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Worship Service Message

April 28, 2024
5th Sunday of Easter

The Vine and the Branches of What?

John 15:1-11

Rev. Dr. Jaegil Lee

One of the challenges of being a pastor is that you have to preach what you may not have fully lived out in your own life. If I were able to live exactly as I preach, I would admire myself. While I was struggling with acknowledging my limitations and inability to fully live what I preach, I heard a divine voice saying, “Do not think you can preach only what you have lived out perfectly. Rather, you must deliver my message as truthfully as possible, even if you cannot fully put it into action. Your ability or inability shouldn’t dictate which message you can deliver.” I said, “Thank you God!”

How do you understand today’s gospel lesson? Some of you might immediately think about hellfire because the scripture mentions being “thrown into the fire and burned.” Others may appreciate this metaphor for our relationship between Jesus because it provides such a vivid imagery for that intimate relationship. Whatever is our first reaction to today’s scripture may be, understanding and interpreting it remains an important question.

Due to a conservative Sunday school education in my childhood, I had also suffered from the image of hellfire when I read today’s lesson. But I have come to my own understanding.

Today’s text is part of Jesus’ final discourse in the last supper. In this final “long” discourse, Jesus gives a new commandment, promises the coming of the Holy Spirit, and addresses the importance of following his footsteps as disciples. Today’s Gospel lesson must be understood in this context.

In this context, this metaphor of the vine and the branches is used to illustrate the relationship between Jesus and his disciples and consequently followers. Jesus describes himself as the true vine and his followers as the branches, emphasizing the importance of remaining connected to him to bear fruit and have a fruitful life.

However, why is Jesus the true vine? Using the last Sunday’s lesson, why is Jesus the good shepherd? The answer is simple! Because of his love! It was his love that led him to lay down his life for his friends and followers of his own accord. Jesus is the true vine because he is the fullest manifestation of God’s love.

In fact, as I pointed out numerous times, the central theme in the Gospel of John is love. And Jesus’ final discourse extensively addresses God’s love and the commandment to love one another. That is why I would like to refer to the Gospel of John as the Gospel of Love.

Nevertheless, we often forget this important truth and read the Gospel of John with fear. As a result, we completely misunderstand it due to prejudices and misconceptions. We have too much harmful and unhelpful information about scripture. For this reason, we need to unlearn what we know about the Bible.

An outsider can understand Jesus’ teaching and life better than Christians. One such person is Mahatma Gandhi. Let me share a short story about a Christian missionary in India who visited Gandhi for his advice on mission strategy.

That missionary is Eli Stanley Jones who was a prominent Methodist missionary and theologian in the early to mid-20th century. Jones was known for his work in India and his efforts to promote interfaith dialogue and peace. His reputation and influence extended beyond religious circles, making him a respected voice on international issues and human rights.

Jones was invited to the White House on several occasions during his lifetime. His meetings at the White House often involved discussions on matters related to world peace and international relations. Presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman consulted with him on issues of global importance. His status as an advisor to political leaders is part of what made him a significant figure in both religious and political arenas during his lifetime.

Jones asked Gandhi “How can Christians make Christianity something natural in India, something that is not foreign?” Gandhi provided four ways Christians could overcome the hindrances to Christianity being embraced by Indians. Today, I would like to introduce one of them because it deeply resonates with today’s Gospel lesson.

One of the ways Gandhi advised Jones was “Emphasize Love and make it your working force. For love is central in Christianity.” Can you see that Gandhi understood the teaching of Jesus better than most of Christians? He read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount every morning and evening.

When Gandhi said to Jones, “Emphasize Love and make it your working force. For love is central in Christianity,” it implied that, in his view, Christians were unaware of this key truth of Jesus’ life and teaching. This is true for many Christians; the believe that institutional doctrines are at the core of Christianity and that believing and thinking the right thing is the most important aspect of being a saved Christian.

Gandhi’s advice on love resonates with the core of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John. When we read the Gospel of John and, particularly, Jesus’ teaching on the vine and the branches, we must remember that love is a central theme in the fourth Gospel, and every story and word in it must be understood against the backdrop of Jesus’ emphasis on love.

How might this discovery help us in our wrestling with Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches? How would you like to apply this insight for your understanding of today’s Gospel lesson?

After years of reflecting on this metaphor, knowing that love is the central teaching in John, I have come to call this vine that Jesus is speaking of in today’s scripture the “vine of love.” For God is love and Jesus is the fullest revelation of that love. So, part of today’s scripture can be read as follows:

“I am the vine of love; you are the branches of that vine of love. Those who abide in love and love in them bear much fruit, because apart from love you can do nothing.”

For me, the metaphor of grapevine represents the metaphor of love. Without love we cannot survive. Without love we are lost. Without love we have no meaning or purpose. Without love we are helpless and powerless. Without love we are in darkness. Without love we wither. Without love we die. To live a fulfilling life, we must abide in Christ, the fullest manifestation of divine love.

However, abiding in love and Christ is not a passive act but a bold action. Abiding in love does not mean remaining comfortable and cozy. On the contrary, “Those who abide in [love and Christ] and [love] in them bear much fruit.”

We must remember that abiding in true love bears fruit. Without bearing fruit, love is empty and not true love. In the words of the 1st letter of John, “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate a brother or sister are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

To dwell in love is to be and live in love. To remain in love is to choose love in every circumstance. To abide in love is to seek opportunity to love and serve. To dwell in love is to live as a disciple of Christ who . In truth, only by bearing fruit of love we become the disciples of Christ who is the fullest manifestation of divine love.

I have a homework assignment for you and for me. This and next weeks, I invite you to take a few concrete loving actions to abide in love. I encourage you to bear the fruit of love by performing 2-3 kind and loving actions for your church family, particularly for those who are undergoing a difficult time due to physical or mental illness, family situations, financial hardship, living alone, or homelessness. You may pray for them every day. You may write a letter or card to them, or call them to talk on the phone. You may visit them. You may cook and bring them food. Be creative in finding your own way to perform kind and loving actions for them. You will have the opportunity to share your experience with your homework assignment at our next Pulpit Sharing Sunday, which will take place in two weeks. 

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