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Sunday, April 29, 2018 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The horizon is still quite dark, but hope is about to dawn. The seed of salvation is sprouting, as earth makes ready. What about the roots of our hearts?
Pierre Talec, Bread in the Desert.
Who or what defines you these days? Who or what tells you who you are? Have you become defined by what you do, by your job or perhaps by your being without a job? Do you see yourself first and foremost as a teacher, as an investment banker, as an administrative assistant, as a full-time volunteer, as a scientist, as a police officer, as a professional musician, or as unemployed? Is it your job, your paid work, or the lack of one that tells you who you are?
Or perhaps you are more defined these days by a major role you have in the life of another person or people. Maybe you know who you are because you are a caregiver, or you are a sister, or you are a father, or you are a daughter, or you are a spouse or partner. Maybe you primarily define yourself as a friend who keeps other friends afloat or as the firstborn son striving to live up to all that means. Is it what you do for another that tells you who you are?
It could also be, though, that you are in a season of life where you find yourself defined by what you are no longer: you are no longer someone who works; you are no longer someone who has kids at home; you are no longer someone who is married; you are no longer someone whose parents are living; you are no longer someone in good health; you are no longer someone with a safe space to sleep. Maybe it is not so much who you are now but who you are no longer that gives you your identity these days. Who or what defines you? Who or what tells you who you are?
This identity question is not new. In fact, I have come to understand Jesus’ words to his disciples in this chapter of John as one of his ways of addressing this identity concern. Now, since we have been moving in between different Gospels throughout this Easter season, please allow me to set the scene: By this point, the disciples have been with Jesus for quite a bit of time. They have traveled with him, feasted with him, listened to his teachings, witnessed signs and wonders, and now, on this night, finally all is quiet. The crowds are far away. It is late. The fire is burning low. And Jesus is speaking intensely to his closest, dearest friends (Scott Black Johnston sermon).
As I have told you previously, biblical scholars call this section of John’s Gospel, chapters 13–17, the Farewell Discourse. “Discourse” because Jesus’ words just keep coming; it is like a verbal dissertation. And “farewell” because the very next day Jesus will face the trials and the cross that await him. Soon he will be gone from their presence. So on this last night, he offers them counsel, some wisdom he hopes can sustain them through what will come. Words like, Be kind to each other. Know God’s peace. Trust you are not abandoned. Love one another as I have loved you. I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, reside in me, make a home in me, find your place in me, as I abide, reside, am at home in, and find my place in you.
As my friend Scott Black Johnston has said, you can almost picture the disciples getting nervous and glancing sideways at each other as Jesus just keeps going on and on with all of his mini-sermons. They knew something was up. His behavior that night was not normal, not even for Jesus. Yet they did not, could not, fully realize all that was on the way. But Jesus knew. And that is why, according to John, he spent the last night of his life trying to remind those disciples who they were. He did that not by giving them a job description or by linking them back with their families or even telling them what they needed to believe. No, he told them who they were by connecting them with who he was. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower,” Jesus claimed. “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 the vine, the branches can do nothing.”
With this imagery of interconnectedness, Jesus is trying to help his friends understand how connected to him and how connected to each other they already were, even on that last night, the very night of betrayal. Yet notice Jesus did not say, “You need to become a part of the vine. You need to graft yourselves onto the vine. You need to believe yourselves into becoming a part of me.” No, he stated it as reality: I am the vine, you are the branches. Even when Jesus spoke about how all branches need to be pruned from time to time for their health and growth, he made a specific point to let the disciples know they had already been pruned, or cleansed as our translation puts it (same verb), by the Word he was constantly teaching them. They had already been pruned by hearing his gospel word of love and mercy and grace. They need not fear; the pruning had already happened for them.
Later, he goes on to say, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” In other words, on that last night of his life, it was important to Jesus to make sure they heard, to make sure we hear, there was nothing they needed to do in order to earn being a part of that vine; there is nothing we need to do in order to be worthy of being a branch. Being connected to the vine, being a branch that would bear fruit, was just who they were, is just who we are. That closeness, that intimacy, that connectedness to God in Jesus had already been established, and that truth meant they were just free to live it. As are we.
Scott Black Johnston links this closeness, this intimacy, this connectedness described with the vine imagery, to another story in John: the story of Nicodemus in chapter 3. Jesus tells Nicodemus that his disciples will be born again, born from above, born from the Spirit. Scott sees the image of the baby in the womb as a parallel image to the branch on the vine: “The baby in the womb is connected to her source of life, her mother, by the umbilical cord—a human vine, if you will.” The mother, the source of her life, is simply all around her, providing the space and the nutrients for growth. The baby does not believe in the mother. The baby’s only reality is the mother.
