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JOHN 15:1-8

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

A branch that does not abide in the vine cannot bear fruit and will wither for lack of nutrient energy. Apart from me you can do nothing, Christ tells his disciples. Clearly we have moved beyond the mere flesh-and-blood Jesus into the expansive reality of the mystical and post-Easter Christ. In order to draw together the distinct strands of our previous reflections, we might see it the following way.

As we develop and mature into our fully self-conscious ego, we undergo a series of “falls” away from conditions that had earlier determined our sense of reality. First the womb, then mother herself, then the body and its urges, followed by further events of negotiated control, over our impulses, our relationships, and our beliefs. All the while, something good and important is happening: we are moving into what will hopefully become a self-standing, unique and responsible human being.

But as we know, this process also carries within it a subtle amount of anxiety, which, if left alone or suppressed, only fuses and intensifies over time, making the later stages of letting go more difficult and fearful. The Bible’s appraisal is that each and every one of us is possessed by fear and therefore to some degree unwilling to leap into grace with the kind of abandon that deep communion with God requires.

What we must do is die to the old self (the fearful and guarded ego), as the Ethiopian eunuch did; “remember and turn to the Lord,” as the psalmist hoped the nations would do; let go of our dogmatic notions about God and plunge into an authentic experience of God instead (1 John 4); get connected to the true vine (John 15) who is Christ in us and in all things – the very Love of God made flesh and fruit in our next word and deed.

JOHN 15:1-8

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

The true vine is a gardening metaphor that helps us better understand our relationship to the ultimate reality named Love. In the interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, the believer is a branch that abides in and grows out of Christ, “the true vine,” who is in turn rooted in the deep supply and source of Life, the divine ground (in John’s Gospel, “the Father”).

Just as the “true vine” draws its nutrient from the ground and metabolizes this nutrient into its own living structure and process, so each branch that grows from the main stem receives the material energy it needs from the true vine and further transforms it into leaves, fruit, and seeds. Just as Christ relies upon God, each believer depends upon Christ – and, notice, Christ (and God through Christ) depends also upon the believer for the produce that signals health and secures a reproductive future for the plant entire.

In other words, the Gospel writer sees God, Christ, and the authentic believer as together comprising a mystical and organic unity. Beneath everything as the ground of all being is God. Rooted in and growing out of this ground is Christ, who carries upward into embodiment the essential Love that God is. And branching forth from Christ are the believers, men and women just like you and me who further this Love-energy into the fruits of justice, compassion, and forgiveness.

How do we know that these virtues in particular are the genuine fruits of God-as-Love? One word: Jesus.

1 JOHN 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Our writer knew how easy it is for anyone to say “I love God” without the experience of inner release (faith) to the Divine Reality that is Love itself. The world is full of nicely developed egos who prefer dogmatic certainty about God to the authentic experience of God. In the name of this God of dogma, outsiders have been crusaded against and heretics persecuted, ostensibly in order to “defend the faith,” but in reality it’s always been about preserving the ego in its range of anxious control.

This sounds like we’re making the ego into a purely negative principle, when in fact it is neither negative nor positive, but paradoxical. To the degree that fear rules in us – that is, the variety of fears related to losing control – the challenge or invitation to let go, relinquish, and surrender what we’re holding onto for the sake of entering into a deeper and wider freedom is taken (note the term) as a threat and impossibility.

So how can we know that the ultimate reality beneath and throughout all that we sense and feel is really Love, and not the cold abyss we fear as we cling here to our ego securities? We, you can believe this writer, or you can believe in the revelation of Jesus as this writer has. But when it comes right down to it, your full persuasion won’t happen until you take the leap yourself. “God is love” names an experience that requires your “death” at one level and brings you to life – real Life – at another.

1 JOHN 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

We said earlier that faith is a risk. How so? Simply because of the fact that its venture of belief is in something beneath the level and outside the range of our sensory certainties. Furthermore, faith is properly speaking not the content of the belief but the act of believing – of trusting in, relying upon, or surrendering to the reality behind your notions about it.

