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Good morning! As we continue in our Lenten sermon series “Here We Grow,” I want to invite you to join us on Menti – either by scanning the QR code on the screen or by going to Menti.com and entering the code “7976 0209.” We will leave the QR and menti code on the screen so that you have some time to join in.
During these 2 years of pandemic – I have, like many other people, picked up gardening as a hobby. I have learned quite a fair share about plants in the process, which is one of the sources of inspiration for this sermon series.
I want to start today with a challenging passage that talk about branches. It is from Romans 11 –
17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.
19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, God will not spare you either.
22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in God’s kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.
24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
<how do you understand this passage?>
The Apostle Paul describes God offering salvation to the rest of the world – grafting the Gentiles to the Chosen people just like how one would graft a shoot onto a branch. And here, the Apostle Paul warns those who had been grafted not to feel superior, and not to “fall” otherwise they may get cut off too.
We often accept the text as it is presented to us – and the assumption is that Paul got it right. But what if that’s not the case? In Pauls’ time, what he is saying is radical. The inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation? Radical! But humanity has come a long way since then. Today what is radical is the idea that we are ALL God’s beloved. Christian, Muslim, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, straight, LGBTQ, Ukrainian, Russian, American, Israeli, Palestinian, Singaporean – whatever category we have thought up with to label people – we are all beloved. We are all created in the image of God.
The inclusion didn’t stop at just the Gentiles – the inclusion just doesn’t stop. That is the nature of love. Radical.
Some of you may find this uncomfortable. It may run against what you have been taught previously – and it may challenge how you read and interpret the Bible. I want you to remember – our understanding of Scripture isn’t static. And there is one guiding principle to my approach – what do I understand as the core nature of God? And how do I read the text through the lens of this core nature?
I think the core nature of God is love. And I read the text through the lens of love. Radical love. So here I disagree with Paul. God doesn’t break people off like branches and graft people on. It isn’t a zero sum game.
Jesus, too, talk about branches.
Jesus likens God to a gardener – a vine grower in John 15 (inclusive bible)
This past Wednesday, in our Lent Prayer programme – Wendy shared about Lectio Divina. While I won’t be reading the passage several times – I would like to invite you to listen deeply with the ears of your heart and pay attention to words or phrases that may jump out to you.
“I am the true vine, and my Abba is the vine grower who cuts off every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, but prunes the fruitful ones to increase their yield. You’ve been pruned already, thanks to the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I 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.7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8
My Abba will be glorified if you bear much fruit and thus prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
<M> So what words or phrases jumped out for you?
Some of you may hear the threat of eternal punishment in v6. “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
Here I want to invite you to consider – what is Jesus talking about here? Is there any mention of hell? Or are we projecting our own ideas into it?
You know what happens when branches are not joined to the vine? They die. They are not connected to the source of nourishment, the source of life. How else does it get sustenance?
The opposite is reflected in the word that should jump up at us – because it is repeated 8 times in these 9 verses.
Abide = μένω ménō, men’-o; a primary verb; to stay (in a given place, state, relation or expectancy):—abide, continue, dwell, endure, be present, remain, stand, tarry (for), × thine own.
Abide is about being connected to.
We live in a time of disconnectedness. Virtual church / live streaming has helped us remain connected as church in this time of pandemic in the past 2 years – but it can easily become disconnectedness when we cannot be community.
Where else do you think words with the same Greek root “meno” appear in Gospel of John?
John 1:32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”
John 1:33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
We often miss echoes in the Bible because these connections / echoes are lost in translation.
One key echo is in John 1:38.
When I was preparing for this sermon, looking at the concordance, I realised that Greek root “meno” is also in this passage I have always found fascinating. When Jesus asked the 2 disciples “What are you looking for?” their reply was “where are you staying?”
The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.”
They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed[j]).
Imagine you heard a lot about a spiritual teacher, and you loved their teachings, their writings, and when you finally met them, and they ask you “What are you looking for?” “What are you seeking?” Would your answer be “where are you staying?”
But once we understand “meno” – this idea of abiding in, dwelling with – we would realise that it is through the community that Jesus was abiding with and in that will bear witness to who Jesus is.
Let me repeat this again. It is through the community that Jesus is abiding with that people can see who Jesus is. In other words, the community is the branches bearing fruit. And the two disciples see that Jesus is the Messiah through the witness of the community Jesus is abiding in.