Similarly, in this section from John’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to help the disciples see that they are connected to God in this same way. They, we, are connected to God, to the source of life, to Jesus himself, like a branch is connected to a vine, like a baby is connected to her mother. Just as the mother surrounds the unborn child, so does God surround us. Just as the vine causes sap to flow outward to the branches, consistently providing the nutrients for growth and for flourishing, so does God do so for us. I am the vine, you are the branches, Jesus claims. This is who you are. Regardless of your job, regardless of your role in the lives of others, regardless of who you used to be for good or for ill, I am the vine, Jesus says, and you are my branches. So settle in. Make your home in me. Remain in me. Draw your life from me. Realize you are surrounded by me. This is your truth, not because of how good or how worthy you are, but because of how good and how worthy God is. I am the vine, you are the branches. You are surrounded by Love. It is who and whose you are.
One of my favorite preachers and storytellers is Fred Craddock. He once preached about an experience he had when he went back home to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where he grew up. He and his wife, Nettie, went back to take a short vacation. While they were there, they stopped into a new little restaurant called the Black Bear Inn, where they could enjoy a meal while looking out at the Great Smoky Mountains. While they were waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished-looking gentleman making his way around the room, telling stories, greeting everyone in sight, acting like he owned the place. Fred whispered to his wife, “I hope he does not come over here,” which is, of course, exactly what the man did.
“Are you on vacation?” the man asked. “Yes,” Fred said, while under his breath he was saying “It’s really none of your business.” “Where are you from?” the man continued. “Oklahoma,” Fred responded. “What do you do there?” “I teach homiletics at a graduate school,” Fred remarked, hoping that response would either be confusing or would send him away. “Ahhh . . . ,” the man smiled, “so you teach preachers, do you? Well, have I got a story to tell you.” And with that the man pulled up a chair and sat down at their table. Craddock groaned inwardly.
“I was born not far from here, just across the mountain, in eastern Tennessee. My mother was not married when I was born, and the whole community knew it, so I had a hard time. When I started school, my classmates had a name for me, and it was not a nice name. I used to go off by myself at recess and eat lunch alone. When I went into town with my mother, I would see people staring at me, trying to guess who my father was.
“In my early teens I began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. It had a minister who was a great preacher, and for whatever reason, his sermons did something for me, to me. But I was always afraid that I would not be welcome since I did not know my father. People did not know to whom I belonged, and it bothered them. It bothered me. So I would go just in time for the sermon and leave before anyone had a chance to talk to me. I was so afraid someone would stop me and say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing in a church?’
“One Sunday, the benediction was over too quickly, and I did not have a chance to escape. Before I could make my way to the door, I felt this large, heavy hand on my shoulder. It was the preacher. I trembled in fear. He looked right in my eyes and said, ‘Son, who do you belong to?’ I did not respond, because I could tell he too, like all the others, was going to take a guess as to who my father was. A moment later he said, ‘Now just wait a minute. I see the family resemblance. Son, you belong to God. It is a striking resemblance. You are a child of God. I can see it so clearly in your face. Now, you get out there and claim your inheritance,’ the preacher charged, slapping me on the back.”
The elderly gentleman paused, and Fred and Nettie realized they were holding their breath. He started again: “I left that church a different person. It was the single most important sentence I had ever heard. It changed my life. After all those years of not knowing, all those years of wondering, all those years of stares, he told me who I truly was.” Fred said he finally found his words and asked the man, “What is your name?” “Ben Hooper,” the man replied, and it was then that Fred realized they had been talking to the person the people of Tennessee had twice elected as governor (Mike Graces and Richard F. Ward, ed., Craddock Stories, p. 156). A man who realized in church who and whose he truly was—a branch on the vine, a baby in the womb, surrounded by the presence and love of God, nourished and given life and identity.
My guess is that Jesus knew that once he was gone the disciples would quickly forget who they truly were, to whom they truly belonged. He probably assumed that in his absence some of those disciples might try and go back to being only known by what they did—being only known as fishermen or as tax collectors. Others might try to go back to only being known by their roles in the lives of others—as fathers or sons or daughters. A few, like Peter, might even try to start to define themselves as those who used to be followers of Jesus, more focused on who they had been rather than on who they were now.
So Jesus spent a long time of the last night of his life hoping to plant the true seed of their identity deep within them, trusting it would grow and bloom, and that they would always remember their actual identity, who they were before they were anything else. I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, remain in me, make your home in me, take your life from me, as I abide in you. You are nothing less than a child of God. You belong to God. That truth surrounds you and nourishes you and will cause you to bloom. You did not choose me, I chose you. Abide in my love. I am the vine, you are the branches. The family resemblance is striking. So go and claim your inheritance. It is who you are. It is who you are. It is who you are. It is who you are.