April 29th 2018 John 15 1-8
Today’s reading is one loaded with theological teachings and implications. We could pick any verse and talk all day without exhausting it’s reservoir of wisdom and spiritual meanings. Notice I say meanings, plural, because there are many ways we can interpret the words we have read aloud here together. The use of metaphor is a powerful rhetorical device which Jesus has mastered in his preaching. Jesus’ teaching here is steeped in metaphor, the vine, the vine-grower, the branches, and the fruit. Each image loaded with intention, theological and otherwise. None of these images are meant to be taken literally, but each one points beyond itself to teach us something about God and Jesus.
On first reading, you would be forgiven if you read this Gospel text as one of judgement, certainly our human nature is quick to lead us to those types of conclusions. But as is so often the case, our expectations end up being much different than God’s. The bearing fruit part is easy enough for us to understand, but what are we to make of the withered branches thrown into the fire? Are we to interpret this message that we, the believers, are the fruit bearing branches and those who do not believe are the withered branches, thrown into the fire? We could do that but it would be lazy theology.
Our task is to extract the grace from the text, redeeming that which seems to be without virtue. I’ll admit that this task was a bit of a struggle for me this week and it took several days of reflection to arrive at an interpretation steeped in that grace. It was a struggle for me in particular because of the issues I had brushed up against in my local context this week. And so I myself have an agenda, a bias. I guess you could say that I am out to prove that judgement is not ours to make, and that which looks like judgement in our reading is actually evidence of the love of God present in our midst.
Most, if not all of us here have plants in their house. If you’ve spent any time tending to plants in your life you will know that there are many factors that go into the maintenance of a healthy plant. How much water, how much light. Each plant variety has it’s own specific conditions within which it thrives. How much more true is this for plants that are outside, who are subject to a wide variation of weather conditions; animal and insect intrusion which present ever changing challenges to the bearing of fruit and even survival.
In my family’s house there are several plants that I care for; care being an important distinction. I had been noticing over the course of the last several weeks that a few of the branches and their leaves were turning yellow. I held out a faint hope that they might one day recover, but last week my patience gave way and I decided to trim the withering branches. Though these branches were not quite dead yet, they were taking energy away from the rest of the plant, including the new shoots that were emerging. So I trimmed the withered parts an disposed of them in the compost. Soon enough, in the subsequent days, I noticed that rest of the plant was rejuvenated and was flourishing, with several new shoots emerging to take the place of those that were trimmed. And so it was with care and patience that the plant was trimmed. Trimmed so that new life could flourish. But I did not hate the withered branches, nor judge them as somehow failures at life. Even those withered branches had a role to play in the growth and life cycle of the plant. In its earlier days, those withered branches were once healthy and contributed to the growth of the plant.
This story, as it relates to our Gospel reading begs the question; what kind of God do we have? Is ours a harsh and judgemental God? Meting out punishment to those who do not believe the right things, do the right things, or say the right things? Is the Jesus Christ we worship an extension of this kind of God? Dare we risk interpreting this reading another way? Dare we risk abiding in a God who is loving and kind, a God who is caring of not only the branches that bear fruit, but also the branches that have withered? You’ll notice that in the reading the vine grower gathers the withered branches that have been cut and throws them into a fire to be burned. Again there is redemption to be had for the withered branches for the vine-grower had found another useful purpose for those once healthy, yet now dead branches. What kind of fire was it? A cooking fire? A fire to heat a home? That the vine-grower gathers them and finds another redemptive purpose for them suggests for us a God that is loving and steeped in wisdom.
It would be easy enough for us to conclude that the purpose of this text is to encourage faith in Christ. Fair enough, for that is generally the purpose of our scripture and the church. But why stop there? Scripture is more than the sum of the words it contains, for beneath, between and behind every word there is an inexhaustible fount of spiritual meaning that we are compelled to investigate. Education is a very important spiritual discipline of the Lutheran Church. Martin Luther translated the bible into the common language that each of us might come to scripture and be able to gain access to the treasures it contains; that we might investigate it, mine it for meaning and in so doing come closer to Christ. To discern the Holy Spirit in our midst.
