Rev. Sabrina Ingram
1 John 4: 7 – 21; John 15: 1 – 8

Comedian Robert Orben posed the question: “Who can ever forget Winston Churchill’s immortal words: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.’? After a pause he quipped, “It sounds exactly like our family vacation.” Families are complicated. When you think about it, these odd groupings of people are arbitrary package deals. We don’t get to pick and choose who’s included. Families come together by way of desire which leads to either birth (sometimes even intentionally) or adoption (always intentionally) or marriage – which means someone in your bloodline fell in love with a virtual stranger who is now part of your family tree. Families are package deals. No family is perfect. We all have relatives we love immensely and some we could do without. Yet it’s with this motley crew of people that we find a home and among these people that we find our roots, form our identity and go out into the world. In whatever way we become a family, this shaping of our self comes about because we dwell together. We are thrown together and are immersed in one another’s lives. Just like a branch needs to connect to a tree and a tree needs to be rooted to the ground, we are created to be in family relationships. Relationships ground us.

Jesus got that. His own family tree was quite complicated what with being conceived by the Holy Spirit, having a heavenly birth Father and an adoptive Father, a Mom and step-brothers, possibly step-sisters as well as a spiritual “brotherhood” with his disciples. This spiritual family spread and grew through every generations since. Try mapping that out! We are part of that family tree. In living within the family of the Triune God, we’re given spiritual life or a re-birth, we find a home, discover our roots, form our identity and go out into the world. In speaking with his disciples prior to his death, Jesus took the concept of the “family tree” and built on it’s imagery. He told his disciples, “I am the Vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5). Jesus is the stock from which we grow. He is the source of our life and health. Jesus is rooted in the Spirit’s soil. When we’re connected with him, he draws up the nutrients we need to flourish. Cut off from him we die.

Joined to Jesus, the family we belong to is a loving family. “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love” (John 15:9). The phrase, “at home in my love” brings to my mind an image of a nest. Terry and I live on the water by a small, man-made island. Early this year Canada geese made their nest and laid eggs on the edge of the island. As the level of the cold water rose, the nest was flooded. The gander sat on the eggs until she was forced by the water to abandon the nest. The couple found dry ground nearby and hung around for days fretfully watching the water wash their family away. Watching them, there was no doubt in my mind that their response of grief went beyond instinct to an emotional bond – one we’d identify as love. Jesus doesn’t invite us into a tree, he invites us into a family that is filled with love. Before we venture out in the world, people need an environment of love where they feel safe, secure and cherished. AGAPE is the Greek word for the love Christ has for us. Prior to the New Testament the word is found in ancient Greek literature only 13 times. It appears 320 times in the New Testament. Agape is a tender, endlessly enduring love that looks for nothing in return and is steadfast in loyalty. When describing agape, people often detach it from emotion like it’s a matter of intellectual consent alone, but agape is love in all it’s fullness. It was out of that depth of love that Jesus went to the cross, extending his arms to embrace all humanity. Agape is a love so deep causes the lover to deny himself before he’ll deny the object of his love. Just as Jesus was loved by his heavenly Father and so learned to love, we too need to be at home in Christ’s love so that we’ll learn to love. The author, Nikos Kazantzakis, shared this memory of knocking on the door of a priest in a village on Crete where a stranger is welcomed as if he were Christ. “The priests in our village are uncultivated, their education meager; they are incapable of any theoretical discussion of Christian doctrine. But Christ lives in their hearts. I knocked on the door. Standing in front of me was an old man with a snow-white beard and long hair flowing down over his shoulders. Without asking me who I was or what I wanted, he extended his hand. ‘Welcome. Are you a stranger? Come in. My wife is a little disposed; but I will cook for you, lay the table for your supper, and prepare a bed so you can sleep.’ His voice was heavy and afflicted. He was extremely pale, and his eyes were swollen and inflamed, as though from weeping. But no thought of a misfortune occurred to me. I ate, slept, and in the morning the priest came and brought me a tray of bread, cheese, and milk. I held out my hand, thanked him, and said goodbye. ‘“God bless you, my son,’ he said. ‘Christ be with you.’ I left and soon met an old man who asked, ‘Where did you spend the night, son?’ ‘At the priest’s house.’ The old man sighed. ‘Ah, the poor fellow. And you didn’t catch wind of anything?’ ‘What was there to catch wind of?’ ‘His son died yesterday morning. His only son; They had him in the inner room. They must have muffled their laments to keep you from hearing and being disturbed…’” That is the nature of our family. When we’re at home in Christ’s love we grow into healthy, confident, productive, fruitful people.

