Monday, April 29, 2024

Abide -- not a theory but real. . .

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (B), preached on Sunday, April 26, 2024.

I am not horticulturist and have no green thumb.  As far as I can tell, the only difference between a weed and a flower or vegetable is that we don’t want the weed to grow and we do want the other plant to grow.  But God is a horticulturist.  He has a green thumb.  The manifest number of plants all over His good creation is testament to His love and expertise in plants.  In particular, God is interested in vines.  Well, not just any vines.  Mostly grape vines.  He is a viticulurist or viniculturist.

That would account for the great number of allusions to vines and vine growing in the Scriptures.  There are at least 50 overt mentions of vines, grape vines, in the Scriptures and many more references to vineyards and wine presses and the like.  This is not because God loves wine.  It is because He loves us.  Hidden in nearly everyone of these references is the idea that the vine belongs to God and we are branches on His vine.  Plus He prunes the vine to produce more fruit, to branches which bear fruit only because they are attached to good root stock which gives life to the vine.  So it is no surprise that Jesus would use the analogy of the vine and its branches as He speaks of Himself, the people of God, and their life in Him.

Thanks be to God that I do not have to understand much about vines to get His point.  Neither do you.  It is not hard except for the fact that we don’t like to be told the obvious when it conflicts with what we want.  Abide in Me, Jesus says, and I will abide in you.  There is the wisdom of the ages so difficult for us to admit or appreciate.  You must be connected to Christ the vine in order to live, flourish, and bear the good fruit that lasts.  Otherwise, you will wither, die, and be burned up as so much dead wood.  It is not an essential faith and optional church but both essential.

Our problem is that we spiritualize a connection that Christ makes concrete.  When He calls upon us to abide in Him as branches to the vine, He is not speaking here of an imagined connection or an emotional one or even one of resemblance of behavior.  He is talking about going to church.  He is talking about being gathered together around the voice of His Word in absolution and Scripture and about being gathered around His table in Eucharist.  He is not talking about how we feel or what we think or what we want.  He is talking about where we are on the Lord’s day.  Jesus is talking about being in the Lord’s House, around the Word of the Lord and the Table of the Lord on the Lord’s Day.  He is talking about what happens here on Sundays and Thursdays at least.

The vast majority of people who have never come or who have fallen away claim that they don’t have a problem with church – just with the people in it and their pastor.  I get it.  Well, life together is messy.  People sit in your pew, offend your opinions, pester you when you want to be alone, ignore you when you need company, and a thousand other sins.  Babies cry and people figit.  It is too hot in the summer and too cool in the winter.  The pews are hard.  The organ is loud.  The hymns are strange.  The preaching is bad.  There are a thousand excuses to justify why we are not here.  But none of them mean a darn thing because only one thing matters:  Christ is here.

Jesus’ call to abide in Him is not a call to think about Him or dream about Him or fall in love with Him or like Him be friends with Him.  It is the call to listen to His Word, specifically the preaching of that Word.  As St. Paul famously said, “faith comes by hearing the Word of God.”  What Jesus says is that faith also lives by the Word of God.  Man does not live by bread alone but by the Word of the Lord.  Whether written in Deuteronomy or quoted by Jesus, the point is the same.  Faith begins and lives and grows by the preaching of the Word of God.  Preaching is somewhat unique to Christian worship.  It seems outdated in our digital age but it is the divinely appointed shape of our Christian lives.  Preaching can never go out of style because the preached Word is the God intended shape of our lives.

You can go to Bible study and read the Bible on your own but it is not the same as preaching.  You can watch videos of preachers preaching and listen to podcasts of preachers preaching but this is not what Jesus is talking about.  Sure it has some value especially for those who are homebound or in hospital and as supplement, but Jesus is talking about sitting together in pews or chairs and hearing the live voice preach the Gospel into your ears along with the rest of those who sit in the pews with you.  If you don’t like what I said, your problem is not with me but with Jesus.

Second, abiding in Christ means eating Christ as your food.  This is not about feeding upon Christ in your heart.  This is not about symbolic eating of symbolic food.  This is about the food that Jesus says is real – His flesh in bread and His blood in wine.  Nobody receives the essential vitamins and minerals from symbolic food.  The command of Jesus’ words is to “Do this in remembrance of Him.”  Jesus did not give a hermetically sealed snack and juice cup for His disciples to do at home.  He gathered them around Himself and gave them His body and blood in the Eucharistic bread and wine.  
And He commanded the disciples to continue to do what He did often in remembrance of Him.  The record of the New Testament is that God’s people know Christ in the breaking of the bread and that this Holy Communion is the essential food of God’s people until the foretaste gives way to the meal in heaven.

I feel like a fool that this needs to be said out loud.  Is this not obvious?  Must we really defend and argue for in person hearing of the sermons and receiving the Sacrament?  Sure, there are exceptions.  The homebound are not under judgment because they cannot come but those who do not come but can have more than judgment to worry about.  Their faith is literally dying.  How long can your body survive without food?  How long can faith live without Christ’s food of His flesh and blood?  Who in their right mind would ever want to find out?

Christ’s promise is that He will be here.  The challenge before the Christian congregation is will we be here to meet Christ where He is in His Word and Meal?  That is the essential question of every Christian, the essential challenge before every pastor, and the essential problem for every congregation.  Are you where Christ is and where He wants you to be and still dying on the vine?  While that might happen, what does happen here every week is that the sinner hears the voice of absolution and is restored as a child of God.  What does happen here every week is that the lost hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in Scripture and sermon and follow His voice to the still quiet waters and rich green pastures of everlasting life.  What does happen here every week is the hungry and thirsty are fed and drink of Christ’s flesh for the life of the world and His blood that purifies us from all our sin.  Abiding in Christ is not theory.  It is concrete and real – as real as a people and pastor together around God’s Word and Table every week until heaven brings to conclusion what is here begun.

Christ is risen!

1 comment:

Janis Williams said...

He is risen indeed ! Alleluia!

I worked in the nursery and garden as a job, and still do in my own garden. It’s important to remember that God placed man in a garden to work in it and keep it up. The old saying, “one is closest to God in a garden” has some heft.

If an earthly garden feeds us with physical food, then the garden God describes in His Word is our true food. The Vine brings us the life we need to live. Unfortunately, grocery stores take us away from gardening. We buy fruits and vegetables shipped to us from half a world away. We never think about who grew them, what season it is there or here, etc. How do these things in plastic packaging get to us? Similarly, we fail to think about how God gets this true, spiritual food to us. Is it tangible, or ethereal? God uses means; physical, tangible, touchable things to keep us bearing fruit.

In John 15:2, Jesus tells us He prunes away branches that don’t bear fruit. Oooh. We love to spiritualize things. The fruit God is seeking at least begins with attending services, taking communion. If you try to grow something fruit bearing and don’t give it the basics; soil and water, it will die.