Sermons That Work

Theologians Through the Ages…, Easter 5 (B) – 2006

May 14, 2006

Theologians through the ages have written about Christians’ penchant for a “milquetoast Jesus,” who is, in today’s parlance, something of a wimp. Dorothy Sayers, better known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries than her essays, wrote in exasperation in her book The Greatest Drama Ever Staged:

“We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

We don’t have to look very far to see this image played out in liturgy and song. Think of the hymn:

Awake, awake to love and work!
The lark is in the sky;
The fields are wet with diamond dew;
The worlds awake to cry
Their blessings on the Lord of life,
As He goes meekly by.

Jesus is depicted here as meekly passing by.

Walk into church halls across the land, and any depictions of Jesus will be soft, solemn, composed.

The scripture passage we call “The Beatitudes” — or as the writer Robert Schuller publicized them, the Be (Happy) Attitudes — is much preferred over Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the temple. Jesus welcoming children is more often cited as descriptive of our Lord than his pronouncement “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” In an odd sort of way, all of this is consistent, too, with our current trends toward inactivity and obesity. Overall, in our lives as in our faith, it is much more comfortable to sit still — to take a load off and rest awhile — than to be active.

Jesus tells his disciples, “Abide in me.” Oh, this is comforting! These words are alluring and welcoming and warm. We love to hear the reassurance that comes with our Lord inviting us into a kind of security, a resting in the everlasting arms of Jesus just like the old hymn proclaims. These words have been offered for generations as words of comfort. They declare the loving goodness of Jesus, the gentle savior.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. … Abide in me as I abide in you. … If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

Good news! Comforting and encouraging words! But is that all? So often this seems to be the sense of this lesson, indeed of the entire Gospel message and of Jesus. But there’s more to it than that. If we stop with the comforting words, we miss the message.

This passage also includes the message of pruning, and being thrown away, and withering — of being thrown into the fire and burned. That is the part we often don’t hear, and it is sobering.

The message of Jesus is clear when read closely and in its entirety: he expects something of us. He is not meek and mild, and doesn’t expect us to be. Our call is his call.

Another excerpt from this same gospel reading demonstrates. “Abide in me as I abide in you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” These words are from the same gospel reading, and even use the admonition “Abide in me.” But listen closely to the difference: “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

How many ways can we say this today?
— Quid pro quo.
— No such thing as a free lunch.
— What goes around comes around.

In other sayings of Jesus we hear:
— Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
— Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
— Love one another as God loves us.

However it’s phrased, it’s a two-part deal. The responsibility goes both ways. There is mutuality, reciprocity, an even exchange. Just as Jesus is not the meek and mild savior, neither are his disciples expected to be lazy and inactive.

The image of the vineyard is common throughout Old Testament scriptures and was a familiar image for Israel. Perhaps it was rooted in the Garden of Eden and the tension between being cast out and longing for return. Vineyard language — rich, harvest language — is used throughout the Hebrew scriptures to describe Israel and the promise of God’s restored goodness. Here, though, the vineyard language describes our relationship to God through Jesus, and makes clear the expectations of discipleship.

This is the time of year when many of us (gardeners at heart), begin planting seeds, or hailing off to the local nursery for bedding plants, or tending the shoots emerging from winter soil. We know that just because we want something to grow doesn’t guarantee that it will. We also know that getting our roses to bloom means cutting back the canes; that encouraging the growth of the tomato plants means pinching off the gangly stems; that getting a second bloom from the impatiens, or the pansies, or the sweet peas and zinnias, means cutting back the early flowers.

If something is growing where it doesn’t belong, we pull it out and call it a weed. If something is dead, or not growing well, we cut it off. If something is too big, or too small, we move it, stake it, tie it back. This is what John’s gospel describes of God and the disciples’ learning process. Gardening is not an armchair activity, and neither is faith. There are choices to be made. It is difficult work.

This passage from John’s gospel utilizes the image of vinedresser and vineyard to describe the relationship between God and Christian believers. What is the purpose of such care and tending? That we will bear fruit. That we may perhaps have a clearer understanding of our relationship to the vine.

Today is Mother’s Day. Many of us are mothers. Many of us have mothers. Any understanding of motherhood includes cajoling, guiding, and giving – as well as taking away, in the form of grounding, being put on “time out,” or being sent to our room. Isn’t this a bit like God’s role as the Vinedresser? God tends, mother guides. God counsels, mother teaches. God prunes, mother takes away, or puts on “time out,” or in some way lets us know that we will behave!

In both cases, the aim is to grow good fruit. For Mother, we are to become strong and wise and educated and courageous and ethical and use very good table manners. For God, well, for God we are to abide in God. Abide. Find our home in. Stake our claim in.

That sounds so easy, doesn’t it? We have only to glance again at the epistle reading from 1 John to realize how hard this is. We must love our brothers and sisters.

Imagine this in the family scenario: What does Mother do when we don’t love our brothers and sisters? Remember the old expression “gettin’ smacked upside the head”? John’s gospel uses the more elegant language of pruning to describe the vineyard scene, but it amounts to the same thing. We are to grow, to develop, to learn well from our teachers and to live the life to which we are called. And it’s hard work.

All of this conviction that we are called and expected to answer our Lord’s love with action, with fruit bearing, is rooted in our baptism with the promise “I will, with God’s help.” There’s that give-and-take construction again. In this Easter season it is good to remember that for the earliest Christians, baptism was the claiming of faith and being claimed by God. It was the nurturing and tending of the seedling until the tender shoot grew strong. The preparation for baptism took months and even years to accomplish because of all there was to learn and do in order to take on an active role in the community of faith. We stand on the shoulders of these saints in our present-day faith, charged to remember that the activity of faith is not easy or optional.

“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Jesus said. This doesn’t mean settle down, it means get busy.

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Christopher Sikkema


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