May 6, 2018: Rev. Anna Fulmer Duke
Jesus is saying goodbye. This passage is part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, and so since our seniors are saying goodbye to one school, I thought maybe they should hear some words of Jesus’ goodbye. Reminders to take on their journey. Right before this passage, Jesus says another, I am statement. This time he says, I am the true vine—you are the branches. Remember this image, the image of Jesus as the vine and us as the branches as we read this passage together.
It might seem like Jesus in his final goodbye is rifting off of the Beatles hit, “All You Need is Love.” Maybe that’s just it, All We Need is Love—now we can go home. Here in Scripture though, love is not a mushy gushy feeling. Its not this naive idea that everyone can get along. It’s a disciplined habit of care and concerned. Love is hard. Love is work. It’s a love we find first, in the love of God and Jesus. In this text, John uses the Greek word agape for love—this kind of love is concerned with the good of other people. Its not possessive or dominating. It provides space for others to be. This love is the love of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a love that does not objectify or lower another, it’s a mutual love, a love not concerned about the self but the other.
Jesus tells us he has loved us; therefore we are to abide in his love. Just as branches are connected to a vine—we are called to stay connected to Christ’s love. Abiding in Christ’s love means keeping his commandments—listening and doing what he has taught us and told us. Jesus knows he is going to die. He is telling his disciples goodbye and trying to condense everything he has taught them—hoping they will remember. John is writing this for the Johannine community, a community facing persecution and death themselves. The words of Jesus take on new meaning hearing them in a community that will live out these words—“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This community is living out this sacrificial love already, giving up their lives for the sake of Jesus and the love of their community. In light of Jesus’ death, how then can Jesus talk about joy—saying these things so that his joy may be in us, and our joy may be complete? This passage doesn’t bring me joy; it makes me want to cry with it’s beauty and sadness. I don’t want to say goodbye! Goodbyes are hard. And I do not like change. Yet we know that death does not have the final word in all of this, that through death does come joy—joy and hope in the resurrection. Growing deeper and deeper into a faith-filled community does lead to deeper joy. When we become so connected to the vine, to the other branches, we can’t help but find joy, peace, and love in the midst of trouble.
This Sunday, we say good luck and blessings to our graduates—some who will leave to go to college or jobs hours away, and others who will be in town, but who will be in a new phase of life. When I began at this church, these high school seniors were freshmen in high school. And I know many of you have known them for much longer. I have heard countless stories about their births, their stints in our Mother’s Day Out and Preschool, the joy that many of you have had watching them grow into adults. Even as we tell them goodbye, we do not let them go. For we are connected. No matter where you go or what you do, we stay connected because of Christ. Christ in our vine.
If there is anything that I think this passage says to you and to us today, it is telling us to stay connected to the vine—abide in Christ. Stay connected to the church. Wherever you are, find a church community. And if you are going to school or work in town, we hope to see you here. Leaving doesn’t mean that you are suddenly cut off from the vine and have to navigate the world alone. Instead, we are sending you out—still connected to us, still connect to Christ. We have loved you as best we could. We have tried to teach you what we could. And we now want you to go out and share that love with the world. Bear fruit that will last.
Find deep friendships, friendships you would sacrifice for and friends who will do the same. Aristotle said, if you want a virtue, you must emulate those who embody it. The best way to emulate someone is to become their friend. “A friend is another self” (Aristotle). Find others who you hope to become like—maybe they will be your age or maybe they will be younger or older, but find others who teach you how to love God in deeper ways. Find friends who are different than you—who challenge you; who help you grow, who teach you. Christ does not find friends who a mini-versions of the Messiah—instead he befriends fisherman, Gentiles, women at wells, tax collectors, sinners, doubters, deniers, and betrayers. He finds strange people, unlikely people to become friends with. Yet these people have much to teach us, have much to teach our Messiah I think, and he has much to teach them too.
Yet, sometimes, no matter how good of friends you have, you will be lonely. Even Jesus, was lonely. He was rejected and alone. And it’s okay to be lonely, in those moments, abide with Christ—become “friends with God”—for that is one of the goals according to Aquinas of the Christian life, to become friends with God. Read Scripture. Pray. Write music. Commune with others, and most importantly commune with God.
There will be challenges on the road ahead. You will make mistakes. Others will make mistakes. But know this, no matter what you do, where you go, God loves you. We love you. Abide in God’s love. Stay connect to the vine, your source, your maker. Christ no longer calls any of us servants—instead, we are his friends. We are his equals—because he has taught us what he knows—in case you forget what you have learned, read the Bible. That doesn’t just go to the graduates—that’s a challenge for all of us. If we want to deepen our friendship with Christ, we can’t do all the talking—we have to listen to what Christ says, what God says. We have to read Scripture, pray, and love.
I know I know. I am getting all preachy. As our youth sometimes say, “I am getting all Manna on you—It’s the nickname they gave me—Mom plus Anna. God has sought each one of us out. God has gathered us into community. And yes, God sends us out into the world. To love everyone. To befriend everyone. It’s God’s pattern. Over and over God seeks us, God brings us together, and we are sent to spread God’s love. It’s what happens each week here. You have been practicing this your whole life. So go, go and bear fruit.