Fifth Sunday of Easter
29 April 2018
1 John 4:7-21
It has always been my policy not to remove anyone from the membership roll, the directory, or to reassign their mailbox.
This has been my policy not in order to inflate our numbers, as at times membership numbers can be. Take for example the inclusion of adult children in the church directory, especially those who live nowhere near driving distance to the church. They were once members here, having come up through Sunday School, confirmation, and Youth Group. They have not yet found a new church, and maybe have not yet figured out how to live their faith now that they make their own lives. Of course, we know that they won’t be here on Sunday, know that they won’t be active volunteers who will set up tables for the pot luck and do the dishes afterwards, and they may not help much with the budget, but as long as they haven’t yet joined a new church, they are part of us, in fact even after they’ve joined a new church, they will still be part of us.
Traditionally the church has spoken of those who enter the ordained ministry as sons and daughters of the church. But we’re all sons and daughters of the church, we’re all called into ministry.
The church I served in Winnipeg had had a big fight before I got there. Many people had left but were still counted members. Church council decided to send them all a letter asking, whether they still wanted to be members, a question easy to answer with ‘no’, which is what most people did.
I am not sure this had been church council’s intention, though those who remained asking those who had left to return usually requires more than a letter and more than a single yes or no question.
All this before I got there.
In Abbotsford there was one couple that stopped coming to our church. They stopped coming after our very modest outreach to homeless folk had made the national news. I was sad to see them go. I never found out what had offended them, the fact that the church had made the news, or that I had spent about 10 minutes talking about it at the beginning of the service to provide context. Bill had a heart condition and said it would upset him too much to talk about it.
I regretted their decision but respected it. But I never took their picture of our picture wall or reassigned their mailbox.
I am not sure anything I could have said would have made things right again, but I wanted to understand. I also did not think that we needed to agree on all things.
Not having to agree on everything does not mean that everything is up for grabs but it means a community of real people who together seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus.
In an interview Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO was asked about a sermon she once preached. The sermon was titled, “Loving Our Enemies Even If We Don’t Mean It.” She answered, “… I’m serious. Like, my gosh, if God’s going to wait till I mean it, that’s going to be a while, right? So I think that the key is praying for (our enemies), not like feeling warm feelings towards people who’ve hurt you or towards your enemy. I don’t think it’s about feelings. I think it’s about an action. And I think that action is commending them to the one who perfected the love of the enemy. That’s prayer, right?”
She goes on to speak about the role of communities.
… “I will actually ask other people to (pray for my enemies) for me sometimes, like it doesn’t always have to be us. … I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals necessarily. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities. The same with that whole thing like God will not give you more than you can bear. I don’t think God will give you more than a community can bear. …
And here’s the part about what we believe. As people have difficulty loving their enemies and need the community of the church to help them, the same applies to the creed. She says: “In a way that makes it inaccessible to people because they’re like, well, I don’t know if I believe this. Like the Apostles’ Creed. I can’t say the Creed because I don’t know if I believe every line in the Creed. I’m like, oh, my God. Nobody believes every line of the Creed. But in a room of people for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”1
She describes faith not as an accomplishment but as a journey and the community of the church not as a static and homogeneous group of people but a diverse group that learns from and with each other on the way.
In this sense it is OK for us to disagree but important for us to be in conversation about life and the world and what it means to follow Jesus.
This may seem a long detour to get to our text from the Gospel of John where Jesus compares himself to a vine and us to the branches that need the vine to survive.
He compares his Father to the grower who prunes the branches to maximize their yield and who takes away branches that bear no fruit.
A bunch of us pastors met the week before last and we meditated on this text. The question that stood out for me was what role this passage may have played for the church for which John wrote his gospel. There must have been some division, some must have left, or been told to leave. How does a community like the early church deal with separation?
I did always wonder who would do the pruning. I know it says that the grower does. But not all images here have a representation and could it really be that God will come to us and tell some of us that we no longer belong with the vine, no longer belong with the Son who is the shepherd who seeks the lost, and the physician who came for the sick, and who raises the dead?
And doesn’t the Jesus of John’s Gospel also speak of the necessity of death in order to live? I am thinking of his prophetic self-description of the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies in order to bear much fruit, and of his instruction to the disciples that those who hate their life will keep it for eternal life. All this on the heels of raising Lazarus from the dead. This seems to indicate that there is hope even for the dead – after all we still celebrate the resurrection – hope even for dead branches. St Paul says that in our baptism we die with Christ in order to live with Christ, so there is definitely hope for the dead.
If this is indeed a text that for the church for which John wrote had its roots in divisions in and excommunications from the community, then Jesus’s instruction about what to do with a brother or sister who has sinned against us comes to mind: Let such a one be to you as a sinner and a tax collector. (Matthew 18) And how did Jesus relate to sinners and tax collectors? He ate with them, and invited them into the Kingdom.
It seems to me then that despite of what John’s community may have experienced, that this is a text about being on the vine, rather than being apart from it, and that the only way to be apart from the vine is to remove oneself for God will not remove us.
If there are ways to remove ourselves from the community, from the church, and from the vine, it’s probably not through a disagreement. It may be by thinking that faith really was a private affair, it was only about Jesus and I and that I really don’t need others to be Christian.
That would do two things, it would remove me from the community physically, not just when I am on vacation or away on business, and it would keep me from understanding that God’s salvation is fleshy and material, for we worship in one another’s presence and hear God’s word as the body of Christ, and that through partaking in the body and blood of Christ, we become Christ’s body for the world. In Jesus and the church we see that God refuses to be spiritualized.
Spiritualizing God, pretending that God matters little for our day to day lives and the life of the world results in what Stanley Hauerwas calls practical atheism, about caring more about what our doctor says than what our pastor says. Hauerwas says that most Christians live lives of practical atheism. Atheism isn’t explicitly a denial of God, it’s to live in a way that God has no influence on what I think, do, say, or do with my money.
The reason we come together is to remember that God matters not just on Sundays but always. We come together to remember that God came to us in the flesh and God becomes flesh in us and in our brothers and sisters. We are Christ’s hands and feet, and voice. We come together because the vine has many branches, not just one. We come together not only to believe together but to believe for one another. We come together to die to the old Adam and to rise with Christ, the One who came because he did not want us to cut ourselves off from God’s Kingdom.
1https://onbeing.org/programs/nadia-bolz-weber-seeing-the-underside-and-seeing-god-tattoos-tradition-and-grace/ accessed on the 26th of April 2018