5th Sunday of Easter

May 14, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 22:25-31
Reading 3: 
Acts 8:26-40 or 1 John 4:7-21
Reading 4: 
John 15:1-8
By Rick Marshall

Discussion of the Texts:

In both John texts, the word “abide” seems central, yet vague. The context in John fleshes out the idea: I am the true vine; you are the branches. (The Father is the vinedresser.) The vine image is organic, like many of the metaphors Jesus uses to describe the way of God. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches: a simple idea. If we “abide” in Jesus, we will live and bear fruit: not so simple. The Greek isn’t much help at this point, the word meaning “remain,” or “stay with,” “to dwell,” and so on, depending on context. Given the organic image of vine and branches, the meaning that makes most sense is to be connected; after all, in order to live, a branch must literally be connected to the vine. Abide seems to mean to “stick with,” “remain connected.” “Abide,” or “dwell” implies volition on our part. We can choose to be connected. But it’s not really a choice between being connected or not being connected; it’s a choice between life and death. Any gardener knows this: cut the branch off, it dies. It‘s no mysterious secret.

The text is one of the “I am” sayings of Jesus. The image of the vine and branches is very powerful and is meant to become a metaphor for life: the roots extend deep into the dark earth, where sustenance is quietly gathered and brought upwards (dynamics similar to the fishing metaphor). Life is transmitted through the humus, that layer of life where all living things drop and rot in death and yet are transformed into new life. A living root system gathers water and nutrients that give life to the whole plant. Furthermore, the plant is exposed to air and sun, all of it a very holistic image of our connection with God and with one another.

This simple image of connectivity is a metaphor which is applied to our lives. Our lives are sustained through being connected to God. The goal of being connected is to produce fruit. If an apple tree’s purpose is to produce good apples, and a cherry tree’s purpose is to produce good cherries, then the metaphor of vine and branches, as it applies to human beings, is to produce good human beings. We know the qualities that make for a good apple, or a good cherry. But what are the qualities that make for a good human being? We have to turn to others parts of the gospel to know what being a good human being is: compassion, mercy, love, trust in God’s power, treating others with respect, etc. Again, this is not a mystery.

As Christians, by claiming that Jesus as the Christ is the true vine, means his teachings, life, death and resurrection are an example of our connection with the life-giving source of everything. If we do not follow the Way, or enter into the discipline of Jesus’ teachings, or trust the power that raised him from the dead, we are not connected to that life-giving power. Consequently, we are disconnected from life and we die. We don’t bear the fruits (qualities) of being a good human being.

Once again, the author of 1 John takes the metaphor a step farther by applying it to the community and tying it to the idea of agape love. By participating in a community that practices the qualities of being human, exemplified in the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the Messiah, one is connected to the Author of Life. Being connected to one another is to be connected to God, and being connected to God is to be connected to one another. God is agape. To be connected with God, is to be connected with life. We see the nature of this connection exemplified in Jesus as the child of God. We, too, are children of God, if we are connected to God through one another. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us.” (vs. 12) Agape seems to be the nature and quality of connection: to Jesus Christ, to one another, to God, to life.

Most metaphors break down at some point, as it does here. Both John and 1 John texts  imply choice as to whether to be connected to the vine or not. Yet, we know braches don’t make such choices. The gardener is the one who does the pruning. 1 John especially takes us beyond the metaphor by suggesting we can choose to become connected to a worshipping community who practices being connected to one another and to God. To be part of a community that focuses on the transforming power of God, exemplified in Jesus Christ, extended to everyone, is to have access to bear the fruits of a good human being.

The Acts text extends to everyone access to this connection. Here, Philip is addressed by a messenger of God: “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” He went “And found an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure.” (vss 26-27) Such an example of one not qualified for access to God! This story reminds us of the Cornelius story. The first church was pushing the boundaries of those acceptable to God to include everyone. We are all children of God and we all have access to being connected with God through the example of Jesus as the son of God.

