Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; if you abide in me then you will bear much fruit. When you abide in me, you abide in my love and the fruit that you bear is the work of love. Because I am in God and God is in me, because you are in me as I am in you, so from the root of the vine to the very tip of the branches and fruit, we are love. Love in relationship. Love in action. Love in all.”
Except, of course, when love isn’t in all.
The root of it all is Love and the vine courses with love like sap flowing in springtime, but sometimes the branches choke on the love. Choke on the very thought of doing the work of love. Choke on bearing the fruit of love.
We have not been bearing love very well these days, and by “we” I mean the Church especially — capital “C” Church to represent the whole diverse dysfunctional family of Christians, across denominations, across continents. We the Church have not been bearing the fruit of love-in-action, but I was thinking that if we say it out loud, we might begin to impact change.
Many of us have individual stories of being hurt by the Church’s refusal to bear love, by the Church’s lukewarm efforts at love, by the Church’s willful blindness about love. Unfortunately, the Church keeps causing injury:
— the Vatican chastising American nuns for their love-in-action toward the poor, the underprivileged, the hungry;
— the United Methodist Church literally turning out the lights during its annual convention rather than letting its LGBT members voice their protest;
— pastors preaching racism and homophobia from their pulpits;
— abuses and cover-ups;
— money and political games;
— the pursuit of the Church’s clout and survival valued more than the pursuit of love-in-action.
We as the Christian body have not been bearing love well.
In some ways, this truth is very easy to name: “We confess that the Church hasn’t been bearing the fruit of love-in-action.” Whew! Glad we got that off of our collective chest! We don’t mind making the confession because secretly we mean: “We confess that those Christians — who we only reluctantly identify to be our brothers and sisters within the Church — aren’t loving well.”
It is harder to confess: “We, the individuals and congregations who make up the Church, haven’t been bearing the fruit of love well. I haven’t been bearing the fruit of love well.”
It’s tempting to assess our fruits of love in contrast to those other Christians, and to conclude that our love is enough because we care for one another without regard for sexuality, relationships or gender identity.
It’s tempting to think that our love is enough because we wore hoodies for Trayvon Martin, even if we never got around to understanding the deep wound of racism in America.
It’s easy to feel good about how we love one another on Sunday mornings within these church walls, but then neglect to reach out to each other during the week; or to appreciate our age diversity as we look around the pews, without really making the effort to get to know our congregation’s elders or our youth.
It’s easy to look around and assess that we as a congregation and as individuals are loving well in many ways … and so to let ourselves off the hook of loving further; of digging deeper into the Root so that we might bear more fruit; digging deeper into the Root of it all so that we might conquer our fears; so that we might push past our assumptions and limitations in love; so that we might, in fact, reach perfection in love.
I know it’s hard to imagine that we actually can love perfectly, so it may seem futile to keep trying to love perfectly. But there is no earthly or otherworldly reason why the health of the Root should not also be the health and quality of the fruit. 1 John says, “The way that Jesus is, is the way that we are in this world.”
Not “The way that Jesus is, is the way that we can be.”
Not “The way that Jesus is, is the way that maybe we should try to be when we have the time.”
“The way that Jesus is, is the way that we are.” Love is the way of Jesus so Love is the way of our being, because Love is the root of our being. If we think we can love a God — love a Root — that we do not see, 1 John says we’d absolutely be able to love the neighbors we can see.
Love is the root of our being, and if we confess that we have neglected to live from our root, we can impact a change in the quality of love in this world. If we confess and take responsibility not only for our own good fruits (or lack of fruits), but also for the whole Church’s fruit and lack thereof, we will change the Church.
You maybe don’t attend worship on a Sunday morning with the goal of impacting the whole global Christian community. Often we come into a congregation on Sundays looking for enough renewal, enough inspiration, enough support and fellowship to get us through the next week. And that’s good, and important…
…but we are part of a larger branch that is choking on rather than living with God’s love. We are members of a branch that is withdrawing into itself rather than daring to bear new fruit. Whenever the choking of the Church plays out in hurtful, narcissistic ways, that kind of behavior reflects on all of us. And we can cringe from calling ourselves Christian and bear little small fruit in hopes that no one will see us and say, “Look! They’re part of the Church!” … or we can claim out loud, really loudly in fact, “Yes, we’re the Church too and we offer our witness that the Root is still good and healthy and full of love; we commit ourselves to working toward a whole global Church that will consistently bear good fruit, healthy fruit, loving fruit.”
The branch is having trouble, there’s no doubt about that. It might be easier to pretend that we’re not part of the whole branch, to say that we’re our own nice little branch. But an abundance of fruit, an abundance of love, is needed in this world, and the fruit of the Church is critical — the healthy fruit of the Church is critical for love-in-action to ease the ills of the world.
The branch is having trouble, but the root is still good
and the root is still God and the root is still Love:
available not only for each of us individually
to be nourished and to grow, but also
available for the whole Church
to be healed and renewed
and to bloom,
until the whole vine
— from its root to its fruit —
is known for its love-in-action.
Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ on 5/13/2012, on 1 John 4:16-21 and John 15:9-17.