When I was a pastor, I felt a sense of personal hurt whenever members transferred to other congregations, particularly when such transfers had nothing to do with a job relocation or a geographic move, as is sometimes the case. It was made worse by the fact that lots of such people never said good-bye, never dropped a note, never explained why they left the congregation—maybe it felt awkward to them to do so precisely because they sensed the pastor would take it personally. But indeed, as a pastor you maybe baptized their children, presided over their marriage, did a funeral for a loved one.
But then these members of your flock disappear one day and that is that. It hurts. But even at its most painful that is nothing compared to how Jesus feels when he loses a branch–because in that case it means not that the branch is serving God elsewhere on the vine but that the branch is little more than kindling wood.
John 15 reveals all kinds of interesting things. But one of the most startling perhaps is how much Jesus wants to be close to his people (and how close in fact he is to his people when all this “abiding” goes on as it should). This is, in other words, a lyric piece of Gospel.
You may have noticed in verse 2 that the branches the Father cuts off are described as having been “in me.” This soon-to-be dead wood once had every bit as intimate a relationship with Jesus the Vine as every other branch has. It is not as though these branches had once floated freely above the vine or had had at best only a small connection to the larger vine stem. A branch is a branch and it is organically united with the vine. To lose such a branch is to lose part of your very self. The act of cutting that branch is a wounding, scar-making affair. Small wonder Jesus expresses such fervency in John 15 that disciples not let this happen! Jesus is desperate to keep everyone, desperate that they remain in his love even as Jesus himself and his words remain in the hearts of all branches.
Most people in North America (and in other parts of the world, too) are accustomed to living in very voluntarist societies. We view our membership and involvement in most every institution as something that is wholly up to us—we can initiate membership and we can terminate membership at will. No big deal. Hence we tend to view the status of our membership, of our belonging, to this or that group sort of at arm’s length. Being a volunteer member carries with it a vague sense of detachment. I come and go as I please, thank you very much.
And so even in terms of church membership—and here I am recalling something Eugene Peterson once wrote—we have a hard time wrapping our minds around the idea that to say “I am a member of Second Church” is (biblically speaking) like referring to your own hand as a member of your body. Being a voluntary member of some group means joining or resigning are rather easy things. Being a body part carries with it quite other connotations! A hand can’t quit the body without some pretty dramatic effects. Or, in the specific case of John 15, a branch cannot leave the vine without some trauma involved. Pruning, cutting, cleansing a vine involves pain, for the branch but also for the host vine.
There are lots of interesting insights to be drawn out of a passage as rich as John 15. But perhaps in this Eastertide Season, a reminder of what it means to dwell “in Christ” as a member of his community is as important, if not bracing, a reminder we preachers can provide to people who may over time come to regard their membership in the church altogether too casually.
Commentator Dale Bruner calls John 14 Jesus’ great “Father Sermon” since nowhere else does Jesus talk so much about his Father–in 42 verses Jesus uses the word “Father” twenty-one times, about once every other verse. John 15 brings us to what Bruner calls the “Son Sermon” because here Jesus talks a great deal about himself. In the span of just 31 verses Jesus uses the first-person pronoun “I” a whopping seventy-one times, nearly twice per verse on average! (John will present Jesus’ “Spirit Sermon” in chapter 16, which is the longest single section in the gospels where Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s work.) John’s presentation and packaging of the events in the Upper Room make him quite unique among the New Testament’s four gospel accounts. But one thing is clear: the theology John teaches and conveys in these three key chapters has gone on to become extremely foundational for the Church along the ages.
What does the person of faith look like? Is the faith-filled person someone who exudes a serene confidence, a calmed and hushed and unperturbed spirit? Or is the faith-filled one the active and always-in-motion kingdom worker who is mostly a kind of holy blur of volunteerism? Is faith a set of convictions that could be counted-cross-stitched and hung on a wall or is faith seen best only when it is put into practice out on the nitty-gritty streets of the real world?
In the Bible Abraham is the father of all faith, and his life was mostly a series of journeys that involved trust. By faith Abraham packed up everything he owned one day and set off on a long trip toward an as-yet unspecified far country. God said “Go” and Abraham went. God said “Go to a place I will show you later” but Abraham did not reply, “Well, if I’m going to go, could you at least give me a hint, a general direction, a region on the map?” No, Abraham just went–no map, no end destination. Just a wing and a prayer, a dream of starry skies and sandy seashores and a home country out there . . . Somewhere.
And that’s faith, we say. It was a leap of faith, and most of us believe at some level that sooner or later faith will involve a leap, a jump into the unknown. Abraham’s own journey of faith had its ups and downs and setbacks. But his story climaxes with one final excursion into the unknown when God told him one terrible day to take his son, his only son, Isaac whom he loved, and kill him on yet another unspecified mountain locale that God would show Abraham later on, only after he had set out. And it was only when the dagger, glinting in the morning sunshine on Mount Moriah, was raised up over Isaac’s rapidly heaving chest that God said, “Now I know!” The journey of faith was complete. Abraham had once more leapt into the unknown, proving his faith.
Frederick Buechner has written that faith should be seen as a verb and not a noun because faith is always about the sacred journey along life’s varied pathways. Others point out that in the Greek of the New Testament people are not said to believe in something but rather they believe into something, again hinting at movement, the risky stepping out onto thin air. To people like this, faith is never a creed because that is too static, too settled. Creeds make faith look like a big overstuffed easy chair that you settle into in your living room in a kind of cozy spiritual serenity. But real faith, some say, is about hitting the road, trusting God to lead you along. Faith is active and moving, not static and dry.
It’s an old debate, of course. Martin Luther’s world changed (and he then changed the rest of the world) after he read Paul’s hope-laden rhetoric that we are justified by faith alone! Faith is a gift given to us by grace. We don’t have to do anything to get faith. But then Luther discovered the letter of James. James was one of those who didn’t want faith to be the overstuffed easy chair and so said over and over that faith without works is dead. If you’ve got faith, you’d better be out there living and working and journeying along in very active ways, James said. Well, Luther didn’t like that at all. “James makes me so angry,” Luther said one day, “that I feel like throwing Jimmy into the kitchen stove!”
Luther wanted faith to be like a precious jewel hidden in our hearts. Others claim that the best image for faith is walking. Some say faith is a matter of the head and the heart–what you know and how you feel. Others say it’s a matter of the hands and feet–what you do and where you go.
In John 15 we get a little of both. On the one hand, faith is about remaining, abiding, staying still and calm and in one place, rooted to Jesus. At the same time, we are called to produce fruit, to be active, vibrant, and verdant.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 2, 2021
John 15:1-8 Commentary