The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
May 6, 2018
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives us advice on how to be a successful Church. As I reflected on what I would interpret and present as his advice this morning, I remember a story I heard when I was still in Bible College. A young reporter was given his first assignment to interview the most successful businessman in his city and write a human-interest story as to the secret of his success. He called the man and set up a time for the interview. When the time came, the young reporter got right to the point. “How did you do it,” he asked. “How did you make all your money?” “I glad you asked,” the businessman replied. “It’s a great story. When my wife and I got married, we started out with a roof over our head, some food in the pantry and a nickel to our name. “I took that nickel, went down to the grocery store and bought an apple. I brought it home, shined it up, and sold it for ten cents.” “What did you do then?” the reporter asked. “Well, the next day I took that dime and again went to the grocery store. This time I bought two apples, brought them home and sold them for twenty cents.” “I get it,” the young reporter said excitedly, “the next day you bought four apples for a nickel a piece and sold them for forty cents.” “No,” the businessman said, “that was what I was planning to do, but the next day my father-in-law died and left us a million bucks.”
The point of this story, of course, is that the businessman prospered, not because of his own ingenuity, but rather because he had the right connections! When I think of being connected, two images immediately flash is my mind. First, being plugged in, like vacuum sweeper to a wall socket. The second image of being connected is “networking.” You know what I mean. The advice I received in college was this: “Want to get ahead? Then plug in to the old boy’s network.” (Today, of course, that advice would go over like a lead balloon!)
In the first image, you are plugged into one power source. In the second image, the power source is collective as you are connected to one another. In either case you are not on your own. In our gospel reading today, our Lord ties these two images together. He says: If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love. That is like the vacuum cleaner begin plugged in to the power source. But what are the commandments he has asked us to keep? Does he mean the 10 commandments for example? He goes on to answer this question in the next sentence. “This is my commandment, that you love one another even as I have loved you.” Here we have the second image of being connected, “networking” as we, as the body of Christ, relate to one another out of love.
This is the Gospel of John’s expression of the Great Commandment. Matthew, Mark and Luke state it this way: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all they mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” If we follow these two commandments we will be a successful church. The question is how do we do it?
Our gospel reading today is a continuation of last’s week’s gospel. I often get frustrated by those who compiled our lectionary because the cutup passages that should be read together. Jesus gave this version of the Great Commandment in the context of saying: “I am the true vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Once again, Jesus is using the image of being plugged in to the source of power.
It makes sense that Jesus would use such an image. He was speaking to a group of people living in a rural community who were familiar with the vine and its fruit which was a staple of their diet.
But there is also a deeper reason that Jesus used this vineyard imagery. Just like two weeks ago when he said in our gospel reading “I am the Good Shepherd,” the vineyard theme is a recurring image throughout the Old Testament.
Just as the Good Shepherd image would have reminded them of the 23rd Psalm. The vine image would have brought to mind Psalm 80 “I brought you as a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and I planted it.” The vine is Israel. We find this image throughout the prophets. Jeremiah 2:21 for example states: “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then did you become degenerate and become a wild vine?”
Also, in the historical books of the Hebrew scriptures, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings and I & II Chronicles, the King as representative of Israel is referred to as the Vine. Despite his moral failures, David with his repentant heart, embodied the faithfulness God desired and was declared to be the “true vine!” The prophets foretold that the promised Messiah would come from the line of David. Once again, they often would use the image of the Vine in reference to the Messiah. Isaiah put it this way. A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesses. From his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him. He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel.
In using this image Jesus is saying something about his own calling. Jesus the Messiah is the ultimate King in David’s line. And now he says we, his disciples, are the branches, drawing our life from him and we are connected to each other through him. Paul, in his letter to the Romans extends this metaphor. He says to them, and to you and me, that you as Gentiles were not part of the vine, but now you have been grafted in!”
This brings me back to where I started: “What is the secret of being a successful church?” It comes down to two phrases: first – If we want to be a successful church we will abide in the vine. Secondly, if we are to be a successful church we will bear fruit.
A. What does it mean to abide in the vine? Basically, it means to remain, or to endure. As the Psalmist says: “The offspring of David will endure forever.” That means through thick and thin we stick with Jesus. Remember Peter’s reply when Jesus asked Peter if he wanted to check out when the going got rough. “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” As we abide with him, remain with him, endure with him, we take on His characteristics. What is His chief characteristic? Love.
Last Sunday afternoon Eric Cooter, the new Rector at St. Monica’s, chose today’s Gospel to be read at his installation service. From it Bishop Smith chose it as his text: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” In the course of his sermon he asked the congregation if they had come to love their new Rector. There was an overwhelming affirmation. The Bishop looked at Eric and said: “They love you. It is obvious to me that you haven’t been here very long.” He then gave the same definition of “abide” as I just gave. You will remain with me, you will endure with me, you will commit yourself to me for better or for worse.
If we want to be a successful church, we will abide in Christ and through Him we will remain connected and committed to one another. The love Jesus is talking about is not some warm fuzzy feeling that comes and goes, but that commitment that we make to God to stick with Him and through him stick with each other through thick and thin. If we do that the second thing will happen automatically.
B. We will bear fruit. Jesus does not tell us in this passage what the nature of the fruit will be. But from the scriptures as a whole, we know it comes in two forms.
First it comes in the form of taking on the characteristics of our Lord. As we abide in the vine we become like him. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Church at Galatia. “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."
Second, in addition to taking on these Christ-like characteristics, there is another kind of fruit that we will produce as we are plugged in to the vine and are committed to one another. What we discover as we fulfill the great commandment of loving each other, we will automatically fulfill the great commission of making new disciples. As people see this “love dynamic” at work within they will want to become part of us.
So how are we to be a successful church? We stay plugged into the power source and we stay committed to each other. In the end is as simple as that. Thanks be to God. Amen.