Today we are in the Fifth Sunday of Easter – a few Sundays away from Pentecost – the giving of God’s Holy Spirit to God’s people. So, while Easter probably feels like a long time ago, we are still in the Easter Season. We are still in the season of the church where we celebrate life, renewal, rebirth, newness, God’s shalom and peace and the possibility of resurrection. For this is the Good News of the Christian Faith – that death does not have the final say – that Jesus came to bring us life.
I quoted this verse in my last sermon, but I think it’s worth repeating. In the Gospel of John, just a few chapters before our passage today, Jesus says “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” This is what we celebrate during Easter – that Jesus was able to defeat death so that we would have this abundant life. And when Jesus speaks of coming to bring us life and abundant life, he isn’t speaking of an eternity of sitting around on white puffy clouds while we also listen to one another play the harp while we flap our pretty little angel wings. The New Testament rarely focuses on such a life. No…this is life in the here-and-now.
In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright writes about the critical importance of the Easter season on our lives as followers of Christ. He writes:
“If Lent is a time to give things up, Easter ought to be a time to take things up. Champagne for breakfast again…Christian holiness was never meant to be merely negative. Of course you have to weed the garden from time to time…That’s Lent for you. But you don’t want simply to turn the garden back into a neat bed of blank earth. Easter is the time to sow new seed and to plant out a few cuttings…Easter should mean planting, watering, and training up things in your life…that ought to be blossoming, filling the garden with color and perfume, and in due course bearing fruit. The forty days of the Easter season, until the ascension, ought to be a time to balance out Lent by taking something up, some new task or venture, something wholesome and fruitful and outgoing and self-giving. You may be able to do it only for six weeks, just as you may be able to go without beer or tobacco only for the six weeks of Lent. But if you really make a start on it, it might give you a sniff of new possibilities, new hopes, new ventures you never dreamed of. It might bring something of Easter into your innermost life. It might help you wake up in a whole new way. And that’s what Easter is all about.”
I hope that you’ve experienced moments when you’ve felt that you’ve “woken up in a whole new way”, when you’ve been able to experience the new life that comes to us in Easter. The question that has often been asked in light of this new life we have received through Christ is “How then shall we live?” Conservative theologian Francis Schaeffer and conservative Evangelical Chuck Colson have written books by that title. Many others have offered thoughts on the topic. And this morning – I hope to give you the definitive answer to that question.
Well, maybe not. Actually, if you have gotten to know me since I’ve started here in September, you can probably guess that the last thing I want to do is stand up here and be a talking-head trying to convince you to believe certain things or see things exactly the way I see them. But I do think our texts for today do speak to this question and help send us in a proper trajectory as we think about our lives in this world and how we ought to live as Christians.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus says,
“I am the true vine…Abide in me as I abide in you…I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Now I’m certainly no expert in viticulture – and there are others here in the church who certainly know more about wine and wine making than I do – but from what I understand, in a vineyard, one will find many entwined branches. Grapes aren’t the type of plant that have one clear vine coming out and then very singular, individual, branches that are distinguishable from the other branches. No, these are intertwined branches and vines and it’s hard to see exactly where one begins and the other ends.
I believe this is a good image to think about as we ponder what it means to “abide in God.” What does it mean to be connected to God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit…? What does it mean to be in relationship with God? It’s not something that we can just do half-way – it’s something in which we are intricately connected to God in ways which we might not even be able to fathom. A friend of mine who pastors in Oakland was telling me over Twitter yesterday that he loves this passage from John. In this passage, he sees that we are invited – each and everyone one of us – to abide with the Triune God – that we are invited into a relationship that is mutually inclusive, one that is respectful, and one that is other-centered.
Indeed, we are invited to abide with God, but I’d say it’s even broader than that. The text from 1 John today says that “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” Yes we are invited to abide with God – but in a sense, we already DO abide with God. We are invited to continue to make an effort and live into our relationship with God, but 1 John tells us that because Jesus gave us the Spirit – we already do abide in God. This reminds me of the wonderful saying “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” God abides within us – and we abide within God – whether we’re aware of it or not.
