John 15:1 (NIV)
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.“
John 15:4-5 (NIV)
“Remain in me, and I will remain in you.
No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.
Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches.
If a person remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit;
a part from me you can do nothing.
John 15:1-8 and 1 John 4:7-21
Man’s search for God. Religion as a path to God. I can see why people use these metaphors. But the more I reflect on them, the more I think there is something lacking in the image of God as a distant destination, as if newborns started out life far away from God and had to make a long trek in order to get even close to God. And for some reason this image makes me think of a path that goes up to a high mountain, so it seems like an uphill climb we have to undertake by our own efforts.
The idea of a search for God seems to suggest that God is hiding from us. Or at the very least, that it is up to us to do the work of searching.
In today’s gospel passage, Jesus tells us, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” What a different view of our relationship with God that is! Instead of the idea that we start out distant from God and have to travel all our lives, this passage says Jesus is as close to you as a vine is to its branches. If you look at a grape vine you can see how close the branches and the vine are. The branches start out by growing directly from the vine. The branches are alive because there are liquids flowing to them all the time from the vine. I love the way Jesus expresses our relationship to him in the most natural and organic way possible. It is as if Jesus were preaching to people while they were all outdoors in the sunshine, looking at the growing things all around them. And Jesus enables them to see the divine in the vine. So that from now on, whenever you see a vine, you can remember that Jesus is as close to you as the branches are to the vine.
But what about obedience to the Biblical commands? What about believing the right doctrines? What about righteousness?
The summer after I graduated from college I had a summer job as a Director of Christian Education at a church in Mooresville, North Carolina. That meant that I was in charge of the Vacation Bible School, which had programs for preschoolers through adults. I figured the preschool program would be mostly babysitting and coloring with crayons, and since a capable layperson named Karen had volunteered to take care of it, I didn’t pay much attention to it and focused on what we would teach the teenagers. Karen had said something about having the little kids play orf instruments, which were like child-sized xylophones, and letting the kids who were too young to manage that, shake maracas. She said the kids could sing a song for everyone at the end of Vacation Bible School week, and I said, sure, sure, that’ll be cute.
The little kids came out and sang, with the accompaniment of their orf instruments and maracas, “We love, because God first loved us. We love, because God first loved us. We love, we love, we love, because God first loved us.” That was it. But it brought tears to my eyes to hear preschoolers express with such simple clarity the core doctrine of the Christian faith: “We love, because God first loved us.” The words of the song are a direct quote from 1 John 4:19. It is now twenty years since I heard those preschoolers sing that song, and yet every time I come across that wonderful verse, I can hear those children’s voices singing this deep truth. I am so glad this verse appears in today’s epistle reading, alongside Jesus’ statement “I am the vine and you are the branches.”
We have all heard people who say, “if you believe the right things, then you can get close to God,” or “if you obey the Biblical commands, then God will reward you” or any number of other statements of “if you do this, then God will do that.” But this scripture verse sweeps aside all the “if you do this, then God will do that” ideas by putting first things first: “we love, because God first loved us.” The main message of all Christian theology is not “if you…, then God” The main message of all Christian theology is “because God…then we” Because God first loved us, then we love.
All the other good theology flows from that message. We celebrate infant baptism as a reminder that God loves newborns even before they learn how to love. We love, because God first loved us. We celebrate the Eucharist as a reminder that Christ already loves us to death, and demonstrated that love to us by his crucifixion and resurrection. We love, because God first loved us.
One of the speakers at our clergy conference was a priest from England. She gave a very articulate and well-thought out presentation. But what I remember most from her talk was a little slip. She said, “Studies have shown that most Episcopal clergy say the most meaningful part of their ministry is celebrating the universe, I mean the Eucharist.” I think she’s on to something there: that in the Eucharist, we do celebrate God’s love flowing through the universe. The divine in the vine. God is as close to you as the wine you drink.
Our religion teaches us not so much our path to God, our religion teaches us Jesus' path to us. Our hope is not in our search for God, but in God’s search for us. Jesus tells us, “abide in me, as I abide in you”; live in me, as I live in you. We love, because God first loved us.
1 John 4:7-12 (NIV)
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.
Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
This is how God showed his love among us:
He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another,
God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
1 John 4:21 (NIV)
“And he has given us this command:
Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Note: If you are still confused about how a gay Christian can feel they are 'right' with God I encourage you to read the section of the web site entitled "Gay and Christian? YES!"