Sixth Sunday in Easter, Year A
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And now to this Sunday's texts ...
One of the questions for small group discussion in the first session of Connect, a six-week course I developed with the Rev. John de Beer that uses the liturgy of the Eucharist as a framework to explore Christian faith, goes like this:
Have you ever had that experience of feeling welcomed unconditionally? What was that like?
An experience that always comes to mind when I think about that question was my time in Kenya, where I found an amazingly high value placed on hospitality. In remote places in the bush there, a traveler coming across a family dwelling might have a conversation like this:
Traveler: Hello! I am a visitor. May I stay with you?
Householder: Can you work in the garden?
Householder: How many months would you like to stay?
And the traveler would be welcomed in for a feast with whatever was available that night, and would stay for the duration named.
Can you imagine a conversation like that happening between two complete strangers in an American suburb? The image always gets a laugh when I use it in a sermon or presentation. But from what I gathered, such conversations weren't particularly unusual in Kenya.
I imagine that's partly because of a combination of two things:
First, in the Kenyan bush, everyone is aware of the dangers a traveler on his or her own could face in the open at night. Second, householders know that when they need to journey across a long stretch of bush, they will face the same vulnerabilities, and will be just as dependent upon the generosity of those they meet.
I thought of that again when I read the gospel appointed for Sunday, and about its vivid imagery for abiding in Jesus as Vine, us as branches. It's a rich image. Branches depend upon the vine for their very life. The vine provides all their nourishment, and a healthy vine holds nothing back. It's an image of profound closeness as well as interdependence, and like Paul's favorite metaphor (well, perhaps tied with the metaphor implied by his language of Christians as sisters and brothers) for our relationships as the Church -- that of one Body, with Christ as its head -- it suggests a relationship that couldn't be closer or fuller.
The community that produced the Gospel of John had a strong sense of the absolute necessity of abiding in Jesus and of the closeness of that relationship. I think that their experience of that came in part from another experience they shared as a community:
They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.
-- John 16:2
This persecution didn't come without cause, nor was it a simple matter of disagreement about theology. It came because Jesus' followers were living as Jesus lived and lives. It came because living as Jesus lives has the potential to transform the world, and because those who benefit from the order of the world as it is quite wisely understand that this is a threat to their privilege.
Where will the kings of this world if their armies decide to turn the other cheek and love their enemies? Where will the tycoons be if the world starts measuring a person's worth by how humbly they serve, rather than by how much of and what kind they can consume? Where will those whose power comes from spreading fear of the other when our communities decide to embrace the perfect love, that casts out fear (1 John 4:18)?
Our gospel reading for this Sunday stops at verse 8 of chapter 15. But if we want to understand the energy behind the eight verses we read this Sunday, we'll need to read at least the rest of the chapter, and see the fires of persecution that John's community saw. It's at least as true in justice-making and as it is in teaching or psychotherapy: the work starts where the resistance starts. If we're not encountering any resistance, then we have to ask ourselves whether we've confused the Gospel of Jesus with our culture's rules for respectability. John's community knew it. Israel's exiles hearing God's prophetic word to them in Isaiah knew it. The community that produced 1 Peter knew it. The new life that God brings comes in the midst of powers that are hostile to it.
Not much of a sales pitch, is it: "Come, and be hated, reviled and persecuted!" When we walk into a church and see a cross, that should, if nothing else, cause is to ask whether any ride is worth that price of admission.
But there is something else, something that transformed the Cross from an instrument of fear for rulers to control rebels and prophets into the means of our salvation. And that's Jesus. Jesus, lifted up on the Cross, draws all people to him. Jesus, who loved even his persecutors to the end, shows us that resurrection, not persecution, is the final word. That new life is already flowing through the Vine to the branches, bearing the fruit of the Spirit as a sign given to and for the world. The power and peace of that new life is almost beyond description, but for now, for this Sunday, we have John's description of the life of the risen Body of Christ in the world.
"I am the vine; you are the branches." We know that best when we're living out the Good News in the places most in need of transformation, and most likely to pose resistance. We know that most deeply when we need it most profoundly. And when we are in that place where fires threaten, we do need need to fear. We abide in Christ, and in that relationship, we find new life in where others see only pain; we experience that rush of refreshment and joy that inspired the psalmist:
He has raised up strength for his people
and praise for all his loyal servants,
the children of Israel, a people who are near him.
-- Psalm 148:14
Thanks be to God!
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okay, so I've read your blog now for about a year. And, it's always provocative and helpful. But, I have to say - this one really got me. You really helped me understand what this passage is about. I've just never thought about it this way. Thank you.
Posted by: Amy | Apr 28, 2005 10:51:46 PM