Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B
2 May 2021
1 John 4:7-2
I have presided at a few weddings. Most of them I remember.
Molly married Jake in 1996. And if I remember correctly, both had been widowed. Molly would have been 76 and Jake also around that age. Molly had been widowed twice and this was her third marriage. They were happy together and there was no question on their minds that they should tie the knot.
I also remember Frieda and Les. They were roughly the same age as Molly and Jake when they were married. They belonged to the seniors group that met every Friday afternoon at the church. At a meeting shortly after their wedding Frieda was at the seniors group while Les was not. Asked where Les was, Frieda said, “He is resting for tonight.” Everyone burst out laughing and Frieda quickly added, “Not what you are thinking. We are going out tonight.”
They too had been widowed before. Les’ first marriage had been OK though I am not sure it was a happy one. Frieda had come from the old country together with her husband and three children. Withing their first year here her husband left her and went back to Europe. Her second husband was an alcoholic whom she had nursed to the end. Having been displaced during the war, she never acquired much of an education. She cleaned to bring up her kids and to support the family.
Now, at the time when these two couples were married I did about ten weddings per year, most of the couples were young. Most of them had fancy dresses and limousines, lots of attendants, and most of the things that are important to young couples. They more or less said the same vows as the older couples, they promised to love each other for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, until death would part them. And I think they all meant it, though it did not work out for all of them.
I wasn’t a whole lot older than the younger couples (although they may have thought so) but even then I was keenly aware of the difference in their vows. The young couples were just as sincere as the older couples, but they truly had no idea what it meant to love someone for better and worse, in sickness and in health, until one of them would die.
And so, I was always profoundly moved by the vows of older couples, for they had already buried a spouse and they knew how difficult life and a marriage could be.
That is not to say that perhaps they also did not want to be alone.
Let me add my own story. But it’s not about my marriage.
I grew up in a family that was profoundly unhappy. I now believe that my mother had a personality disorder but you don’t know that when you are growing up. My father, besides being married to my mother, had an unhappy 14 year long affair. As a child I always wanted to fix things, help my mother and father be happy together. But such is not within the power of children.
While my childhood wasn’t without happy moments, it was not a happy childhood. But looking back on it I also know that it shaped me into the person I am. And while I do not like everything about myself, I am happy to be who I am. This may sound like a contradiction, but it is not.
In our passage from the Gospel of John Jesus describes himself as a vine, his Father as the vinegrower, and us, his disciples and friends, as the branches. And Jesus uses one of the key words in the Gospel of John: to abide. “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (v.4)
Of course, the image makes sense. Any branch that becomes detached from a tree will die, the same with vines. However, the problem with the image is not the part of remaining in Jesus (though there are certainly times when it is) but about being together with all the other branches. If I could just be with Jesus, just Jesus and I, life would be easier.
As someone said recently, ‘I love Jesus so much, it’s Christians that I cannot stand.’1
It may be a truism to say that the only way we grow as individuals is in community. Without the ability to learn from others, without being annoyed by one another, I will not grow as a person, and I will not learn to love. Loving humanity is easy, loving my neighbour is hard. And what if my neighbour is another branch on Christ the vine?
I am not advocating enduring abusive relationships or any kind of abuse, I am not advocating for communities that have power structures that leave people out of discussions and decision making. Not every community is good only because it is a community.
But I will only learn to love when I learn to love those that are not easy to love, and in the process I may learn that I am not always easy to love either.
And that it what I experienced as so beautiful about Frieda and Les, Molly and Jake, Rose and Fletcher. They knew that love wasn’t an easy thing but were committed to it nonetheless.
And yet, this isn’t simply about doing it or having the right attitude. In 1 John we learn that we love because God loved us first. That means that love is a gift before it is a practice. It is a gift because God loves us. That love we see and find in Jesus. It fills our hearts and our lives. That is why we must remain in the vine.
And remaining in the vine requires us to make time for God, to be intentional about worship, prayer, and acts of love.
It is a practice because love is often counter-intuitive. When someone is mean to me I want to return the favour. And yet if we practised that kind of reciprocity in all of our relationships, we wouldn’t have any.
And so we remain in the vine. And the vine fills us with love and strength, and and attached to it are people we didn’t choose but whom God also loves. And one day we will understand that gift.
1 Christopher Ashley: http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2021/04/useless-titles/