HERE WE GROW
Debbie Thomas writes
“We are products of a contemporary culture that celebrates the individual and distrusts the communal. We often represent the Christian life as a one-on-one transaction beween a single believer and her God: “I accepted Jesus as my Savior.” We put a lot of stock in our personal spiritual experiences: my prayer life, my worship, my epiphany.
If we do align ourselves with a larger Christian community, we generally do so with a consumer mindset, trusting that we’re free to join up and free to quit as personal preference dictates… We cherish our personal space, and feel claustrophobic when other people press too close. We believe, of course, in loving our neighbors, but we feel most comfortable loving them from a distance, or at least with one eye trained on the nearest exit.
We live in a time where independence is viewed as a good thing, instead of a problem. Report cards have teachers praising students for being an independent learner, and performance appraisals have supervisors praising employees for being independent workers. But being independent isn’t necessarily something good. We are meant to be connected to one another, we are meant to be connected to the larger whole.
Jesus says “I am the vine, and you are the branches”
If this is Jesus’s metaphor for the spiritual life, then I think Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber says it best: Christianity is a lousy religion for the “I’ll do it myself” set. We are meant to be tangled up together. We are meant to live lives of profound interdependence, growing into, around, and out of each other. We cause pain and loss when we hold ourselves apart, because the fate of each individual branch affects the vine as a whole. In this metaphor, dependence is not a matter of personal morality or preference; it’s a matter of life and death — branches that refuse to cling to the vine die.
The spiritual life that Jesus is describing isn’t one where we do it on our own, or one-on-one with God. Abiding in Christ isn’t a solo endeavour.
I struggle with this – because at some level we have all been hurt by other people before. And it is often the people who are closest to us who hurt us the most. So it is easier to choose the “go do it on my own path” instead of the messy, interconnected, vulnerable spiritual journey to abide in Christ, because being interconnected means that I open myself to being hurt by people again.
I guess that may be the same for some of you.
<have you avoided being vulnerable and / or being part of community because you have been hurt before?>
“the point of my Christian life isn’t me — my growth, my catharsis, my contributions, my achievements. I am inextricably connected to a larger whole, and apart from that whole, my spirituality — profound and precious though it might feel to me — is without value. Apart from the vine, I am not only barren; I am dead. In other words, I’m not the fruit in this metaphor. I’m not supposed to be the end product of my own spiritual life.”
It isn’t about me, me, me.
The fruit isn’t meant for us – the fruit is meant for the world. God intends for us to bear fruit to transform the world. “the fruitfulness of God’s vine is no trivial thing — it constitutes the life and nourishment of the world.“
We may resist this still. Some of us may have been hurt before – by our previous church communities, and we may even have been hurt by each other here. We are not a perfect community – and bearing witness to Christ’s abiding presence is not through being a perfect community, but how we love and how work through being an imperfect community.
How do we persist through our differences and disagreements? How do we love each other through our differences and disagreements? How do we heal the hurt and the pain we inflict on one another? These are signs of spiritual growth and signs of Christ’s abiding in us.
And this is the fruit that we bear – to show the world who God is, who Jesus is through how we love each other even though we are different, even though we disagree.
That’s how the disciples saw that Jesus is the Messiah when they first met.
The world will be transformed when we can show that we are all equally beloved – regardless of race, religion, language, social-economic status, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression.
When we are all joined to the vine, will see that we are all interdependent, interconnected – we all need each other, we are all made in the image of God.
Instead of fear and distrust, we learn to abide in Christ and with one another.
And through that connectedness we recognise how we hurt, harm, kill, oppress each other – and we find new ways of resolving our differences, new ways of sharing what we have, new ways of peace instead of violence and war and oppression.
We can choose not to be joined to the vine – and try to live for ourselves, and not see our interconnectedness and continue to perpetuate the things that wither in this world – discrimination, selfishness, greed, wars, fear, hate – things that are to be gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
It may sound like a tall order. What? Us? Change the world? But the reality is God isn’t waiting for us to get started –
Debbie Thomas puts it eloquently:
Jesus said “I AM the vine,” he told his disciples. “You ARE the branches.” It’s a done deal.
Yes, it’s difficult. But it’s also easy. Remember: our Vine is true and our Vinegrower is skilled. This is what we were made for. Abide.
If God is the vinegrower, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, what should we do? We have only one task: to abide. To tarry, to stay, to cling, to remain, to depend, to rely, to last, to persevere, to commit, to continue, to tolerate, to endure, to acquiesce, to accept. To hang in there for the long haul. To make ourselves at home.
Abide, because here we grow.