First Reading Acts 10.44-48 NRSV
44While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Gospel John 15.9-17 NRSV
Jesus said to his disciples: 9‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’
Last Sunday our gospel reading was about The True Vine. Today’s passage is a continuation of that reading in John chapter 15.
Remember Jesus said he is like a vine. God is the gardener. We are the branches. Vines cannot be left untended if they are to bear fruit. They must be pruned and trained in order to maximise their fruit. Any branch that does not bear fruit is cut back and thrown away. Any branch that is withered or diseased is removed and burned, so as not to allow the infection to spread to the rest of the vine.
Although all this attention is for our own good, it may feel chastening at the time. Yet we must remain a part of the vine, since branches cannot have a separate existence on their own. If they remove themselves from the main plant, they quickly die.
Tending a vine is a labour of love. The owner of a vineyard is in it for the long term. You cannot expect good fruit for several years. Along the way, there are a great many threats – from disease, insects, frost, drought, too much or too little sun, and so on. Yet we are commanded to remain part of the vine which is Jesus Christ. By so doing, we will bear much fruit to the glory of God the Father, who is the vine dresser. In this way we show ourselves to be his disciples, or learners.
This is the point at which today’s gospel reading starts. It’s all about love. Remaining a part of the vine is to remain in God’s love. The gardener loves his vine, and so if we are a part of that vine we bask in the light of God’s love. Just as Jesus was obedient to his Father’s commands even to death, so we must obey his commands too. To do so is to remain in his love. In that way, our joy is complete.
This love does not flow up and down, but throughout the whole plant. So we must not love God alone but one another. There can be no greater love, Jesus says, than the love which would sacrifice all for another. The kind of love which would make someone lay down his life for his friend. The Sydney Carton love. The love of a man who risks death in no man’s land to rescue his fallen comrade. The love of a saviour who dies on the cross for fallen humanity. The implication is, our love for God and for each other should be as great as this, the ultimate self-sacrificing love.
Slaves or servants would not have this kind of feeling for each other. Only friends, close families, mothers, husbands and wives, could have the sort of love that might place them in mortal danger to save someone else. So we cannot be the slaves or servants of Jesus, but family members and friends. He chose us. We did not choose him. He chose us to become part of his existence, and by being part of him to go out and bear much fruit. Fruit that will last. The fruit of love.
Now, we may think the likelihood of our being called upon to put our lives on the line to save another is slim, but that would be to miss the point. It’s the type and strength of love that is the point – not what we may eventually be called upon to do with it. It’s the sacrificial type of love, that puts self last and others first. The love that consults another person’s interests before even considering one’s own.
This love works in very many small ways too. Yes, it may be the love that ensures everyone else is safe before climbing into the lifeboat. But it’s also the love that joins the back of the queue. The kind of love that spends time caring for a sick neighbour. The kind of practical Christianity we all instinctively recognise in others when we see it, but we often don’t notice because this kind of love works quietly, does not advertise itself, and is not often found out.
This kind of love is a wake up call for those Christians who spend more time on church ritual and liturgy, on the right way of doing things, on slivers of interpretation of scripture, and on how many angels can balance on the head of a pin – than they do relieving suffering, offering practical help where it is needed, and supporting the less fashionable charities that work closer to home.
It also reduces to absolute simplicity our faith. Love God and love one another. All those papers presented at clergy conferences. All those hardback books of theology. The rational and systematic search for religious truth. What a relief: faith distilled into a few words that even a child can understand with perfect clarity.
So let’s take this wonderful passage to heart and put it into practice.
16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’