V Easter, Year B
1 Jn 4:7-21
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
(1 John 4:7-21)
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom theyhave not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Reflecting on today’s reading from John, we found ourselves confronted with the depth to which we ourselves are embedded in a sacrificial way of thinking. It became almost impossible for us to avoid a reading that screamed of judgment, of scapegoating, as we envisioned the unfortunate branches that withered and were cast into the fire. Flames of Hell and the Wrath of God seemed an inescapable exegetical conclusion.
Even the tried-and-true escape hatch we’ve used before failed us if we were to be true to the text. You know the one, “Oh, the different branches only refer to different parts of ourselves, and God’s pruning away of those parts that do not give us life…” Careful attention to the text doesn’t permit us that freedom.
The text clearly equates individuals with single branches, some of whom bear fruit, and others which are taken away, or fall away and wither to be thrown on the fire. There is no escaping this conclusion. And so, it would seem, there is no escaping a traditional, sacrificial reading of the text.
But there is. There is if we can only learn to see beyond our tendency to judgment. We have so habitually associated the image of fire with God’s wrath that it requires a real effort of will to escape this pre-determination and read only what is there. What Jesus describes here is a natural, normal approach to the growing of grapes, or any fruit. That which is not connected to its roots through the vine withers. There is no judgment in this, only truth.
Those branches that gather dead upon the ground are removed, put on the fire to be burned so that they do not grow parasites that may hurt the vine. There is no judgment here, only action based on natural processes. The fire doesn’t “punish” those branches that are put there, they’re already dead!
What Jesus says is true. Any person who is not drawing life from God, but rather from the mimetic system, which rules the world, that person, is dead or dying. We at Preaching Peace acknowledge the limitations of our vision, the likelihood that many are connected to the source of nourishment through a vine whose name may be pronounced differently than “Jesus,” but we believe also that without this Source of life, the only end for those branches is death.
There is no judgment in this, as we do not see death as a punishment, at least in our better moments. How can we preach the Resurrection at so many funeral services and still see these metaphors of death as wrathful? “Yet even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”
I will die. You will die. And we shall be raised. (Remember the verb “airo”?) This wonderful passage from John challenges us to extend to our own mortality the same freedom from judgment that we do to the raising of Jesus on the Cross. As preachers, it gives us the opportunity to help our congregations see, perhaps through an ironic identification with the normal, mimetic reading of this text at first, the means of escape from that trap offered us by the One who passed through death before us.
That escape hatch is very specifically named in our reading as Love. Love is used very specifically as the way we demonstrate our faith, we keep his commandment to love one another. The church, as well as the academy, has had a difficult time with this kind of love. It’s a love that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. It is the love of a gardener for his vineyard. It is love that will even die that the other may continue living. Love is unsettling, love is liberating.
“Love is the only true revelatory power because it escapes from, and strictly limits, the spirit of revenge and recrimination that still characterizes the revelation in our own world, a world in which we can turn that spirit into a weapon against our own doubles, as Nietzsche also showed. Only Christ’’ perfect love can achieve without violence the perfect revelation toward which we have been progressing – in spite of everything – by way of the dissentions and divisions that were predicted in the Gospels. The present expression of these dissentions is our increasing tendency to load responsibility for all these divisions upon the Gospels themselves. We can only agree among ourselves in attacking the Gospel, which by a wonderfully revealing symbolism is in the process of becoming our scapegoat. Human beings came together in the first societies of our planet simply to give birth to the truth of the Gospel, and now they are determined to deny that truth.” Rene Girard (Things Hidden)
There are several items of interest in our text.
Textually we note that all of the themes developed in chapter 15 are already announced in chapter 14. Some of these themes will be developed further in chapter 16. By tracing the author’s use of interwoven thematic formula, it is possible to see the interweaving of eschatology, pneumatology and ecclesiology. For the author of the Fourth Gospel, the church was humanity living eschatologically.
We also note that “I am the true vine” is the last in a sequence of seven ‘I Am’ sayings. Usually, the last in a series of anything is important. So it is here. It is probable that there are eucharistic undertones implicit in this text that rounds off the “I Am the bread of life” in John 6. If so, the implicit ecclesiology of John 15:1-8 is very different from what we know in the 21st century about the church. The eucharistic ‘background’ or the use of this ‘paroima’ as a reading in the worship of the Johannine community indicates the high priority the community placed on the value of love. The emphasis, then, is not on judgment but on abiding, it is all about the kind of relationship we have with Jesus. Some people have relationships with Jesus that are, well, not so healthy. That’s because their ‘Jesus’ is nothing more than a Christian version of other mythic ‘gods.’ It is evidenced in the lack of love demonstrated in their relationships. Without love, we wither up and die and eventually fall off the vine or tree or plant. A little wind can knock us off. The true vine is the vine of love.