It is not sufficient, then, merely to believe that something exists, even if that something is God. Faith is not choosing to believe in God even though (as the skeptic might argue) firm evidence is lacking, but is rather deciding to commit yourself to God and to what you understand God is about in the world.

The claim in this passage, that God is love, is therefore much more than a piece of Christian dogmatic knowledge. Love is not being singled out and elevated here as a quality or attribute of God – that God is loving, among other things. This is not dogmatic knowledge but convictional knowledge, not a matter of defining God but an exclamation out of the deep experience of God: God IS love!

And how exactly does that involve risk? Simply because the experience itself is entered only as we leap from the elevation of our ego and release ourselves totally to the gracious and generous “womb” of the divine ground beneath and within us. Such release is commonly feared by the ego, since its formation is really the achievement of control, by stages, along the developmental path toward maturity. We might grieve the ego and its separations, but the leap of faith depends on it.

1 JOHN 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

The revolutionary discovery at the heart of the Christian experience is that the ultimate reality underlying and energizing all things is Love. Not a frigid emptiness or a sterile abyss, but a gracious presence sustains and affirms existence itself. Why was that such a significant discovery?

It was significant because, as psychology has confirmed, there is in the formation of our human self-consciousness (ego) an accumulation of unavoidable anxiety. Coming into our own separate sense of self involves a whole series of concurrent losses, very often symbolized as variations on our original “fall” from the prenatal womb. We take with us, as it were, a growing sense of exile – coming into our own, yes, but often feeling alienated or estranged from the source and ground of our being.

Out of this condition arises the great question of religion: Am I all alone, or is there something more beyond me, something more to me, than I presently know? Faith is the risk – and then the assurance – in believing that there is a providential intention behind the universe itself, and that it has you in mind.

PSALM 22:25-31

25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
    my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
    May your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
    and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
    shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the Lord,
    and he rules over the nations.

29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
    and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
    saying that he has done it.

“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the story from Acts 8 was the external and ritual demonstration of an inner event of spiritual rebirth. Going under and emerging out of the water symbolized the death of the old self and the coming to life of the new. Whether this process of transformation was ritualized or not, a deep and universal belief among the religions is that salvation necessarily entails a break with the “old order” with all its habits and beliefs, so that life can find release and fulfillment at a higher level.

The psalmist envisions the day when all the peoples of Earth will repent (“turn around,” make a break) and come back to the one true God. It’s interesting that this turning is pictured as coming after a remembering, as if to say that our new life in God is not new at all but is rather something we once enjoyed, a long time ago.

The mystical traditions would go a step further and say that this communion with the Divine is the truth of our existence even now, as it always has been and will be. As our lives take us into the far-flung reaches of the world, our roots remain anchored in God as the ground of our being.

ACTS 8:26-40

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.)27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

This passage gives us a look inside what may be the earliest Christian creative reflection on the salvation found in Jesus. We know that during the decade following his crucifixion the community of disciples was turning the stones in nearly every available tradition, searching for the images, prophecies, and other clues that might help place the tragic death of Jesus within a larger frame of divine purpose.

Attempting to bypass the “offense of the cross,” some had elected to concentrate only on his teachings as comprising a new ethic to live by, while others were centering on the Spirit of Christ present in the worshiping community. But the cross wouldn’t fade into the background; somehow it was not only not to be avoided, but it represented the core truth of Jesus and his gospel.

That’s when the Servant Songs of Isaiah suddenly burst upon the Christology of the early Church, and with an energy that transformed their memory of the suffering Jesus into a picture of redemptive fulfillment. Philip opened the eyes of the Ethiopian eunuch to see how in the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, the sovereignty of God broke into the fallen world with a love that heals, welcomes, and forgives all. The eunuch understood immediately what all this meant for him personally: he got “cleaned up,” turned his life around, and entered into the joy of salvation.