Every parent knows that children need to be shaped to fit the values of the family. Jesus also said, “I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer.” (vs. 1). Farmers have expectations. Farmers farm for a purpose. Farmers plant vines hoping they’ll bear fruit. Farmers tend vines to get the best yield possible. Dead branches that bear no fruit are no use to the Farmer. In fact, they’re detrimental to the plant and to the whole operation. They need to be cut off. They’re no good for anything but a bonfire. The Farmer also knows the branches that bear some fruit, if carefully tended, will produce more. “Every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more.” (vs. 2) Jesus indicates that God’s pruning shears are Jesus’ own teachings. “You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.” (vs. 3) While the Good News of the Gospel is one which displays God’s love and grace to humanity. One Christian Blogger today writes, “The prevailing image of Jesus in the minds of many people is what I call Hippie-Jesus: He’s chill, doesn’t care what you do, and would never, under any circumstances, make you feel guilty or confront you about a way of life that makes you happy. Hippie-Jesus doesn’t tell you to stop sinning. Hippie-Jesus doesn’t confront the issues in your life. Hippie-Jesus ultimately just wants you to be happy and would never tell you to give something up that makes you happy. Who wouldn’t like this version of Jesus — the Jesus who says do what you want and still gives you a ticket to Heaven?” The only problem with “Hippie-Jesus” is that he’s not real. He’s an idol we’ve created so that we never have to feel the pinch and slash of God’s pruning shears. Among the words of Jesus are some difficult teachings:
• Love your enemies (Matthew 5: 43 – 47)
• Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5: 38 – 42)
• You can’t worship both God and riches– make a choice (Matthew 6:24)
• There will be a day of judgement (Matthew 25)
• Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Christ (Luke 9: 23 – 25)
• Go on your way. From now on don’t sin. (John 8:11)
These words bring us to maturity. They cut through to the heart of who we are. They force us to examine ourselves. They demand a shift in our souls. They challenge us not only to live differently but to live in opposition to our natural tendencies and humanity’s lower values. They force us to make hard choices. They prune us back, so we’ll bear more fruit.

Pruning is a painful process. In Ernest Gordon’s book, Miracle on the River Kwai he recalls this event: The Scottish soldiers forced by their Japanese captors to labor on a jungle railroad, had degenerated to barbarous behavior, but one afternoon something happened. “A shovel was missing. The officer in charge became enraged. He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else. When nobody in the squadron budged, the officer got his gun and threatened to kill them all on the spot . . . Finally, one man stepped forward. The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and beat the man to death. When it was over, the survivors picked up the bloody corpse and carried it with them to the second tool check. This time, no shovel was missing. Indeed, there had been a miscount at the first check point. The incident had a profound effect. . . The men began to treat each other like brothers. When the victorious Allies swept in, the survivors, human skeletons, lined up in front of their captors. Instead of taking revenge and attacking their captors, they insisted: ‘No more hatred. No more killing. Now what we need is forgiveness.’” Christ invites us to join his family tree. We do this by connecting with him. “God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us” (I John 4: 17). Many Christians and many churches hang off the family tree like damaged, dying branches. They think they love but are quick to squabble over unimportant, petty things instead of getting on with bearing fruit. Many Christians serve out of a sense of duty and call that love. Others think they’re the vine; they exist to call the shots or get their way. Some are tentatively connected – they rarely participate and so are dying of spiritual malnutrition which can come only from the vine. Others are happy to have branches lopped off without having new growth. Christians who are part of the family tree bear the fruit of love and a church, a branch, where people love one another with genuine affection is a church that bears fruit in its community. May we be the branches that are solidly connected to the vine, helping the family tree to flourish. Let’s give love “the run of the house” (vs. 18).