This is accented by C.H. Dodd: “The organic union of the branches with the vine and so with one another provides a striking image for that idea of the mutual indwelling of Christ and His people which the author wishes to develop. Soon it appears that the principle of such indwelling is agape: Christ’s love for His ‘friends’, reproducing the love of the Father, and issuing in loving obedience on the part of the disciples, which is the ‘fruit’ the branches bear. And the practical upshot is ‘love one another.’” (The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel)
Finally we note the play on words, airein and kathairein. This is important for two reasons. First the play on words cannot be replicated in the Semitic languages. We have the author’s textual weaving in Greek of utterances of Jesus that are expanded upon. We see this all the time in the Fourth Gospel. This is the author’s use of these short ‘parables.’ Second, the entire notion of God pruning off the dead branches and burning them in the fire (of hell [sic]) may well not be the best way to translate this text, as does, for example, the RSV.
Brown points out that “kathairein’ itself is not frequent in the Greek Bible; its use for agricultural processes is well attested in secular Greek, although there is some doubt whether, taken alone, it has the meaning ‘to prune’ that is demanded by the context here. The use of airein, ‘to take away’, for cutting off branches is even more awkward.” (The Gospel According to John Vol 2).
Dodd says in a footnote (p. 136) that “no example of kathairein = to prune (apart from John 15:2) is given in Liddell and Scott and Moulton and Milligan. I have gone through a number of vineyard leases and the like among the Oxrhynchus papyri, which enter into elaborate detail about the various operations without coming upon kathairein. I do not think it was a word which a vinegrower would naturally have used.” (Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel)
While both Brown and Dodd acknowledge that kathairein might be used for pruning, airein does not fit well with branches being harvested from a vine. Rather, it appears the vinegrower picks up the dead branches lying on the ground and trims those on the vine. The point of both operations is to care for the health of the vine.
As we discern the implications of the peace we have with God, we are ever led back into the heart of God, a heart full of self-giving. What do you suppose would happen if the churches that heard this text read and preached on Sunday would actually go out and love one another to the best of their ability, no more, but no less? What would Christianity look like if it refused every other source of nourishment but Jesus? How might this affect our values? Or our view of ourselves? Or others? Or our theology? What might we become in the world if we took our place at Jesus’ table and loved one another the very same way he showed his love?
We hear a prophetic voice in this text. That voice is calling us, as he called his own community, to pay attention and stay focused on Jesus. It’s not about anything else. There is nothing else that can nourish like love. We know that some people need their anger, it fuels them. Others need coping mechanisms that effectively numb them. For some it is power, others sex, for others fame and some it’s fortune. Many are the tables set before us in our mimetically driven culture. Many are places we are called to believe we are fed when in fact, we are poisoning ourselves.
The eucharistic implications of our text also point us in a new direction. We come to this table needing forgiveness, but before leaving we are enjoined to forgive as we make our way from this table. How, then, can so many Christians around the planet celebrate such a meal with hate or anger or bitterness or fear in their hearts? What exactly are we doing with this cup in our hands? That’s blood in there. The blood of a murdered man, a victim of the system. When we hold this cup we can be aware that we are forgiven persecutors and forgiving victims. By so doing we are no longer either persecutor or victim, but a new creation, we become friends, like Jesus, our Friend.
There will come a time when America will fall. Then we will see who the followers of Jesus are. I suspect that many will fall away from the church for having so ill prepared them for discipleship during this time of hardship. There will come a time when the system of governance no longer holds, when anarchy and violence prevail in our cities, when our economy has collapsed, when all we hold near and dear as a lifestyle will cease to exist. Jesus will not have raptured anybody (because there is no such thing). Those who for so long preached war will now find war has crossed the threshold into their own communities, churches and homes. Did not Jesus say as much in the Little Apocalypse?
Are we being unrealistic to say that time is short? Does not the confluence of global economic debt, global warming and a global war on terror suggest a global meltdown of apocalyptic proportions? Yes, like the Dispensationalists, we too read the signs of the times. But we will not use these signs to rejoice in an escape hatch that does not exist. Rather, we are enjoined to hold fast to the Vine, Jesus, who calls the church to continue to bear witness to him. We will hold fast to Jesus and care and love one another no matter how deep the cultural darkness. We will cling to the Vine for our hope, nourishment and energy. And we will do all of this so that we may bear the fruit of the gospel and continue to feed the desperate in desperate times.
The Gardener is in the Vineyard. Church by church, congregation by congregation, The Gardener collects the dead branches, tills the soil and cares for the Vine. Even now, when the Vine appears dormant, it is being pruned, ready for the next season. Even now…
Jeff adds some sermon thoughts:
“If you don’t have good news to offer, don’t get in the pulpit.” These words of my favorite preaching teacher continue to haunt me. I look at this text and ask myself, “How do I preach good news here?”