Process Theology and the Texts:

The gospel text seems to be well suited for process thought; the metaphor is organic and suggests that God works organically. Another way to refer to process thought is to call it a theology of organism. There are many metaphors in the Bible which strongly suggest a theology of organism. For example, Paul’s use of the image of the various parts of the body working together to describe how the Christian community ideally works together. Another way of naming process thought is to call it a relational theology or a theology of connection. The image of the vine and branches points to a deeper level of connection than simple external connections.

There are two types of relation in process thought: external relations and internal relations. We are used to understanding the world as composed of external relations: the billiard ball universe is an example, or seeing the world as a machine where all the parts work together, but externally--matter in motion, objects bumping into one another. In these views, God is on the outside, working over the world. Human relations are often seen as external, where every person is seen as a strict individual, autonomous and independent--especially in our western culture. This often makes it easy to hurt others without seeing what such actions do to us. A strictly external relational view of the world also leads to loneliness and alienation. But there is another level of connection and that is internal relations. In the process understanding of the world, which is made up of events, not things, each becoming event is formed by relationships to the past, to its environment and to the divine possibilities for that moment of becoming. Each moment arises out of its environment of relations and then becomes a moment of experience. We are constituted by our relations, as we take them into ourselves and thus become in the moment who we are. The whole world works this way: everything dynamically related to everything else in the world. Like a body or a vine, holistic. The world is seen as an organism where God works primarily through internal relations.

In the 1 John text, the author focuses on agape love, or relational love, in community. We are all connected to God through one another and we are all connected to one another through God. 1 John exhibits the strange language of connectivity, or internal relations. An example of internal relations is how a child becomes part of the parent. By opening ourselves to another person is to become vulnerable to being changed by that person. Another example is the way we are related to our bodies, very intimately.

Preaching the Texts:

The ultimate goal of the sermon might be to end up with a fuller understanding of community as a place where people practice being human. The metaphor of the vine and branches will be the vehicle to get to that goal. By developing the metaphor, exploring it, laying it out for all to see, then applying it to the community in the way 1 John suggests, will give the congregation greater appreciation for what they are doing as a congregation and as a church. By being part of such a worshipping community, we deepen our experience of life, becoming more of what God wants for us: each member to simply become more fully who they are. There is unity in this goal and diversity, both aspects working dynamically together in a healthy community.

Various ways of describing how we are internally related to everything else through love could be used. The preacher could describe his or her own experience of all the relations that make them who they are: children, spouses, different kinds of friends, foods, environment, memories. Talk about what we include in our lives and what we exclude. We are constituted by our relations.

Or the preacher could focus on the life sustaining power of the roots, vine and branches as describing the life giving power of God. God is the power of life that transforms all death into new life. To worship as a community is to name that power of transformation as Christ and to explore how to maximize that power in our lives by being in community.

By placing ourselves in a healthy worshipping community, we are connected to God.

Children and the Texts:

The focus idea for talking with the children can be “life is connection.”

One way to make the point is, if there are cut flowers on the communion table, you could talk about how beautiful the flowers are. Point out the colors and their vividness, the green leaves, etc. Ask the children: Are these flowers alive? Allow the children to answer and play with their answers. They look alive, but they have been cut and now they are in water. Are they alive? I don’t know, but I do know they won’t last very long. You know why? Because about Wednesday or Thursday of this week, if the flowers are still here, they will be turning brown and dry and I’ll have to throw them out.

Another idea is to bring in a flowering potted plant that is alive. Talk to the children about all the things the plant needs to stay alive: water, air, light, roots, stems, leaves, etc. You can even water the plant while talking. Admire it with the children. Then take out pruning sheers and cut a flower off the plant. Talk about it using the same questions as the first idea.

Talk about how we are connected. What do we need to stay alive? Food, water, air. What else? Do we need our parents? Our friends? Being connected to them is very important. What would happen to you if you didn’t have parents to take care of you? How long would you last?

Now, if we look at all of creation, what is it all connected to? The power of life. The power of God. 

May the awareness of God’s presence be with you as you preach. Amen.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.