5TH OF EASTER — 6 May 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am
Acts 8:26-40 | Psalm 22:24-30 | 1 John 4:7-21 | John 15:1-8
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. [John 15:5]
In the Gospel today Jesus is speaking about our relationship with him. And in thinking about our relationship with Jesus Christ, I’m going to start by setting up a foil. But in setting up this foil, I’m not claiming that it is altogether false, because it’s not. In fact, there is a very great deal of truth in it, although I think it is also not the whole truth, maybe not even the most important dimension of the truth. Nor do I want to deny or disparage the very real value some of you may find in what I am setting up as a foil, though I would encourage you to look and think and pray further and more deeply into these things. (Okay, now where is he going with this?) The foil that I am setting up is, as modern American neo-evangelicalism typically calls it, the “personal relationship with Jesus.”
What do I mean here by “a personal relationship with Jesus”? Well, to tell you the truth, when I hear neo-evangelicals use the phrase, I’m often not at all sure what they mean by it—what exactly they mean by “a personal relationship” with Jesus (as opposed to whatever “an impersonal relationship” with Jesus might be), and I don’t always find it clear how this relationship is actually with Jesus. In fact, I’m not always convinced that it really is Jesus that this relationship is with. There is always a danger – for all of us – that our “Jesus” may just be a projection of our own selves and wishes. But to give some substance to what may be a somewhat slippery concept here, I will cite the theme of “walking and talking with Jesus” which is a traditional dimension of some American evangelical spirituality, and which finds voice in such hymns as “I Walk in the Garden Alone,” with its refrain, “the joy we share while we tarry there none other shall ever know.” (If this is your favorite hymn, I apologize for any offense, but I don’t actually take it back!) I suggest that not only does this not represent the Catholic Christian tradition, it doesn’t represent classical Reformation Protestantism; and, most important, it does not represent the New Testament.
I think there are some real problems with the Jesusolatry of American neo-evangelicalism, despite the zeal and genuine sincerity of its proponents, who urge upon us a personal, but highly individualistic, very private, relationship with a Jesus who is indeed asserted to be Lord and Savior but without any very clear notion of what that means or might entail. Nor do I perceive much real content to the identity and mission of this Jesus other than to be someone who provides me with spiritual consolations as we walk in the garden or wherever, and who “saves” me, which apparently means when I die I go to heaven instead of hell. But it’s not certain exactly what else or what more Jesus as Lord and Savior might mean.
Well then, what does the Gospel say about our relationship with Jesus? The word which St. John, both in his Epistle and in the Gospel today, characteristically uses to describe our relationship with Jesus is “abiding in,” “remaining in,” “dwelling in,” “continuing in.” St. Paul talks characteristically of being “in Christ.” It is at least in part to celebrate and the strengthen this mutual “living in” each other—Christ in us and we in Christ, that we make Eucharist and receive the Holy Communion—that we may be “living members of his Body.” St. Paul reminds us that “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” [1 Cor. 12:27] It is to enact sacramentally God’s initiation of this relationship that we celebrate Holy Baptism. And as St. Paul notes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” [Romans 6:3] I think, and hope, that this is what we are talking about in the pledge of our baptismal vows: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” [BCP, page 302-303]
In today’s Gospel Jesus uses the image of a grapevine: he is the vine, and we are his branches. We are part of him. We share his life. But we share his life not just for ourselves but for the life of the world. Being Christians, being in relationship with Jesus, being branches of Jesus’ vine, does not just mean hanging there alone in the garden, tarrying and joyfully slurping up the sap! We are to bear fruit, we are told in the Gospel today. The whole point of branches of a vine is to produce grapes, for eating or winemaking!
The only gardens in which we meet Jesus in the Gospels are Gethsemane and the tomb at Calvary. Jesus himself says, “If you want to become my follower, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.” [Mark 8:34]
Our relationship with Jesus does not exist just for our own sake, for the satisfaction of what we perceive as our own “religious” or “spiritual” needs, even for our own personal salvation. Jesus shares his life with us so that we may share his life with each other, and with a dying world. I’m not sure that neo-evangelical Jesusolatry can see, or thinks there is any need to see, beyond Jesus himself. But Jesus did not come to be an end in himself. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, for Jesus really to be Lord means something far more than, and I think quite other than, being an object of religion. [Letters & Papers, 30 April 1944] Jesus came, and comes, in the service of the Kingdom of God, proclaiming and enacting God’s Reign, himself embodying God’s Reign. And he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus calls us into relationship with himself, not so that we can walk and talk in the garden but so that we can share in his work. “I have called you friends,” he says, “and I appointed you to go and bear fruit.” If we are not bearing fruit then we are not remaining in the vine at all. But if we abide in Jesus and Jesus in us, if we are taking up our cross and following him, if we are members of his Body, if we are baptized into his death so that we may walk in the newness of the life of his resurrection, if Jesus is indeed our Lord and Savior, if we have a real relationship with the real Jesus, then it is his mission on behalf of God’s Kingship that we share: loving, healing, restoring to wholeness; bearing the liberating power of God’s love to everyone we meet, and in everything we do.