Yes, Michael is right that much of our consternation stems from our habit of relating burning/death to wrath/punishment. He is right to point out that there is no punishment in death. That “the wages of sin is death” is no reference to punishment, but a statement of fact. As John would say it, “Life lived without the Son is no life at all.”
I think that the difficulty we face as preachers comes largely from our pastoral relationship to our congregations, and our intimate awareness of the pain that “death” brings them, no matter the presence of wrath or not. Because of this, we often feel as though we are compelled to deal with the dead branches in our sermons, explain them away, or at least offer some comfort for those who have experienced the “death” of someone close. (It may be literal or figurative.)
The moment we allow this task to grab our focus, the sermon’s weight will begin to lean toward the dead branches, and the good news that Jesus dwells in and provides an indestructible life to those who dwell in him is overshadowed. Preach the good news that those of us who feel death moving in us have a source of life that cannot be conquered. We may not always turn to Jesus for our strength, but we may always turn back, we may always drink of the waters that well up in us to eternal life.
Your hearers know that they, like Paul, dwell in a “body of death.” But they know, too, that there is another choice, another way. Remind them of the vine to which they are joined, remind them of the waters of life that flow through this vine for them. Remind them that, no matter the threats of the world in which they live, they have a place to dwell, to “abide.”
Like a spiral, the argument of I John comes ever closer and closer to its center. Our passage today makes clear that there is a direct connection between a) the nature or character of God, b) the purpose of God’s sending Jesus and c) the way we relate to each other as those who follow in Jesus’ way.
Just as God is light (1.5) so also God is love (4.16). Just as there is no darkness in God, so also there is no fear of punishment with God (4.18). These axiomatic statements are not to be taken lightly, for most Christian doctrines of God are not explications of these clear affirmations about the character of God. Most Christian doctrines of God are more like a piece of luggage: take a series of highfalutin’ words, throw them inside the luggage, zip it up and Voila!, you have a doctrine of God. Take, e.g., the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647):
“There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection a most pure spirit invisible without body, parts or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.”
Now this Confession has exercised tremendous influence on American Protestantism. In it God is not described as much as God is defined, and that by a series of adjectives and nouns, many of them from Greek philosophy. This doctrine of God has been all zipped up and locked and suffices for tens of millions. What is not apparent in this paragraph from Westminster is the logic of what the statements God is love and God is light would mean for a doctrine of God. As I said back on the Second Sunday in Easter, “If Jesus is the Light of the World (John 8) and God is Light, we must assert that the Janus faced gods of paganism are not and cannot be an analogue for God as Jesus knew and revealed God. “
We are certainly not the first (nor shall we be the last) to travel this path. The question we must ask is this: if we are going to follow the logic of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, then are we obligated to let go of our tendency to make God in our image and after our likeness which is a conflicted image, a dualistic likeness, sometimes good, sometimes evil, sometimes loving, sometimes vengeful? If we assert that God is love, are we saying that love is but one of many characteristics of God or are we saying that love is the very essence of divinity? If I John can assert that God is love and that we who live in love cannot ‘hate’ our brothers and sisters, can it be said any less of God that God does not hate or seek retribution? Surely God is not like Cain, but is God like Abel, seeking vengeance? Not according to our author for whom God’s love is demonstrated in the sending of Jesus (4.9), in order that we might have life. More so, this life-giving God is not to be feared.
If in the Jewish Scriptures it can be said that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” our Jewish author says “there is no fear in love.” The commands to love God and fear God are antithetical and cannot both be followed without causing a theological double bind. Yet this is precisely what certain types of Christianity assert (just watch Christian TV or listen to Christian Family radio).
The time has come to allow the author of I John to have his way with our modern theology. In the light of these axioms we are called to unzip our theological luggage and take out the “darkness” or “retribution” of God in order to reform, or better yet, transform our theology and our preaching. If we do not do this, it is not gospel we are preaching but the ‘dysangellion’, a bad news that has been heard since the dawn of our species, a dawn which is really the dusk of violent religion.
No significant issues today.
This kind of thinking will be terribly frightening to many for whom ‘luggage theology’ is the norm. But Christianity has too long been carrying around the baggage of Greek philosophy, metaphysics and pagan idolatry. We have lost the gospel in the forest of cultural add-ons and hardly proclaim the God whom Jesus knew and revealed. The time has come to acknowledge our idolatry and repent.
Further, our doctrine of God has an implicit and direct connection to our ethics. Our text today begins by talking about God and ends with ethics. One might say that we can tell a person’s theology by the way they treat others. (Karl Barth is the theologian of the 20th century who saw this more clearly than others; cf his Church Dogmatics II/2). Not for nothing, but more and more folks are leaving the Christian faith in the United States every year. They can sing “Losing My Religion” with ease. Why? Because they can no longer believe in a god who looks more like a tyrant than a benefactor. Jesus they like, it’s God that no longer makes sense.
To preach the gospel takes theological courage, may the Spirit of the Risen Jesus Christ give you such courage!