Sunday, August 26, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life...and the True Vine"

John 14:6-7, 15:1-11 

 "6 Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you have really known me, you will also know the Father. From now on you know him and have seen him.” (CEB) 

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. 2 He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. 3 You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. 6 If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. 9 “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete." (CEB)

“Ego Eimi: The “I AM” Discourses of Jesus Christ,” Week Four

It was one of my last weeks there, a time when I was selfishly hoping to celebrate my two years of student ministry with the church in California I worked at before arriving here, but it was also one of the most painful: on one of my last days of work, I made a hospital call to the deathbed of a 90-year-old patriarch of the congregation who would pass away the following day.  And in a recently previous Sunday in worship, I had seen the mother of one of our young adults, Kelsey, who, devastatingly, had just been diagnosed with testicular cancer and as of now has been undergoing treatment for it.

His story, though, has a happier ending—he is not only living life, he is offering up his faith in new ways.  A few months ago, in the midst of his treatment, he preached at that church.  Obviously, I was here and so I didn’t hear him preach, but I did receive this message on my Facebook feed when I got home, which contained this little bit from his sermon…Kelsey said: “This place—church—is like the Olive Garden.  We serve complimentary bread with each visit, and when you’re here, you’re family.  But, unlike the Olive Garden, when you aren’t here, you’re still family.”

And it was one of those eureka moments for me, where the purpose of everything we do here as a church makes sense—as gnarly and messy and painful as life is for someone—even for you—we still have a place to grow, to live, and to be caught whenever we stumble.

This is it—we’ve made it to the last week of this sermon series—a series that has taken us through the entire month of August, and whose name, ‘ego eimi,’ is actually the Greek words “I am.”  A lot of Jesus’ most famous teachings are immortalized one-liners—turn the other cheek, do unto others, love your neighbor, that sort of thing.  We’ve done a pretty good job of remembering the one-liners themselves, but perhaps less of a good job remembering the contexts from which they came.  And the one-liners Jesus uses to describe Himself fall into the same camp—we may remember that Jesus says He is the Way, the Truth, and the Light, or that He is the Good Shepherd, but we may not remember the circumstances in which He said those things.  Well, all of those “I am” one-liners come from the Gospel of John, and we’ll be walking through John’s Gospel to visit almost all of these one-liners in turn.  We began with the first “I am” statement in John: Jesus proclaiming that He is the Bread of Life; and continued last week with His second “I am” statement: Jesus proclaiming that He is the Light of the World.  Last week, we came to the third and fourth “I am” statements: Jesus proclaiming that He is the Gate, and that He is the Good Shepherd.  And finally, this week, we have arrived at the final two “I am” sayings from Jesus: that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that He is the True Vine.

These two sayings take place in what is called the Farewell Discourse, which constitutes four entire chapters of the Gospel of John.  Given that John is 21 chapters long, this is impressive—a single sermon from Jesus makes up nearly one-fifth of John’s Gospel.  And it is called the Farewell Discourse because, well, that is exactly what it is—a good-bye to the twelve who have been with Him every step of the way, because as soon as chapter 18 opens, Jesus is betrayed and arrested.

In other words—life is about to get horrific, painful, gnarly, and, ultimately, lethal for Him.  But even then, He still dares to talk of how He is, among other things, life itself!

For John, perhaps more so than any other Gospel writer, Jesus was, and is, as the New Testament scholar Gail O’Day puts it, “the tangible presence of God in the world…humanity’s encounter with Jesus the Son makes possible a new experience of God as Father.”  What this means, she argues, is that “John is concerned with helping Christians recognize and claim their God and claim the distinctiveness of their identity as a people of faith.”

Like I said, Jesus says all of this right before being tried and executed, and of course He knows what is about to happen—He foretells it in all four Gospels, He knows His hour has come, and that what is about to happen to him is, as Paul writes in Philippians, not simply death, but death on a cross.  Nothing but pain and shame awaits the wretched soul put to death by crucifixion as opposed to almost any other means, which short of being thrown to wild animals, would likely have been more humane.

And of the ancient messianic figures who have founded religions that have survived the warp and weft of history, only Jesus died through martyrdom.  Judaism’s forefather, Abraham, died of old age.  So did Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses.  The prophet Muhammad died from a fever in 632.  The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, after surviving multiple assassination attempts, died of old age in his 80’s some 400 years before Christ came to earth.  The way of Jesus is a unique way because of how that way ended—not just in death, but in violent death and ultimately, in resurrection.

Which is why I think Jesus turns to another metaphor to describe Himself—the True Vine.  This imagery, like that of the Good Shepherd from the 23rd Psalm, has its roots in the Old Testament, in this case from the book of the prophet Isaiah, who describes Israel itself as God’s vine; in both cases, God is depicted as the vine keeper, the viticulturalist.

But of all the things that were central to the agrarian Israelite economy and diet—and bear in mind, we know that Jesus was fond of using agrarian metaphors precisely like the Good Shepherd—Jesus chooses the vine.  Not a grain or barley crop, that would have produced bread, even more of a staple than wine, but the vine.  And as opposed to the billowing majesty of waves of crops—as the line from America the Beautiful goes, “amber waves of grain,” with nothing about vines or grapes!  I mean—I lived just south of Napa Valley for my three years of seminary, and while Napa itself is beautiful, the vines are these sort of chest-high rows of gnarly wood that comes out of the ground and, at least when there aren’t grapes, aren’t always that much to see.

Of course Jesus is saying that He is no ordinary vine, yet even with God as His vine keeper, His life will still end up like that of the vine—gnarled and twisty.  And so it is with us—even if, or when, we turn our lives and our trust completely over God, complete with all of the peace of mind and grace and love that it promises, doing so does not remove the obstacles in our lives.  It is not cruise control button, a get-out-of-jail-free card.  Even after identifying as Christians, we still struggle, in our jobs, with our families, with everyday life and all that it entails.  God is simply not a vine keeper who removes the thorns for us.

And if that is what we come into church, or into tomorrow, expecting from the divine, then we will most likely be met with overwhelming disappointment, probably not unlike what the disciples feel in the Passion story—disappointment in what is happening to their master, disappointment in themselves for their own fear, disappointment in everything that was wrong with the way their world worked.

The way, and the truth, and the life that Jesus is, and represents, and offers to us does not remove such disappointments.  It transcends them.

It is what we must do as a church—we cannot remove disappointment and hurt and pain and illness in peoples lives, but we can help them transcend those things, those wrongs, those evils.  We can offer a way out of brokenness, we can offer a truth of reconciliation, and we can offer a life of love and purpose and acceptance for each and every person who walks through our doors.

I learned this in California—that God did not undo an old man’s death, or removed a young man’s cancer.  God instead reached beyond those things.

After all, God did not simply undo Jesus’ own death.  God created something more.

And that, I think, is the mark of a true vine keeper.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 26, 2012

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