Sunday, October 25, 2015

Rooted Branches

Rooted Branches
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 25, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 15: 1-16

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. [1]

One thing that has certainly been true as we have moved into this new Jerusalem/Holy Week phase of John's gospel is that every chapter is very dense. All throughout the first bunch of chapters, up until the Lazarus raising back in chapter 11, there was a really structured pattern. Jesus would perform a miracle that was found out by a crowd of people. The action of the miracle divided the crowds, that some believed and followed Jesus, and others grew angrier and angrier, plotting to arrest, and then even eventually plotting to have Jesus killed. But now Jesus is in Jerusalem, and we are still in the scene of the Last Supper, as we have been since back in Chapter 13, when Jesus opened this section by washing the disciples' feet. Now Jesus has been talking ever since telling the disciples that one of them was going to betray him, and also telling them that Peter would deny him three times, and that all would abandon him. In this speech he has told them to not let their hearts be troubled, that he is the way, the truth, and the life, he has told them that in his father's house there are many rooms, he has told them that they will not be able to follow now, but they will be eventually because Jesus will be there for them as the Way, that they know the way, that they know the father because they know him, and that they will come to know the paraclete, that Jesus is sending to them, as a helper, a counselor, advocate, and friend.
And now Jesus is going into his talk about himself being the true vine. He says,  I am the true vine and the Father is the vine grower. . . from this he talks about two different kinds of branches. . . those that bear fruit and those that do not bear fruit. . . and he doesn't mix words about them. He says that the ones bearing fruit will be pruned and cleansed, so that they will bear even more fruit, where as the ones that do not bear fruit will wither, be cut off, removed, tossed aside and burned in the fire. . . now that is quite an image: Fruit bearing branches being cultivated, fertilized, and growing more and more fruit, whereas the others wither, are separated, collected, cast aside, and then burned. There is of course only one difference between these fruit bearing branches and the ones that are cast aside and burned, and that is that they either abide or do not abide in Christ and his teachings. Those that abide bear fruit, whereas those that do not, cannot. Jesus goes on to say. . . I am the vine, you are the branches. . . apart from me you can do nothing. So if we were to summarize this paragraph and put it into simpler, more systematic words. . . it would go something like this: You all are branches on the vine that is me. . . Your purpose as branches is to bear fruit. . . the way to bear fruit is to abide in me. . . if you abide in me, my teaching, my commandments, then you will bear fruit, this fruit will glorify the father, you will then abide in the father's love, and that will result in "joy that is made complete". . .but if you do not abide in the teachings, you will wither, die, because you will be cut off. .  . then you will be separated, collected, and cast aside for burning.
That is all being said pretty clearly, and that is rare for Jesus, but then we have the question of what exactly does it mean to abide? What does abiding look like? How many of these teachings are there? And old typically riddle speaking Jesus is being uncharacteristically clear, helping us out here again, by clearly stating, and simplifying his commandments. He says, "This is my commandment, that you love as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, than to lay down his life for his friends. . . and Jesus calls us friends here, explaining the difference between servants and friends, because friends know all, there is full disclosure, they are told exactly what the deal is, unlike servants who are just told enough to function. Friends are let in to the inner sanctum, to really see and feel and witness the interworkings of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, shown that the binding force in the universe made by God is and has always been love, love working in relationship, just as it occurs within the Trinity, within God himself. . . and love means laying down your life for another person. Clear, concise, to the point, solid. . . but again a huge challenge. . . because again the definition of love here is the same as it has been throughout John's gospel. . . it is not simply an emotion, not simply a feeling, not simply kindness, not simply doing nice things for people, not paying your fair share of taxes so that others may use those tax money to care for people,  but true and total, completely engaged, personal and relational sacrifice for the other. The other first up to and including the giving of our complete selves even in death, as Jesus has shown in his own personal example. Doing such is abiding Jesus' teaching, doing such is abiding in the truth, doing such is bearing fruit, doing such results in the completeness of Joy.
Now how do we get ourselves to that point? How do we get to that point where we can give of our complete selves, where we are holding nothing back, where we are truly loving in that deepest sacrificial, bearing fruit kind of way. . . that real life living sort of way. We talked about it back when Jesus said "I am the Life" and how he is a perfect example of life, a life that bears fruit, and it bears fruit because Jesus Loves, Jesus loves all the way to the cross. That is life, that is life bearing fruit. How interesting that it is in giving life that we bear life, and it is in hoarding, controlling life that we lose it. . . . It is such an amazing, yet completely true paradox about the world as God made it. . . You gain by giving, where as you lose by holding on. People have giving countless examples about how to get closer to Christ, since it doesn't start with us, but starts with Christ. . .  if we cannot do anything separated from him, then the way to move forward is to cultivate that relationship with Christ. Now since there has been this vine and branches imagery I have had in my mind one of my favorite spiritual writing texts all week. . . and that is St. Bonaventure's Tree of Life. He talked about the way to abide in Christ, the way to graft to the vine, to become a life bearing branch is to experience personally what he called the fruit of the Tree of Life. . . he said there are 12 fruits of the Tree of Life, and each one corresponds to a specific act of love connected with Jesus' life. I want to share some of those with you this morning. . .

