The 5th Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2009
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The 1st letter of John and the gospel of John are written by the same author, and today’s readings from both bear the same message. They are so clear, so deep and true. Gems like this come and go quickly on Sunday mornings, and we can easily miss them, like a glorious sunrise that we’re too sleepy to notice. Just listen:
God is love.
Whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them.
I am the vine; you are the branches.
Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit.
Abide in me, as I in abide you.
The branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine.
Apart from me you can do nothing; you will wither away.
Those who say “I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars.
What do Jesus and John mean by “abide in me, abide in love?” We usually think of being with God as something we choose to do now and then in prayer, or as random passing feeling. We’re over here, God’s somewhere out there, and we bridge the gap by praying or by God reaching out and touching us. And we think of loving the same way – something we choose to do now and then, or something that temporarily seizes us.
But the word “abide” suggests something different. To abide means to dwell, to live in. It’s like our home. We abide in a house. We may come and go from it, we may experience all kinds of different moods within it, but it is always our home. If we’ve been there a long time, we belong to this home in deeply, intimately. That’s why a robbery or a fire can be so devastating. Something inside us is violated.
And so to abide in God surely means something more enduring and constant than just choosing to connect now and then or having a passing feeling. It is more a state of mind, something we carry around all the time, like our breath. Jesus and John say that we are to cultivate this sense of belonging, to live in God all the time.
How is this possible? Let’s begin with how we understand ourselves to be in relationship with God, with others, with the world around us.
Biologists say that the largest living organism is a 100-acre aspen grove in Utah called Pando. Like all aspen groves, it is really one plant. The trees are actually shoots that spring up from their common underground root.
But the biologists are wrong. All of creation is one sacred organism, all people and plants and animals and atmosphere and earth and water, all connected through our source, which is God. And since the energy of God that infuses all is love, when we abide in this divine love, it is as if the sap in the whole organism is flowing up from the root, bringing good things into being, like fruit on the vine.
Love takes all kinds of forms - love for other people, love for life, love for God. And in each case, to abide in love suggests that we always remain carefully connected through the ups and downs, in relationship with other people, with life, with God, as part of a vast living organism.
First, loving others. We love people when we express affection toward those who are loveable, to be sure, or when we are kind and generous to those who need us. But love is also simply doing the right thing by someone - even if we don’t like them - rather than what we feel like doing or saying. Love in this case is kindness, respect, and appreciation for the other’s uniqueness, as weird as they may be.
If on the other hand we hold back kindness and respect from those we don’t like, we cut ourselves off from other branches on the vine. If we say that we love God but refuse to love the unlikable, we are living a lie, because God is in everyone. We stop the sap from flowing most of the time – because, after all, there are so many unlikable people. We diminish ourselves. We wither up, becoming dry, brittle, and unfruitful.
Love can come out of us towards anyone, for no reason, just because we’re all part of this one vine that is life in God. Just like the rain that falls on the just and the unjust alike, love that is grounded in God doesn’t need to be deserved or returned. It just is. And when we let this flow, the sap rises from the root, feeding the whole vine, bringing good things to fruition.
Second, loving life. Of course we love life when things are beautiful. Right now my back yard is in its prime. The lawn, the cottonwood and elm leaves are all a rich, lively, springy green. Birds are chirping like crazy and the sky is bright blue. This is easy to love. But soon it will be hot. The elms will start looking as raggedy as they always end up looking, the sky will get hazy, and after 10am, I won’t be sitting outside on my portal.
Can I love the world around me then? Can I appreciate the magnificent power of the sun that blasts me in the face when I step outside? Can I embrace the sauna of my car after it’s been sitting in the parking lot for an hour, feeling it for a moment before I move?
And what about loving life in my circumstances? Can I approach tension, conflict, and hardship with curiosity and trust, knowing that God has something there to teach me? In these situations, Jesus said that God is like a vinedresser, pruning us back. This is not a punishment. It is so that we will produce more fruit. It is so that on the other side of the tension, the conflict, the difficulty, we will become more free, loving and true.
Loving life is not just becoming like Zorba the Greek, eating, drinking, and laughing our way through the splendors of life. It is letting things be as they are, feeling them, whatever they are, appreciating what this moment has to offer. It is slowing down, getting out of our egocentric way of thinking that everything is about whether it serves our preferences or not. Loving life is opening our eyes to the beautiful and the ugly, seeing it all as one vast canvas upon which a masterpiece is slowly being painted. It is being willing to be pruned now and then, as painful as that can be.
This, too, is allowing God’s sap to rise up. After all, God didn’t just make roses and sunshine. God also made tsunamis and bare dirt, illness and disappointment. To limit our love for life to roses and sunshine is to cut our love off from all the rest; we diminish and isolate ourselves. We don’t have to like all of it; we are only asked to honor all of life by giving the moment at hand our care, our attention, and curiosity. When we love life this way, we remain connected to our source, and the sap of God’s love produces fruit.
Finally, loving God. What does it mean to love God, beyond what God may do for us? I think it is about getting in touch with and expressing our gratitude and adoration for the mystery that is God, at any time, for no good reason at all. Loving God is just pouring ourselves towards God, whether or not we have something to feel grateful for.
If we exercise our faith, we can do this no matter what our circumstances. After all, at any given time, we cannot see what lies beneath the surface. We cannot see how God may be at work, what seeds are being planted, what grace is being secretly given, in the dark. Faith is trust that God is good and brings forth good, at all times, in all places. This is loving God. Through thick and thin, ups and downs, we remain connected to the root of the vine, and we bring forth good fruit.
So abide in love, as John and Jesus said. Make it your home. Maintain your appreciation for the moment you are living. Be respectful and kind to the other, knowing that you are both branches of the same vine. Hold the ugly and the beautiful together, appreciating the uniqueness of both. Give to God your trust, your thanks, and your love at all times, even when you are being pruned.
When you live this way, you will never be alone, cut off and isolated like a withered branch. The sap of divine love will always flow through you, and good things will come into being like juicy grapes in the fall harvest.