Let us put this notion to the test, here is an example. In this reading Jesus does not say those who believe in me will bear fruit, yet that is a common assumption. He says those that abide in me will bear much fruit. Abide in me. I ask you, what is the difference between believing in Christ and abiding in Christ? To believe in Christ is to make an intellectual decision to believe or not to believe in something. I think the word believe often gets misused theologically. To abide however, is to live or dwell in Christ, to live out one’s faith. Something that is much harder to explain or quantify, a concept which is more than an intellectual function, it requires the whole body, mind and soul acting in harmony.
And so, our Lutheran doctrine is founded on the principle of Justification by grace alone. It’s not what we do, it’s what God has done and continues to do to sustain us. Our chief task then is to find the grace in scripture and in life in those moments when it seems that grace is absent. For it is in those moments when God comes closest. It is there in the withered branches, which we find hidden in plain sight a loving and redemptive God.
In verse 15 and elsewhere we have a translation of whoever believes “in” him, but the Koine is rendered more accurately as whoever believes “on” him. This might make no difference, or it might make a significant difference. To believe “in” Jesus often gets reduced to an intellectual ascension. I choose to believe. But to believe “on” Jesus evokes imagery of foundation, like Christ is the foundation upon which I build my life and cultivate faith. You’ll recall Luther statements such as “here I stand, I can do no other.” Whether you like in or on, having both in play creates added depth of our understanding of the scripture passage and its theological implications.
In verse 17 It says God did NOT send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that it might be saved. What do you suppose is meant by the world? How narrowly do we want to define God’s world and God’s people for that matter?
One of the more problematic themes in Judaism is the chosen people paradigm. It creates this sense of superiority, an us versus them mentality which can sometimes do more harm than good. I know it’s more nuanced than that but Christians too have adopted this superiority thinking, that we are the people of God and everyone else is condemned. It seems to say so in the Bible doesn’t it? If we take Jesus’ ministry as a whole, can we really say that Jesus wants us to think we are better than non-Christians? You can see the slippery slope here.
Speaking of condemnation, verse 18 states those who do not believe are condemned already. Two things immediately pop out here. One, Verse 17 just said the Son of Man did not come to condemn, now it says exactly who is condemned and what the qualifications are. A second thing to note is that the judgement has already taken place, therefore there is no need for further judgement, and certainly not by us, for judgement is God’s alone. Which sets up the climax of this passage, verse 19 and 20 which says “and this is the judgement.” Wow! This is it! This is an important cue for the listener,
“That the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
Again, a powerfully composed piece of poetry. An epic clash of light and darkness, good and evil. The light has come in to the world. God said let there be light and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Another Genesis throwback. This cue is unmistakeably intentional and very effective. Poetry.
The passage concludes with verse 21, “but those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” Of course we read that and immediately think, of course that means me. What I have done is true, I live out the light, my deeds have been done in God.
It is easy to take this passage and interpret it in black and white for our own sake, our own comfort. Those of us who believe in Jesus are in and everyone else is doomed. We’ve made our choice. We are the light, and they are the darkness. Pretty straight forward, that’s what the Bible says, end of story. It is tempting to stop there, call it a sermon, sing a hymn, and move on. There is, however, more to scripture here than meets the eye. Consider this, our translation to verse 21 states “but those who do what is true come to the light.” The literal translation of the Koine Greek, however, is something altogether different. It states “the one, however, practising the truth comes to the light.” Practising the truth.
It’s not something we do per se, it’s something we do over and over again. Something to work on our whole lives, to get better at. Not that we get everything right, but that we keep practicing. Faith therefore is not a static achievement, it is a process. It is like playing an instrument, like preaching a sermon. Like training for a sport, cooking, or sewing, or reading and writing, poetry perhaps. Something we have to practice to get good at, even after we mess up. Faith, that freely given gift of God’s grace, is something we uncover over time. The more we exercise it, the more present it becomes in our lives.
Some final questions to consider: Who is talking in our Gospel passage today? Is it Jesus or is it the narrator? Nowadays, these verses are laden with quotation marks to indicate that it is Jesus talking throughout. A footnote in my Bible says “some interpreters hold that the quotation concludes with verse 15. This means that it is the narrator who begins with For God so loved the world… The original manuscripts of these sacred texts have no grammatical tools like punctuation, quotation marks, capitals, etc. These are all modern conventions. What theological difference does it make, if any, if it is Jesus talking or the narrator? How might your understanding of the text be altered? You may come to arrive at the same conclusion that you started with, but you will be forever changed by the process of practicing of your faith. For Aristotle said “that it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”