I wrote this poem back when I was studying Bonaventure in Seminary. . . the idea of his work is that the 12 fruits correspond with aspects of Jesus' life, coming to terms with them by feeling and understanding on a holistic level. I tried to put to verse the idea of each, with the chorus about conforming completely and carrying the cross of the Lord:

The Tree of Life
Peter T. Atkinson

I want to conform completely
I want to eat from the Tree of Life
I want to understand my Lord
I want to strive in earnest
I want to eat from the Tree of Life
I want to carry the cross of the Lord

  1. When there wasn’t he was already there

Before the water parted, before the air
Already seeing what he was called to be
Embrace it now and kiss the baby’s feet
I want to kiss his feet . . . . Repeat chorus

  1. Then the savior had to humble himself

Follow the laws established Moses did tell
Under a king who didn’t want him to free
Stand fast and protect the mother and see
I want to humble myself . . .  Repeat chorus

  1. In an act of Perfect Justice he was Baptized by John

Fought with Satan, the crisis of temptation
Came out clean, ready to heal the sick
Hear the secret words God did not yet permit
I want to feel his strength . . . Repeat Chorus

  1. Anoint the sinners, wash their feet with tears

Then words of forgiveness you may deserve to hear
Get on a donkey as your kingly steed
Partake of the body broken for you and me
I want to live as pious . . . Repeat Chorus

  1. Feel what its like to be turned in by your friend

Ask your way out of the approaching end
But know no curb could come from majesty
No feel those chains march up to climb the tree
I want to feel your pain . . . Repeat Chorus

  1. When your friend denies you in fear for his own

In darkness blindfold bound and alone
Forsaken, beaten, quiet and still
Crucify him, Man how that would feel
I want love like that. . . Repeat Chorus

  1. How much humiliating endured for our need

Beaten struck with reads, left there to bleed
How much pain from a nail in your flesh
Hung with criminals on that tree of death
I want to be an example . . . Repeat Chorus
  1. With a prayer hang your head to die

The blood rains down from the lance in your side
He endured the cross, the shame and the strife
To turn that cross into the tree of Life
I want to be worthy . . . Repeat Chorus

  1. Jesus first to be triumphant in Death

Earthquake and Angels, rising in blessedness
Extraordinary beauty, happy the eyes that see
Dominion of Earth give to the eternal King.
I want to defeat death . . . Repeat Chorus

  1. Commander in chief of heaven’s great army

Faithful judge in heaven, great advocacy
Gave us the Holy Spirit to ignite our souls
After passing the trials you have remained faithful
I want to remain faithful . . . Repeat Chorus

  1. O truthful witness, O wrathful judge

Where will the sinner hide with you above
O thank God for the way to be on the right
That’s my gift if I eat from the Tree of Life
I want to be forgiven . . . Repeat Chorus

  1. How glorious is the kingdom of this excellent King

Lord knows I want to reign with him
O if only I could find in this book
The top of the tree of life is a good place to look.
I want to find the answers . . . . Repeat Chorus

This song I wrote in response to reading St. Bonaventure’s Tree of Life¸ November 8, 2006

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 15:1-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.