April 29, 2018 Sermon

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018, Lectionary B


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                                  Scripture: John 15:1-8


“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30


Abide in Me

Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit among us, so that Jesus might abide in us and we in Him, thereby empowering us to bear much fruit through Him who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.


If you who have known me for a little while, then you know that I am a fan of movies.  I have long enjoyed them above any other form of entertainment. They quickly captured my interest and imagination ever since I was a boy, playing YMCA termite football. After the Saturday morning football game, we would pop off our shoulder pads and walk to the Kiddie Matinee at the local movie theater down the street.  There we would watch Tarzan movies among others, but not before a Sky King short or some cartoon. Transfixed by the images on the screen, we gorged on popcorn and drank Coca Colas.


So, my interest in movies, films, has continued to present.  Most nights, perhaps to the irritation of Emily, I search the multitude of TV channels looking for a good movie, especially one I have not seen before.  Rarely, do I watch the same movie more than once, though there are a few exceptions—mostly science fiction. For example, the movie, Dune, starring Kyle MacLachlan has long been a favorite of mine. More recently I have developed a fascination with a fairly new release, Interstellar, where the relativity of time and its impact on human relationships are explored.


There is something about these sci-fi movies that puts me a transcendent state of mind to which I like to return.  It is, perhaps, that state of mind, which I seek more than the content, though, that does matter. I like to abide in that state of mind.  It is a good place for me. By comparison, for Emily just about any movie that is British, especially Victorian, is an immediate draw for her.  Her movie preference is other than my own. If I am channel surfing I will quickly click by her type of movie (she’s not here today), if I can. Emily, an English major in college, loves to abide in the Victorian Era for which I care very little.


By now I have probably bored you, but the point has been to remind us that we all have places we like to abide.  Some of us like to abide on the golf course, right? Others of us like to abide in the kitchen or dining room, you know—food.  Others prefer to abide at the beach, fishing, or out hunting. A good book may a place of abiding for some. For others, they are continually plugged into music, live for sports, or enjoy some hobby. And, of course, there are those preferred relationships where we like to abide—spouse, children, grandchildren, or friends.


Abiding in an activity or relationship puts us in a preferred state of mind, giving us a sense of well-being, peace, comfort, and joy.  That abiding also shapes us, makes us, and inform us. It is a place of learning and transformation. In a real sense where we abide is who we are becoming and who we are.  We take on the attributes, character, and perhaps even the appearance of that place where we like to abide. For example, if we have a favorite football team and love to abide in watching it and hopefully win, we are likely to wear that team’s colors—purchase a jersey.  In other words, where we abide can profoundly affect who we are and what we do.


In today’s gospel from St. John, Jesus speaks of the importance of abiding, of abiding in Him.  He uses an agricultural or gardening analogy to drive home His point. “I am the true vine,” He tells us, “and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  He is speaking of us as those branches, who abide in Him.  Surely, we may have winced at His use of the word, prune. To be pruned is to be cut which elicits fear and pain.  We don’t like to be hurt. So, what is exactly going on with this pruning? How might we better understand it?


Grapevines are a remarkable sort of plant. Rooted in the ground, their tendrils reach out and travel, sometimes for hundreds of feet. Close to the base, they’re brown, thick and woody. Out by the grapes, they’re green, pliant and flexible.


To establish a grapevine takes more than a single growing season; it takes years. If tended carefully, they’ll continue to yield grapes year after year. Their natural tendency is to grow near the ground, but that’s not what the vine growers want to see. They want to raise the vines up so the grape clusters will hang down for easy harvesting. They also want to prevent the vines from sending tendrils snaking across the earth, randomly taking root.


Nowadays, vineyard owners support their vines with complex webs of steel or plastic cables, strung between posts.  You may have seen that structure when driving through certain areas of Georgia. In Jesus’ time, it was a matter of driving wooden stakes into the ground and tying the grapevines to them.


