Timing is everything! If it’s meant to happen, it will – at the right time and for the right reason.
And so it goes with this morning’s Scripture lesson. Jesus is giving his followers some last-minute teaching, some 11th-hour instruction, because the day of his death on the cross is fast approaching.
Jesus has given the believers a new commandment: to love one another in the way that he has loved them. And now, Jesus helps them and us understand what that kind of love looks like, how that kind of love behaves, what being one of his disciples is really all about.
Listen with all your senses for the living, breathing word of the Lord in John chapter 15, which begins with the revealing of a stunning reality about the Lord and his relationship with you and me: “I am the vine, and you are the branches.”
“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. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:1-17)
Opinion columnist Thomas Friedman, recently writing in the New York Times, offers a harsh-but-thought-provoking assessment of how America’s military involvement in places like the Middle East and Afghanistan has affected the political and social fabric of the United States.
“One day, 1,000 years from now, when they dig up this era,” Mr. Friedman writes, “archaeologists will surely ask how it was that a great power called America set out to make the Middle East more like itself – embracing [diversity] and the rule of law – and ended up instead becoming more like the Middle East – mimicking its worst tribal [values] and introducing a whole new level of lawlessness into its national politics?”
In the Middle East, the big tribes are two sects of Islam known as the “Shiites” and “Sunnis,” and in the United States, the big tribes, of course, are “Democrats” and “Republicans.”
But all those tribes – Shiites and Sunnis, Democrats and Republicans – each seem to be operating more and more these days with a toe-the-line, us-versus-them mentality. And most of the time, the tribes are at each other’s throats – for sure, figuratively, and sometimes, literally, with only bitter fruit cultivated by everyone’s ill-fated tribal labors.
Among Republicans, Mr. Friedman writes, tribalism vastly accelerated as the G.O.P. tribe has become dominated by a base of people who fear that their long-held dominance in America’s power structure was being eroded by rapidly changing social norms, expanded immigration, and rampant globalization. As a result, these folks no longer feel “at home” in their own country.
To signal that dis-ease, Mr. Friedman argues, they latch onto politicians who enthusiastically give voice to their darkest fears, and raw tribal muscle flexes its strength in brawny pursuit of minority rule. Even once-principled Republicans mostly are going along for the ride, embracing the core philosophy that dominates tribal politics in Afghanistan and the Arab world:
The “other” is the enemy, not a fellow citizen, and the only two choices are “rule or die.” Either we rule, or we denounce the results. Our way, or the highway.
But mind you, Mr. Friedman notes, the archaeologists digging into this phenomenon a millennium hence also will note that Democrats exhibited their own kind of tribal mania – like the raucous groupthink of progressives at many U.S. colleges and universities.
In particular, there were and are incidents of professors, administrators, and students being “canceled” – either silenced or thrown off campus for expressing even mildly unconventional or conservative views on politics, race, gender, or sexual identity. An epidemic of tribal political correctness on the left served only to energize the tribal patriotic correctness on the right.
And here’s what’s really alarming: The shift toward tribalism isn’t a uniquely American spectacle. More than a few democratically elected leaders around the world now find it much easier to build support with tribal appeals focused on identity than to do the hard work of coalition-building and compromise in multicultural societies.
As such, in those countries as well as ours, everything gets turned into a marker of tribal identity – mask-wearing, vaccinations, gender pronouns, climate change, immigration policy, etc. Conflicts thus erupt, and violence becomes more the norm, because your position on each point doubles as a challenge to others:
Are you in my tribe or not? Are you with me or against me?
So, there is less focus on the common good, and ultimately no common ground off which to pivot and address the big, hard challenges of our days. Together, we once put a man on the moon, but today, we can barely agree on the obvious necessity of fixing broken bridges.
We need to find the antidote to this tribalism,and we need to find it fast, Mr. Friedman urges, lest the future be grim for democracies everywhere. That’s a sobering pronouncement regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum or where you stand on our military involvements overseas.
Though it sounds like an overly simplistic cliché, better suited for a meme or bumper sticker than a sermon, perhaps the antidote to all this tribal warfare is Jesus – the One who says that he is the vine and we are the branches.
For it is that vital connection between him and us that makes truly amazing things happen. When Jesus is our vine and we are his branches, that is when you and I start producing fruit.
Only in Christ are we truly fruitful.
Only in Christ are we able to produce something that is sweet, nourishing, helpful and beneficial.
