Sunday, May 2, 2021
“When will things return to normal?” This is a question that has been hanging in most of our minds for longer than we’d like, and we’ve probably also heard people saying something like, “we will never return to normal,” or “it’s going to be a new normal.” I’m encouraged by vaccination rates and declining case rates. Along with many of you, now that I am fully vaccinated, I’ve appreciated doing more “normal” things more comfortably, like going to an indoor restaurant, traveling to see family and friends we haven’t seen in awhile, planning more “normal” summer activities and vacation. Here at church, our council continues to discuss how we might keep people safe but keep gradually returning to more normal worship and activities as we’ve been doing all along.
But we’re not back to fully normal yet, of course, and that can be discouraging. However, pandemic or not, Christians have always been challenged by God, in the course of following him, to live in ways that are beyond “normal,” to get outside of our comfort zones and sometimes go against the grain of the culture around us to “abide” in Jesus and bear fruit as John’s gospel talks about this morning. Constant change is normal, whether we like to admit it or not, and God calls people consistently throughout scripture to be spiritually transformed. We have a great story about this in our first reading from Acts: the first known convert to Christianity, we learn, is an Ethiopian eunuch. According to Jewish law, because of this man’s sexual status as a eunuch and ethnicity as a Gentile Ethiopian, he would not have been allowed into the Jewish community of faith or to be baptized, as was the common understanding. Yet, the Holy Spirit disturbs what Philip believes to be “normal”, moving him to share the good news about Jesus with this man and baptizing him immediately. God opens up this new Christian community to a different kind of normal for understanding who can be a part of the faithful. I could preach (and probably will at some point) a whole sermon on just this story, but today I want to mostly focus on the image of Jesus we have in THIS chapter of John…Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches and how God in Christ opens us up spiritually to bear more fruit.
“He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit,” Jesus says, and “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” I have an uneasy relationship with these words of Jesus because I don’t necessarily like the image of God pruning me. That means change, right?! I don’t want my dead branches thrown into the fire and burned just like I have a hard time getting rid of things in my house that have been in the parsonage basement for almost two years now, unused, admittedly may have been in our last house’s basement unused, and may never be used but I just like having them around: mementos, pictures, baby clothes and toys, old DVDs and CDs. Pruning cuts and removes. I imagine pruning kind of hurts, if you are a plant. Pruning insists that there be a new normal, that our lives can’t remain static as they are. And without pruning, just like with a plant, we can’t bear as much fruit.
There is a more positive way to look at the uncomfortable image of God as our pruner that a colleague who grows rose bushes shared with me, however. Pruning a rose bush down opens up space in the branches for new life to grow. A rose bush unpruned, like grape vines and apple trees, actually produces fewer roses – less fruit, because the branches are too thick for sunlight, water, and the soil’s nutrients to reach everywhere. And so as we continue to look at the silver lining of our very unusual time we are living in now, we can see how this sudden and extreme shutdown of life as we knew it DID help us examine every part of our lives in a new way for us to allow God to do some pruning. I don’t think I am alone in knowing I was too busy and preoccupied with too many not-that-important things, but having a hard time knowing what to adjust or HOW to give some things up. Then I was forced to do so. God our vinegrower has opened us up to different priorities, new relationships, and adjustments in how we live for hopefully a new longer-term normal that can bear some fruit. Even as a pastor, for example, I appreciate the ability to worship with other Christians in the flesh each week as something not to be taken for granted. Work is not the most important thing all of the time as the time we take for our most valued relationships, especially when we have the ability to travel to be with friends and family for important moments in life. God’s pruning opens space up in our hearts and in our lives so that better, more abundant fruit can grow.
For all of us who have struggled to have our reliable plans and habits upended this past year, and for those of us who are uncomfortable with change, we still have a wonderful promise from Jesus to us in the gospel for today. Even with shifts in our normals and God’s call for us to be open to the new things God is doing in Christ, God asks us to abide in Jesus the vine so that we as his branches can bear fruit. Abide is a wonderful English word – we do not use it enough in everyday conversation! Jesus uses it eight times in this short passage today. Other translations say “Remain in me” or “Live in me as I live in you” which helps us get a sense of the word. The activities and schedules on the periphery of our lives will change. Our priorities will change, even some of our stuff, our precious collections, may be thrown away or exchanged. But Jesus remains, Jesus abides as the vine that gives us life and helps us grow. Jesus the vine is our lifegiving constant. As followers of Christ seeking to be his disciples, we continue to make abiding in him our highest priority, because apart from him we can do nothing. Staying connected to Jesus the vine, then, means that following him is our life’s normal, even when nothing outside of our life in him may be normal. Abiding in Jesus the vine helps us cope and centers us in the changing world around us. Abide in him, just as he abides in us so that you may bear much fruit. Amen.