Sermon for Sunday, April 22, 2018 || Easter 5B || John 15:1-18
My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. Before the age of twelve I had lived in eight different houses in five states. When we arrived in Alabama right after Christmas in 1994, my parents promised my sister and me that we wouldn’t move again until I finished high school seven years on. I smiled and nodded, but the whole time I was thinking, “Yeah, right. I’ll believe that when I see it.”
I simply had no frame of reference for remaining in one place more than three years, which was my previous best. I wasn’t great at making friends because my experience told me I would be leaving them soon, so what was the point. I had to adapt to numerous new cultures and speaking patterns. Notably, when I moved to Alabama I had to amend every statement with the words “sir” or “ma’am.” If I had said either in my prior home of Rhode Island, adults would have thought I was sassing them. It was very confusing.
The upshot of all the moving around is that, outside my immediate family, I had no idea what it was like to enter into any type of abiding relationship with anyone. In the first third of my life, I never had a best friend. I thought I had found some candidates on my baseball team in the spring of my first year in Alabama. They were the popular guys in my middle school class, so I thought I had won the lottery. But outside of baseball practice, we never hung out. Their friendships were already solidified, and they had no need for me. After two seasons on their team, I got traded. It hurt so much. It was a palpable reminder of my feelings of extraneousness. It was the spring of my eighth grade year. I figured I had one, maybe two more years left before my parents moved again, so any hopes of abiding relationships would be dashed anyway.
Then something strange happened. We didn’t move. My parents kept their promise to remain in Alabama through my senior year. By my freshman year of high school, I finally believed the promise they made. And that’s about the time Kyle Sapp and I became best friends. I’ve talked about him in at least one other sermon here. He’s now a pastor out in California.* Kyle and I would never have entered into such a deep and abiding relationship (well over twenty years now) if I had continued to disbelieve my parents’ promise.
The same reality operates in our relationships with the God made known in Jesus Christ. The biblical witness is chock full of instances which affirm God’s promise to be present in our lives and in the life of creation. And yet, it is so easy to forget this promise or to disbelieve it or to live our lives as if the promise does not matter. But God’s promises do matter. They are the threads that bind up the very fabric of creation.
When I finally believed my parents, my life started blossoming. I made friends. I joined teams and extracurricular activities. By the time I was a senior, I even had (gulp) school spirit. I worked on the homecoming float. When we believe God’s promise to abide in life giving relationships with us, when we integrate that promise into our lives, the petals of our souls begin to uncurl.
The promise of God’s presence spans the biblical witness. But as LeVar Burton used to say on the show Reading Rainbow, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”** Here’s a short survey from just one book of the Bible, my favorite, the Gospel according to John.
- From the first verse, Jesus (as the “Word”) is already in perfect relationship with the God, so perfect in fact that they are one being even as they are two persons (1:1). And this perfect relationship creates all that is.
- This Word becomes flesh and “made his home among us” (1:14).
- Jesus tells John’s disciples to “Come and see,” thus inviting them into relationship (1:39).
- Jesus gives Simon a nickname (Peter), another sure sign of deepening relationship (1:42). That’s all just in Ch. 1!
- Jesus tacitly blesses the wedding feast (and by extension, the coming together in relationship) in Cana when he replenishes the wine stores (2:10).
- After speaking with the woman at the well, Jesus “abides” with the Samaritans for a few days (4:40).
- Jesus heals a man with a paralysis and a man born blind, and he returns to check on both them later in the story (5:14; 9:35).
- Jesus won’t send the people away when they ask for food, but turns scarcity into abundance when he feeds the crowd of five thousand people (Ch. 6)
- Jesus weeps for his friend Lazarus, calls him out of the tomb, and then shares a meal with him (Chs. 11-12).
- Jesus tells his disciples, “I won’t leave you as orphans,” and he promises to send the Holy Spirit (the “Companion”) to them (14:15-18).
- While suffering on the cross, Jesus brings together his mother and the disciple whom he loves and makes them a new family (19:26-27).
- And Jesus rises from the dead, demonstrating what the Apostle Paul will later say, that nothing in all creation – not even death – can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
And this is just a small sample of the evidence of the promise that God is always and forever in the business of sustaining life-giving relationships. I left out our Gospel lesson from this morning so we could spend the last few minutes of the sermon with it. While speaking with his friends before the crucifixion, Jesus says, “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. I am the vine, you are the branches.”
Between this reading and the one from the First Letter of John, we heard the word “abide” fourteen times this morning. This is the verb, the action of God’s presence in our lives. God abides. God remains. God is in this for the long haul. The more we believe this promise, the more capable we are to participate in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. We are each branches attached to the vine of God’s love and presence. That’s our source. The petals of our souls uncurl when we drink deep of the nutrients of the vine.
I know believing this promise can be so hard because most human promises get broken. We are conditioned to expect promises to go unfulfilled. It took me three years to believe my own parents when they said they wouldn’t move. It has taken much longer than that to believe God’s promise, and I still forget all the time, only to be reminded again when I least expect God’s presence but need it most.
This week, I invite you to reflect on a promise someone made you that was never broken. How did it feel when you finally gave in to the belief that the rug wasn’t going to be pulled out from under you? How did it feel to settle into the faith that the promise would be fulfilled through thick and thin? Now take that same feeling and lift it in prayer to God. Ask God to help you remain aware of God’s abiding presence no matter what life throws your way. Then even you, even me, can become reminders of that same abiding presence in the lives of everyone whom God places in our paths.
* Here’s my friend Kyle’s church.
** Reading Rainbow was my second favorite show as a kid after Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both starred LeVar Burton. Coincidence? I think not.