Abiding in God is no sure-fire way to make sure that one’s life is easy – by any means. But when we are abiding in God, Jesus says this is when our lives will produce fruit – fruit that can be a blessing to others and a blessing to God.
The other theme clearly evident in these passages is that of love. The word “love” is used 26 times in our passage from 1 John. and the very first verse tells us that we must “love one another because love is from God.” Seems like a simple enough command, right?
Yet, certainly, it’s something that Christians throughout history have needed to hear – and still do. Gandhi has that very famous quote where he says, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” It’s very possible that the followers of Christ Gandhi had encountered may have needed a reminder of our call to love one another, because love is from God.
Unfortunately, we know that it wasn’t just followers of Christ in India in the early 20th century that needed a reminder that their primary calling was a call to love. Bono, the lead singer of Irish rock band U2, and budding theologian and political activist, once said: “Christians are hard to tolerate; I don’t know how Jesus does it.”
Now, I’m sure no one here has EVER run into a Christian that they ever felt was “hard to tolerate” – and certainly there have never been any issues here at our own church…but I think it’s always a good reminder for us to hear these verses about love:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another; if we love one another, God lives in us.
The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
It’s also important to remember that, as we will sing later in the service, the people around us, the people who we encounter throughout our days at work and at home, they will know we are Christians by our love. By our love.
When I was in college, I had this t-shirt that said, “They will know we are Christians by our t-shirts.” It was supposed to be ironic, but the funny thing is that I did have PLENTY of “Christian” t-shirts that made me feel like I was being a better Christian because I was “wearing” my faith. In high school I wore about four What Would Jesus Do bracelets and thought I was being a “good witness” to others.
People will not know we are followers of Christ because of the t-shirts or bracelets we wear. People won’t know we are followers of Christ because of the politics we espouse, the signs we put in our front yards, or the beliefs we hold.
I’d say that it’s not even about what theology we hold either. Jesus doesn’t say a whole lot in the New Testament about “right theology” and “right beliefs.” What we see Jesus doing is fully welcoming and accepting all those who come to him. What we hear is Jesus’ summary of the commands of the Hebrew Scriptures to love God with our whole hearts, all of our souls and all of our minds – and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the Cliff’s Notes version of Christianity.
So, how then shall we live? As we continue to remember and celebrate the joyous season of Easter – as we continue to be blessed with new life and the chance to “wake up in a whole new way” – what should our lives look like?
Well, I think it will probably be different for everyone. But first we need to remember that we abide with God – and that Jesus – the vine – continues to offer us – the branches – the invitation to be entwined and implicated into his love and presence in our lives. Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives is a constant reminder that we belong to God and that we abide in God’s presence. We are caught up into the both the body of Christ and the community of the Triune God when we recognize that we abide with God – and when we begin to more fully live into that reality – our lives will be bountiful and will produce fruit.
And I think the other reminder for us this morning is that while the Christian faith is one of many profound ideas and concepts, many topics that have been and will continue to be debated for ages and ages…in the end…they will know we are Christians by our love.
It is this love of God and love of neighbor that brings us to this place each week; Sunday after Sunday to worship our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, to be nourished and fed by music, by the word of God and by the community we experience here.
It is love that causes members of our church to travel to places like Slidell, Louisiana, the Philippines, Galveston, Texas, Sierra Service Projects, Habitat building projects to share in the work of God’s mission.
It is love that allows this church to be a place that is open and affirming of all people, celebrating the various places we are all at on our spiritual and life journeys.
It is this love that we will be known for. Now I certainly don’t want to paint the portrait that we’re a perfect church – but I am constantly encouraged by the work that is being done here at Asbury. Let us continue to be people who are constantly abiding in God and looking for more and more ways that we might live out our call to love.
And I pray that if U2 ever performs in Livermore and Bono happens to spend a Sunday with us at Asbury, he might say something like, “Christians are still pretty hard to tolerate; but the folks at Asbury…they’re not half bad.”