Sermon - 3rd May 2015
Loving God through our love of others
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Both passages we have heard read to us today come from interesting contexts. The author of the letter of St John was writing at a difficult time in the life of the earliest church; the people he wrote for had endured a church argument and split. Church arguments are always very painful but in our age we’re used to them – after all the history of the Church is littered with such things. If we’ve been part of a church split on a local level we know how damaging they can be and how painful it is to be in the midst of it. The author of St John’s Gospel was also compiling his Gospel from his various sources at a time when the Church was becoming separate from the Synagogue. So both passages were written in a time of the difficulty of division; the words written are interesting to consider in a different age where society itself is divided and where we’re used to thinking of many churches not just one church.
At first Christians saw themselves as Jewish followers of Rabbi Jesus; however, the claims that Jesus made for himself and the Christian understanding of him as part of God were difficult to hold within Judaism. These tensions were not helped by the Roman religious system that was very liberal but, apart from the Jews, everyone had to take part in the Roman religious system. Prayers had to be offered for (and sometimes to) the Emperor, sacrifices had to be made to the gods. They were liberal in that they adopted many gods from other places or said they were really known in Rome by another name but to not take part in the this polytheistic system was seen as profoundly anti-social. The Jews had a special legal exemption but no one else did. So as the Church started to emerge from the Synagogue it was vulnerable as it was an illegal religion. Like Judaism, Christianity was insistent that there was only one God and that set them apart from Roman society.
Internally, scholars think that the church that the author was writing to had been through a split. Many pagan ideas affected the Early Church and it seems that some had left because the Church rejected these ideas. It’s always painful when people you know and love and have worshipped with leave. It’s more painful when you feel yourself alone in a hostile environment. Maybe those who had left would tell the authorities about this illegal church. Maybe they would try and get others to leave too.
So in the midst of all these tensions the author writes his letter to give encouragement and to instruct this baby church. In the context of danger and division he urges his people to “love one another” since love is from God, more than that God is love.
In a very simple passage the writer tells us what God is and, by implication what God isn’t. We often want God to be the answer to all our problems, the one who will zap our enemies, the one who will protect us and ensure that nothing bad happens to us. Yet the witness of this epistle is rather different. God is love. That doesn’t mean that God will always do what we want, will always answer our prayers the way we desire, will always protect us from danger - as love is always about service, always about sacrifice and always about taking risks. In our insecurity and longing for protection, we often yearn for a God who can control nature and prevent sickness or violence, a God who will protect us from all harm. In a world of moral confusion, we wish for a God who lays down the law with complete clarity and holds everyone accountable, catching the cheaters and rewarding the faithful. In our hunger to possess, we might even imagine a God of prosperity, one who promises to make us rich if we obey a few principles. John sidesteps all the theological imaginings of the ancient world and simply asserts that God is love.
But more than this, we can only know God in the fullest and most authentic sense when the love of God flows through us. God is love; only the one who loves can know this love that is God. Love is not a concept, known abstractly. It is an action, lived concretely. It is not enough to remember Jesus' self-sacrifice, to think about it, or even to be moved by it. We must live it. To know the God of love is to live the love of God. Of course that’s always a challenge as we are broken people who often prefer not to exhibit love; it’s ok if we like others, but to truly love those we don’t like can be very difficult.
Our passage from John’s Gospel is written in a similar style. Scholars debate if the same person wrote the letters of John and John’s Gospel or if others wrote them in the same style as the Gospel.
There is a powerful image going on here of Jesus as the vine, his father as the farmer and us as the branches. Now if you’ve ever seen a vineyard you will notice various things. Firstly the vines aren’t very high – that’s to do with ensuring it’s easy to pick the grapes; a few years ago Ian and I stayed in a cottage on a vineyard near the French city of Angers. The famer was great and insistent that we let Beech run off the lead and have a nice run through the vineyard. The result was a bit disastrous and Beech was also struck by the fact that the vines didn’t grow very high and the grapes were at a perfect height for him to sample – a bunch at a time! You will also notice that the branches aren’t allowed to get very long – fruit nearer the branch will grow more quickly and taste better as they get all the nutrients. So the farmer will trim the branches so they stay relatively short and don’t get tangled up with each other.
Jesus metaphor is one with a deep purpose. He is the vine, we are the branches but the only use of the vine and the branches is to bear fruit. If a vine stops producing grapes then the farmer will dig it up and burn it. After all the tree has to have a purpose. Last week we thought of Jesus as the good shepherd to tends the sheep today’s image is a little more startling as we’re told to bear fruit or face a bit of pruning! It is necessary to prune the vine to keep it fruitful.
Vines are complex things. The branches only bear fruit if they are attached to the vine and they work in tandem with each other.
Our age is incredibly individual. Capitalism and consumerism encourage us to be concerned about ourselves, to buy what I need, to detach my experience of buying something from others who have produced it – often having been exploited. Political debate is often about what is best for me rather than what is best for more people. Even contemporary Christianity caters for individual tastes with songs like “My Jesus, My Saviour” at one end of the scale and the return in the Catholic liturgy to “I believe in God the Father Almighty” rather than “We believe”.
The author of John calls Christians to a fruitful disciple that is exercised in community. Faithfulness is determined not by mere rituals but by a relationship with God through Jesus. John’s message in this passage is to those who already claim membership in Jesus' community.
In John's mind, there are branches that do not produce fruit. They fail to live in love and are concerned only with themselves. It is all about them and not the community. John takes a familiar image and reworks it to set forth a vision for his people. The community that Jesus calls forth is one that embodies an African proverb: Because we are, I am. The branches that do not yield fruit are the ones in the community who profess faith but do not engage in acts of love.
In both our readings today we’ve heard a message about love – love that has to be embodied as we give expression to the God we believe in. It is not good enough to say we love God unless we show that love through our love of others. It’s not enough to be content with our individualistic selfish society but, instead, we have to subvert the values of this present age with a radical love which builds community, cares for the weak and vulnerable and seeks to be fruitful as we obey the command of our Lord to love.