No Longer Servants

Easter VI,  May 10, 2015

John 15:1-17

So let’s do some careful listening to Jesus’s words in today’s gospel reading. It is part of the long farewell speech that Jesus gives his disciples in John’s gospel. Now that he has them gathered at the Last Supper, and knowing this is his last chance to speak to them before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus is speaking to them – and to us – with particular intensity about what it means to be a Christian, to be in relationship with him.

Now, the thing is, we can’t really understand today’s reading without what came before, which was last week’s reading. They are part of one single passage that hangs together; but being a bit long, it gets separated over two weeks. What goes before, specifically, is the image of the vine: “I am the vine, and you are the branches”. Another of the great “I am” statements that are so characteristic of the gospel of John. Whenever Jesus proclaims “I am” . . . the Good Shepherd; the Resurrection and the Life; the Bread of Life; the Way, the Truth, and the Life – we had better sit up and take notice. It is generally important.

So let’s start with that phrase from last week: I am the vine, you are the branches. It is an image, a metaphor, a mental picture; so let us listen with the imagination. So close your eyes, go inside yourself, and try to imagine yourself as a branch. The branch of a grape vine, or of any of the fruit trees that are so common here in the Valley. An apple tree, perhaps. A bit of a stretch, I admit. What would it feel like to be a branch?

First of all, it has been a long cold winter. You have felt the frost creep into you, you have been buffeted by the winds. You have felt dried out, and brittle, and dead to the core. And as you have been exposed to the elements, you have felt isolated, cut off, so very alone. Afraid, perhaps. And that is life without God: isolated, alone, and dead at our core.

But then, some weeks ago, you felt the first stirrings of Spring. Perhaps it’s the longer days, the sun beating down on you. But the real difference is not outside, but inside. At your base, deep deep within yourself, you feel the stirring of sap. Something comes to life within you. And when that happens, you remember that you are not alone and isolated after all, but that you are part of a larger whole, connected at your base to a vine. And from that base, from that inward core, new life begins to pulse right through you, waking you up, turning your dead wood to green, making you fully alive.

And so you begin to grow, stretching out toward the sun, toward the world around you. You begin to bud, and shoot forth leaves. That new life pulsing through you is reaching out into the world around you, bursting forth and unfolding. You become more intensely aware that you are not alone, that there are other branches, hundreds and thousands of others, all attached to the same tree and unfolding in different ways.

And then this sap pulsing through you begins to shape you in a particular way, and you find yourself bearing fruits: fruits of kindness, and compassion, and generosity, and courage. Fruits of creativity and wisdom. Fruits that are your own, intensely personal, shaped by who you are. But at the same time, fruits that develop directly out of the sap, out of the new life welling up from the vine you are attached to. And as this happens, you realize that this is what you were created to do: to transform the energy of that sap rising within you into concrete and particular fruits for the world.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, and I will abide in you.”

It’s quite a picture, isn’t it? Quite a powerful image of what the Christian life is about. It is, I suspect, not something that most of us experience often, at least not in the full intensity of these spring days. Mostly our lives are more like the steadiness of midsummer, or the melancholy fullness of autumn. And sometimes, perhaps even often, it may feel like winter, with nothing alive. But perhaps we feel the stirrings of that sap now and then, and we may know ourselves connected to that vine that gives us life and energy, or maybe we even feel some satisfaction at some of the modest fruits we bear in life – and then Jesus’s image rings true for us, and we know this is an image we can rely on.

Now, in today’s reading, Jesus shifts the language a bit. He is no longer speaking so directly in the image of the vine and the branches. But at the same time, that image is still there, in the background, and what he has to say is all by way of further explaining and elaborating this one basic relationship of the vine and the branches.

First of all, he begins to speak of love: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. And really, what he is doing is naming more exactly what this life-giving sap is that runs through us. It is love. It is the generous, giving, self-sacrificing love of God, love that looks to the other and what the other needs to flourish. This is the true identity of that life that pulses through the universe; this is what flows up from our base, from our inmost core, and shapes us and makes us creative and caring human beings.

Because this language was new to the disciples, because it was a radical and strange way to speak of their relationship to God, Jesus doubles back a bit to connect it with their more familiar habits of thinking about their faith. He talks about commandments. Because that is the way they had been trained to think about God. And, let’s be honest, that is at least a big part of the way we have been trained to think about God. So Jesus says, yes, the commandments are good, that can be a helpful way of thinking about our faith, as long as we keep them in perspective. As long as we realize that the commandments are not themselves the real point. When we make that mistake, we begin to live our lives obsessively by the rules, and we begin to try to run other people’s lives by the rules, and then we have lost sight of God altogether. The point of the commandments, Jesus says, is love. They are about the practice of love, and they have their point as concrete expressions of that love. When we love one another, of course we won’t steal or murder or slander one another. The point is to abide in that love. The point is to live as branches on that one vine, turning the raw energy of that sap into specific words and acts of kindness.

The trouble with commandments, when they become the centre of our faith, is that the best they can call forth in us on their own is obedience. Now obedience is fine, as far as it goes. It is better than disobedience, I suppose, although that depends very much on who or what one is supposed to be obeying! Only God merits our complete obedience. But the thing is, God doesn’t want our complete obedience, God wants more. God wants our love. Obedience doesn’t have to know or care what it is it is obeying. It is just supposed to do it. But love cannot ever be forced. It must always be the willing spontaneous consent of the heart, or it is not love. If our religion consists of following the commandments, we may be just going through the motions. God wants us to be branches on the tree, taking up and channelling his love with our whole being.

“I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” I have always loved this verse, it has been very important to me over many years. And the really interesting part is his explanation of what the difference is. A servant – or a slave, to use the uglier word – does not need to know or understand what he or she is doing. Slaves just have to obey, and the master’s will gets done. We are to be God’s friends, because Jesus has shown us and explained what God’s purposes are: we are to understand them and join in not as slaves, but as willing volunteers, doing God’s will because we understand and love what God is up to in this world. As branches on the vine, we receive God’s love and channel it to others; but we do so as independent individuals, who joyfully and willingly join our will to God’s will.

It is Spring in the Valley. I hope you all have the opportunity this week to get out of doors, to spend some time in the garden, or walk in the woods, to spend some time in nature. At this time of year, you don’t have to stop and listen for long before you begin to feel that joyous and exuberant new life pulsing through the trees and grasses all around you. And as you sense that energy around you, and enter into the joy of the season, give thanks also for that energy that moves through you in prayer and praise and thanksgiving, the energy of God’s love that moves through all creation, bearing fruit in the world and in our lives. Thanks be to God.