And that life-giving connection to Jesus the Vine isn’t just sweet, nourishing, helpful and beneficial for you and me as individuals. Our connection to Jesus the Vine is really more about you and me growing together as a community that is intimately interrelated.
When we abide, dwell and continue in Christ, Jesus the Vine weaves together intimate connections between your life and mine, between our lives and the lives of those around us. Jesus knits us together so tightly that we abide, dwell and continue in each other as much as we abide, dwell and continue in Christ. What God wills in Christ is that we grow so closely tied with one another and with Jesus that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
On one hand, that’s a heart-warming image – to know, sense and actually feel that we are connected to things human and divine that are greater than ourselves. Thanks be to God, we don’t spend our days alone walking our journey by ourselves.
But on the other hand, the picture of vines and branches that Jesus paints challenges our cultural beliefs in individualism and self-sufficiency.
Social interrelationship and mutual accountability are at the heart of the living ecosystem that Jesus the Vine desires, creates and sustains. In making you and me part of this ever-growing web of vine and branches that is both human and divine, what Jesus demands is that you and I remain steadfast in our living, breathing relationship with him and with one another.
That steadfastness – that faithfulness – is measured by the fruit that we produce together as a community. To bear fruit – or more to the Lord’s point, to act in love – is without question the No. 1 thing that Jesus calls us to do together. God in Christ seeks to build, maintain and nourish community, and it is the Lord’s love for that community that becomes the visible expression of his new commandment: to love one another as he loves us, and to love one another as we would want to be loved. To live as branches off the main vine of Jesus is to live in organic union with Christ and to let his love for us form and fashion the love we share with others.
Perhaps the hardest part of all this is recognizing and accepting that when you attached to Jesus the vine – when you are one of the branches that forms the larger structure of community, there are no such things as individual accomplishments, private choices, or personal rights.
When you are a branch growing forth from Jesus the Vine –when you are among the many branches of Jesus the Vine, job one for you, me and everybody is to reveal and share the love of God in Christ Jesus with the help our of trainer and branch-teaser, the Holy Spirit.
And the nurturing, life-giving, game-changing work of the Holy Spirit is what lies at the heart of our confirmation and reaffirmation of baptismal vows.
Truly living out one’s baptismal vows each and every day becomes a prayer, really, and that prayer goes something like this:
Holy Spirit, confirm and reaffirm in me God’s acceptance and love for me just as I am.
Holy Spirit, confirm and reaffirm in me the new life of my baptism when I became a child of God.
Holy Spirit, confirm and reaffirm in me the words my parents said on my behalf at baptism.
Confirm and reaffirm in me my desire to follow Christ more closely as his disciple, my closeness to Jesus each time I receive communion, my acts of loving service to friend, neighbor and stranger.
Confirm and reaffirm in me my desire to pray even when I am not sure how, my desire to turn to God in difficult times, my desire to grow more deeply in faith with the strength to stay with my questions and the trust to live not by fact but by faith when the answers to my questions are not clear.
Confirm and reaffirm in me the softening of my hard heart, the assurance that God helps me find second chances, the humility to give and seek forgiveness.
Holy Spirit, confirm and reaffirm in me the courage to face challenges, the desire to care for God’s creation, the generosity of heart to stand in justice with the poor, and your peace when I am in conflict.
Confirm and reaffirm in me the gift of wisdom to recognize the importance of keeping God central in my life; the gift of understanding to hear and know God’s voice speaking to me; the gift of knowledge to explore God’s revelation and the mysteries of faith; the gift of counsel to make good choices and to see the best way to follow Jesus.
Holy Spirit, confirm and reaffirm in me the gift of fortitude that gives me the courage to do what I know is right; the gift of holiness that helps me live, move and have my being with a true heart; the gift of awe-filled wonder that allows me to be amazed by God’s presence, in ways both small and large.
Timing really is everything!
If it’s meant to happen, it will – at the right time, by the work of the Spirit, and for the right reason, because we abide in Jesus, who chose us as his own long before we ever knew it, and who came to us to bridge the wide tribal gaps that are keeping us apart and preventing us from utilizing our many gifts for the common good.
That is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021 – World Communion Sunday and our celebration of confirmation and reaffirmation of baptismal vows. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Scott Hoezee, Daniel Migliore, Jane Casserly Myers, and Gail R. O’Dea inform the message.