Then, as now, the most productive grapevines are the ones suspended over the ground. Their leaves create a canopy overhead, drinking in the sunlight. The shady area beneath is perfect for the grapes, so they retain their moisture and sweetness.


Part of the work of vine growing is pruning. The vine’s natural tendency is to send tendrils snaking out all over the place and to grow only a few bunches of grapes. Most of the water and nutrients in an un-tended grapevine go to producing those woody stalks. By cutting off all but a few of the soft, green tendrils before they harden into wood, the vine grower diverts the plant’s energy into bearing fruit.


The image of a grapevine is found in the Old Testament. Several of the prophets deployed it as a metaphor for the people of Israel. In the prophets’ vocabulary, God is the vine grower, dismayed to see that the vines have been abandoned to grow wild. The only thing to do in those desperate circumstances is to cut down the grapevines and burn them.  The wood of a grapevine is soft and gnarly, good for little else.


So, Jesus uses this strong and compelling metaphor of the grapevine, knowing that the listeners of His day would fully grasp its meaning.  He tells His listeners, including you and me, that He is the true vine, indeed the true Israel. We, the branches, are to abide in Him. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” so He tells us.  If we do not abide in Him, we cannot bear fruit, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you (nor I) unless (we) abide in (Him),” He says.  To which we might ask Him, “Well, what kind of fruit are you talking about?”  What does that fruit look like? Better yet, do we even want that fruit, whatever it is?


These are good questions.  Are we talking about becoming some kind of “goodie-two-shoes?”  Does that mean we have to clean up our language; watch what we say or what words we use?  Does that mean there are certain activities from which we should refrain or avoid? Does that mean we should go to church more frequently, pray daily, or read the Bible?  Do we now have to be nice to that neighbor of ours who is a real drag and a pain? Do we have to tithe, give ten percent of our income to the church? (The answer to that should be an unequivocal, “Yes,” by the way.)


As to the nature of this fruit of which Jesus speaks, the words of the John the Baptist might come to mind. “Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance. [. . .] 10 “[T]he axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Obviously, these are words not unlike those used by Jesus in today’s gospel.  Is this then the fruit Jesus has in mind for us to bear by abiding in Him—fruit worthy of repentance?


I am currently in the process of reading a recently published three volume book, entitled, Pentecost to the Present.  It is a wonderful book not least of which because it gives a good, easy-to-read overview of church history from Acts to the present.  Most recently I was reading about the Quakers, founded by George Fox (1624-91). Here is how he described a typical Quaker meeting:


“While waiting upon the Lord in silence, as we often did for many hours together, with our hearts toward Him, being stayed in the light of Christ from all fleshy motions and desires, we often received the pouring down of His Spirit upon us (sound familiar?), and our hearts were made glad, and our tongues loosened, and our mouths opened, and we spoke with new tongues, as the Lord gave us utterance, and His Spirit led us, which was poured upon our sons and daughters.  Thereby things unutterable were made manifest, and the glory of the Father was revealed.


Then we began to sing praises to the Lord God Almighty, and to the Lamb, who had redeemed us to God, and brought us out of bondage of the world, and put an end to sin and death  . . . and mighty and wonderful things hath the Lord wrought for us, and by us, by His own out-stretched arm . . . Being prepared of the Lord, and having received power from on high, we went forth as commanded of the Lord . . . We sounded the word of the Lord, and did not spare; and caused the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the heart that was hardened to be awakened” (vol. 2, p. 71,72).


Prayer, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and speaking in tongues were a vital part of early Quaker meetings.  Under the Spirit’s power people would shake, ultimately leading to the name, Quaker. Divine healing and casting out demons were also a trademark of Fox’s ministry.  Often people were healed simply by standing in his presence.


