruit has already been cast away. The message for us, the baptized, and those approaching baptism is not that we are cast away because of what is not fruitful within us, but rather that God in Christ prunes away those things that keep us from bearing fruit. We remain attached to the vine.
Jesus goes on to say, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Another translation reads, “Remain in me as I remain in you.” Jesus remains with us, and within us, beyond his brief earthly life. He remains, alive in each baptized Christian. He remains, he abides, and he lives in us. Indeed, his primary manifestation in the world in our time is through his Church. Our life, as branches bearing fruit, is supported and sustained by the true vine, Jesus Christ our Lord. If there is no vine, a branch cannot bear fruit. However, the vine abides forever never dying, never withering. The Good News is that we are not branches that bear no fruit but branches, already trimmed clean, cleansed in our baptism, that we might make Christ known to the world. We are indeed fruitful branches. We must never forget, though, that we cannot bear fruit unless we abide in the vine. The vine sustains our life and allows us to bear the fruit we so desperately hope to bear. Thus, as we abide in that vine, our source and ground of our being, he abides in us.
Much of St. John’s Gospel is about a Jesus who seeks to offer us a relationship with the Father. In the prologue to the Gospel we learn that to those who believe he gives power to become the children of God. In Jesus’ final prayer (in the seventeenth chapter of the St. John), before the passion narrative unfolds, Jesus prays “Father they know everything you have given me is from you. For the words that you gave me I have given them.” Jesus offers the entirety of himself, everything that that Father has given him, that we might know what it is to be one with the Father. In this offering, the Father holds nothing back from us. The fruit born by Jesus becomes the fruit born by everyone who follows him. (Incidentally, this is a very sophisticated way of understanding the self-offering of Jesus, and ultimately, the offering on the cross becomes for us a sign of this very offering).
Jesus goes on to pray, “As you have sent me into the world so I have sent them.” As branches on the true and living vine, we offer Christ to the world. The fruit, which we bear, is Christ himself. And lest we have any doubt about that, he continues, “sanctify them in the truth, your word is the truth.” Again, we return back to the opening words of the Gospel, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is the Word. Therefore, if Jesus the Word of God abides in us and we in him, the fruit we will bear is Christ himself, to be offered to a world that hungers and thirsts for reconciliation, justice and peace.
To bear the fruit which is Christ is not simply to follow his precepts or do his will but to allow ourselves to abide in him that we might bear him in all our joy and all our sorrow, because to bear Christ in our sorrow and joy (and in everything else in-between) is to allow the entirety of our humanity to be sanctified for the healing of world. This is what it means to bear fruit. The mistake for us is always to think that it is about simply following a set of rules or living a good life. These may be important things, but they are not what it means to bear fruit. To bear fruit is to allow our very essence to be transformed by the one who abides in us that we might abide in him. In this mutual abiding, even our pain has the potential to bear healing fruit because Christ abides in our pain and remains with us. In this mutual abiding, our joy has the potential to be a healing joy for those around us, because Christ abides in our joy and remains with us in our heights. Yes, even in our mistakes and failures, he abides there, too. If we turn again and again to him, and recognize that he has not left us, that he remains and continues to abide, even our mistakes and failures can be a means of bearing Christ to the world. If we allow him to work through our authenticity, through our contrition, through our brokenness, and yes, even through our sinfulness, we will bear Christ to the world.
I cannot speak for others who have not chosen this way. I cannot and shall not judge them. Instead I speak as one who has heard his word and claimed it as my own; I speak to those who have claimed it as their own; I speak to those drawing near to the light of this faith, who sense the word awakening within them: His word abides; you have been trimmed clean already; you have been cleansed. Hear then his word: “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Others may find a word of comfort somewhere else, in some other way but I have found my comfort and challenge here in these words, in this Word of God, as have Christians of all ages. Thus, we do not fear being pruned away and cast off because we know that we firmly abide in the vine and that vine abides in us and will remain with us always.
c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves