a sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter [Year B]
1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8
There is a new Kenny Chesney song that just came out on country music radio that has caught my ear. The song is called “Get Along,” and it’s not a terribly deep or profound song, but it’s catchy and fun to sing along to, and the message is wholesome. It’s about getting along—not just getting along down the road, but getting along with one another, giving love the upper hand, which is certainly something the world and definitely our country can hear more of at the moment. When I see images of the leaders of South and North Korea shaking hands, and smiling and stepping over the border into one another’s countries, it makes me hopeful for others’ learning to get along. And it makes me think about how the effort and importance of getting along seems to be underrated these days. We’ve focused more on getting ahead, and I think that’s what Mr. Chesney’s song tries to get us to see.
In any case, the lines in the song that bridge the last verse to the chorus are the ones I keep noodling on. He sings, “We find out when we die the keys to heaven can’t be bought/we still don’t know what love is, but we sure know what it’s not.”
I bet that resonates with so many of us. What is love, really? We seek and are offered so many definitions and versions of it that it leaves us confused. And it’s true that in the English language we have one word for a concept that other languages have several. There’s romantic love, and brotherly and sisterly love, as well as love for your homeland, like a feeling of patriotism. And we can experience any of those, sometimes very deeply, and still not be able to articulate exactly what their essence is. We know love is important, that it is somehow the key to heaven, and we know enough to be table to tell when love is lacking, but we’re left speechless when we have to sum it up.
But then along comes the writer of 1 John, who has no such trouble at all, with all due respect to Mr. Chesney: “God is love,” and “in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be a sacrifice for our sins.” For John, the writer of this letter that comes near the end of the New Testament, it is very easy to define and describe the essence of love. As he explains, it is found in the gift and the act of Jesus, the offering of his life so that we may be forgiven and made one with God. To know what love is in its purest, most powerful form we look to the cross of Jesus, look to the God who pours himself out for humankind.
In fact, John cannot talk about God without talking about love, over and over again. In the fifteen verses of chapter four we read this morning, the word love is used twenty-four times. Everyone who loves, he says, is born of God and knows God. One paraphrase of these verses put it, “you can’t know God if you don’t know love.” Furthermore, we can’t even know or practice love ourselves, he goes on to say, until we have experienced it first, until we have realized how much God has loved us.
This, I find, is very easy to understand, even when faith in God is difficult. Love is only something we can give when we’ve first received it. This is an overly-simplified example, but it’s kind of like those long Starbucks lines where everyone pays for the person behind them in line. Once you realize someone has paid for your drink, your gratitude spills over into paying for the next person. Somewhere, someone early on started it all, but once you’re caught up in it, it just kind of flows along. John would say the first lover was God, and in Jesus God’s love for us has spilled over, like an overloaded latte, each gesture of self-giving and sacrifice producing more and more so that it may continue to abound, intertwining us all, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, casting out fear, placing us at the feet of another neighbor, just like he did on the night he first gave us that commandment.
Love and God are intertwined. Love always grows, increasing, producing more, seeking another person down the line, including new folks, which is probably why Jesus reaches for the image of the grapevine when he’s talking to his disciples about it. In Jesus’ day, grapevines would have been a very common sight, covering a great deal of the countryside.
Of course, I believe that in this country, when most people think of vines they think of tomato vines. Because of the way that vines grow, no matter what variety, they need support and attention. There’s always been a bit of a debate in my family about that. I prefer to stake my tomato vines and let them form one long main vine, if possible. To do this I have to constantly snip off the suckers, the little branches that grow between the stalk and each leaf, and I also have to repeatedly fasten the stalk to the stake as it goes up. My wife, on the other hand, grew up a tomato-cager. Caging tomatoes lets the vines grow a little more liberally. You don’t have to prune quite as often, but you have to make sure that the cage stays upright. I’ve never scientifically tested the difference between staking and caging in my own garden, but my experience is that staking gives you bigger tomatoes, but not as many as caging.