Why do I share this about the Quakers?  We are trying to answer the question about bearing fruit as a result of abiding in Jesus.  What does Jesus mean by abiding in Him such that we bear the fruit He desires? In other words, how are we to abide in Him and what is this fruit?  An obvious answer to the question of abiding is that we spend time with Him. However, is spending time with Jesus the same as abiding time by watching movies, playing golf, cooking, a hobby, or time with family and friends; these are activities which we can see, hear, and touch?  Is it the same as with Jesus? The answer is an obvious, “No.” It is not the same. So, where does that leave us?


The Quaker approach is a clear illustration; indeed, it is the same as on the day of Pentecost. They were together in prayer waiting upon the Lord. You see, it is not just that we abide in Jesus.  It is, also, that He abides in us. We heard Him say in this morning’s gospel, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  How does Jesus abide in us?  He abides in us by the Holy Spirit abiding in us.  Isn’t that what happened on the day of Pentecost? By George Fox’s description, isn’t that what happened at their Quaker meetings?  The Spirit, sent by Jesus, came and abided with and in them? What was the result? The followers of George Fox did the same kind of miraculous things (call it fruit) that Jesus and the first disciples did.  Do you hear what I am saying? Pentecost was not just a onetime, historical, never to be repeated event. We could have our very own Pentecost right here if we wanted.


Just the other on Friday, I was reading about Deeper Fellowship Church in Orlando, Florida, founded by William McDowell.  The church started out with 15 people and grew to 1,000 in 3 years. They have witnessed 200 healings, medically documented, in the last 18 months.  “People are standing one or two hours just to step foot in the church because of something amazing God is doing” (Charisma. May 2018, p. 24).


Yes, the fruit Jesus wants us to bear by abiding in Him does include fruit worthy of repentance.  It also includes the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, as itemized by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22, 23.  This fruit can be personal, very personal to us.


Many if not all of us have seen the picture of the nine year old, Vietnamese girl, arms outstretched, frightened and tearful, running naked down the road with clouds of napalm smoke, billowing in the background.  Her name is Kim Phuc Phan Thi. Though not the target of the bombings, even now 40 years later she continues to receive treatment for burns that cover her arms, back, and neck. The emotional and spiritual pain was even harder to endure.  “And yet, looking back at the past five decades, I realized,” she writes, “that those same bombs that brought me so much pain and suffering also brought great healing. Those bombs led me to Christ.” (CT. May 2018, p. 88.) Here in part is how she describes that:


“My salvation experience happened, fittingly enough, on Christmas Eve, 1982.  I was attending a special worship service at a small church in Saigon. As I listened to the pastor’s message, I knew that something was shifting inside me (note that she says, “inside me).  How desperately I needed peace. How ready I was for love and joy. I had so much hatred in my heart—so much bitterness. I wanted to let go of all my pain. I wanted Jesus.


So, when the pastor finished speaking, I stood out into the aisle, and made my way to the front of the sanctuary to say yes to Jesus Christ.  When I woke up Christmas morning, I experienced the kind of healing that can only come from God. I was finally at peace. My faith in Jesus has enabled me to forgive those who have hurt and scarred me.  It has enabled me to pray for my enemies rather than curse them. And it has enabled me not just to tolerate them but truly to love them. I have been given a mission, a ministry, a cause” (CT. May, 2018, p. 87).  Is this fruit of which Jesus speaks? Didn’t we hear how on Christmas Eve He came to abide in her?


Equally, the bearing of fruit of which Jesus speaks includes the gifts of the Spirit, manifested, for example, as with the Quakers 1,600 years after the Day of Pentecost—wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:8-10).  By us abiding in Jesus and Him abiding in us the kingdom of heaven is at hand; that is the larger fruit.


Yes, there will be pruning, but as with the grapevines the result will mean even more fruit in our lives and our ministries.  I’ll say it again. Pentecost was not just a onetime, historical, never to be repeated event. We could have our very own Pentecost if we wanted.  Do we want that? Do we want our own Pentecost right here at St. Elizabeth’s? If we abide in Jesus and allow Him to abide in us, then that is exactly what will happen.  The question is do we want that?


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.