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We have been led to believe—by things like the movies, for example—that we ought to be prepared to give our most important messages to those we love when we ourselves are close to leaving this world. But in truth, the last words people utter can just as easily be indecipherable as profound, or as easily be defiant as filled with blessing. On his deathbed Walt Disney whispered, “Kurt Russell,” and no one, including Kurt Russell, has any idea what he was talking about. When Joan Crawford’s maid began to pray, the actress snapped, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me.” Lou Costello, of Abbott and Costello, said, “That was the best ice cream soda I’ve ever tasted!” But sometimes, gems can come from the mouths of the dying, words worth hanging onto. Thomas Edison said, “It is very beautiful over there.” And George Harrison of the Beatles, said, “Love one another.”
What would you say your loved ones, to sum up all the wisdom you had gleaned from your years of living? You who love JM, and have traveled to be here as we recognize her as the newest member of this family of faith, what would you tell her, if you could give her all the deepest wisdom you have learned?
In our scripture passage this morning, Jesus is doing this very thing. The gospel of John shows us a moment from his last hours, when Jesus is with his nearest and dearest, the ones he calls “his own.” And in that moment he gives them his final words, his most important knowledge, his rules for living and loving and being a part of the beloved community he has created.
Jesus tells them, “I am the vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.”
Immediately we have an image of something green and growing, and which, when the fruit ripens, will make something even more wonderful and delightful. And we also have an image of someone tenderly caring for the vine: making sure it is planted in just the right soil, and given the proper amount of water, and the optimal amount of sun. Someone who prunes the branches to make sure they are healthy and strong and produce the best fruit.
“I am the vine,” says Jesus, “and you are the branches.”
Jesus is talking about the family tree of the family of God.
Each of us is a product of our family. We are the product of, not only the people who gave us birth, or raised us, but of generation upon generation of people we never knew, but whose influence lives on in us. Think of the things you know you picked up from your parents—the way you pronounce words, the inflection in your voice, your tendency to get extra loud—or extra quiet—when you are mad. Then realize that your parents picked those things up from their parents, and those parents picked things up form their parents, and so on, and so on, down the generations.
The traits of our families abide in us. For some of us those are things like blond hair or brown eyes or long legs. For others they are things like a quick wit around the dinner table, or a heavy foot on the gas pedal, or the particular way they say “Good night.” The people who brought us into the world, the people who nurtured us, the people who loved us and stayed up with us when we were sick and made sure we had our hats and gloves when we left the house… these things stay with us. They become as truly a part of who we are as our fingerprints and our DNA. The people who love us into being leave a mark on us.
It is the same with the beloved community, the family of faith. “I am the vine,” Jesus says, “and you are the branches.” And that means that what Jesus has, what and who he is, he gives to us, passes along to us, and it becomes a part of us.
Jesus says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” Every baby that comes into this world does so after abiding for a period of time—ideally, about nine months—in an environment that is intended to give her everything she needs to grow and thrive. To abide in Jesus is to have beautiful evidence nurturing environment of the true vine… something wonderful, beautiful, and life-giving. Elsewhere in scripture, this fruit is described as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Jesus says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Our culture tells us that love is a feeling—it is the jolt in your heart when you look at someone and realize, “She’s the one.” Or the melting feeling you get when that baby is placed in your arms. Or the joyful recognition when you see your brother or parent or best, best friend after a long time, the sense of homecoming with certain people. But it is equally important for us to understand that, when Jesus says, “Love one another, as I have loved you,” it is imperative that we look beyond the notion of love as a feeling. The love Jesus is referring to here, is a decision. It is an action. “Love one another” here means, “Be kind to one another. Help one another. When someone is hungry, him them food. When someone is thirsty, give her a drink. When they are strangers, welcome them; when they are naked, clothe them. When they are lonely or sick, care for them. When they are sick, visit them.” The entire laundry list outlined by Jesus elsewhere in the gospels, plus one essential ingredient found only here, in John’s gospel. “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There are many ways to lay down one’s life. You lay down your life when you go without sleep to stay up with a sick child. You lay down your life when you choose forgiveness over bitterness and hate. You lay down your life when you go, not half way, but all the way in self-giving. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Jesus says, “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you.” Our faith tells us that, even though, yes T and K chose to bring all three of their beautiful daughters to this place to receive the sacrament of baptism, the deeper truth is that this is all part of a beautiful design put in place by God long ago. God chose JM to enter into the beloved community, just as surely as Jesus called out to Simon and said, “I will call you Peter.” God chose all three of your children to be grafted onto the vine that is Jesus’ life, just as God chose them for the A and B families, and committed you all to one another’s care.
The words from today’s gospel are among Jesus’ final words of wisdom for those he loves and calls his own. He calls on each of us to love and protect and care for those who are our own. What words of wisdom do you have for one another? What is the deepest and most heartfelt truth you long to share with one another? The one we call “the vine,” the one who encourages us to “abide” in and with him, tells us to love one another. We all start there, with the gift of love from the God whose name is love. Thanks be to God.