What has been surprising to see is that sometimes the weight of a tomato or bunch of tomatoes will cause a branch to twist or even break. Sometimes I’ve worried that I’ve lost some tomatoes when a storm comes along, but as long as a branch of tomatoes is connected to the main vine, they grow and ripen just fine. That is, they “get along” just fine. That is the beauty of vine-tending.
Jesus wants his followers to know that they can produce fruit, that they will be able to “get along” in love because he has first loved them. He is the vine, and they are the branches. The heartbeat, the essence of what we are as disciples, is the love we have for each other. Sometimes that finds expression in the ways we serve and love our communities through projects and works of charity. Sometimes that love shows itself through the music and art we are able to make together through our worship of God. But more often than we probably realize the fruit of love we produce comes in the ways we listen to each other, learn about each other, practice patience with each other, and care for one another, especially in times of need or times of grief. We glorify God and we produce good fruit, sometimes big and sometimes lots of smaller ones, when we abide with one another just as Christ abides in us. In order to abide in one another members of a community need to be together and be intentional about interacting with one another on a regular basis. Roman Catholic social worker Dorothy Day put it very bluntly when she said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
In child development there is a concept called parallel play versus interactive play. Young toddler start to engage in parallel play, which means they will play at the same time and sometimes in the same activity, but not really with each other. As they grow older, though, they begin to interact with one another as they engage in the same activity. Sometimes congregations can essentially arrange and accomplish parallel play pretty well. We organize all kinds of group activities that point us in the same direction and accomplish a lot. Integrative play and integrative activities, though, are ones where we actually learn about what one another is struggling with in life, to get over that fear of sharing, to ask for and practice forgiveness when needed, and see where God has overlapped our lives in ways that may not appear evident on the surface. They provide the chance to abide with one another and abide in Christ the vine, who has taken the time to twist himself around us, and intertwine his body and heart into our relationships, to know us and love us to the point of offering his own life. After all, when the writer of 1 John is trying to explain the essence of the community’s life, he does not say, “Beloved, let us do amazing peace and justice stuff together.” He says, “Beloved, let us love one another.”
Abiding allows us to be pruned, too, without any harm to us in the long run. When we are connected to the vine and growing alongside other branches, we can become aware of the parts of us that aren’t producing much fruit so that they can be removed to let those areas which are doing well to thrive even more. This is a natural part of any congregation’s growth and expansion. As we consider what fruits of love God has called us to produce in the coming years at Epiphany, we must be ready for Him to prune our ministries, which means, of course, some things won’t stay the same. But we know that as we abide, as we dwell with the risen Lord, new life will always be possible.
Several weeks ago my family gathered for a birthday party for my parents at a winery down in North Carolina not too far from where they live. Our daughters were very interested in how grapes were grown and what a winery is, and as we drove in, winding our way on the road through the vineyard itself, they kept asking, “Where are the grapes? Where do they grow?” It was early April, and things were still dormant. Expecting lush growth, I suspect, they were unable to recognize the grapevines, themselves, as they passed within a few feet of the window of our car. And I had never noticed it before until they asked me, but grapevines in the off-season are shaped exactly like crosses. Pruned back to their core, to their absolute essence, they come up out of the ground with their gnarled, brown trunk and then branch into two perfect branches that are parallel to the ground. They look dead. There is not a green part on them, in fact, but yet they must be full of life, those vines.. All the leaves, all the flowers, all the grapes, and all the wine that will come from Jones von Drehle Winery this year and next…all the bottling and drinking, all the winery tours, all merriment at the special events, the late afternoon conversations with friends on their winery patio, all the surprise birthday parties gathering friends from near and far will come from those dead-looking crosses that we could see on that hill.
May it be so with Christ’s followers, and for Epiphany. We can’t say for sure what love is for each of us in every situation. But we know that all our life, all our real future growth, our desires and our need just to get along, all our truest love will come from nowhere else but the one and only vine, the ever-growing love of Jesus.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 The Message, Eugene Peterson