The lessons designated for this Lord’s Day teach us about love. This theme is especially relevant to our time. Restrictions on our freedom of movement due to covid have isolated us. And for many, isolation has led to loneliness. Everywhere we turn today we see the craving for love and depth of relationship. Love is vital; we need it in order to live. When we lack it, we fail to thrive.
Many of us have heard of babies in orphanages dying because, although their physical needs were met, human touch and interactions were limited or absent. Harvard Medical School researcher Mary Carlson reported her observations of an overcrowded Romanian orphanage in 1994. Row after row of babies lay neglected in their cribs. The institution was woefully understaffed, and so while the babies were fed, bathed, and changed, they were seldom soothed, held and caressed. Carlson noted how eerily silent the orphanage was. The babies had reached a point where they gave up trying to communicate their needs to their caregivers. They neither moved, nor cried. The expressions on their faces were blank. Most of the babies suffered from developmental disabilities as a result. Some even died. Today there is abundant biomedical research showing that infants cannot thrive or even survive without loving interactions with parents or caregivers.
When parents and caregivers succeed in building strong, loving bonds with infants, they provide for them a solid foundation for loving interactions in later life. But the giving and receiving of love remain a struggle for most of us throughout our adult lives, regardless of how well our parents and caregivers loved us. This struggle can be so painful at times that many turn to therapists and counselors and self-help experts. These often urge us to overcome our low self-confidence, our low self-worth, by self-love. Only as we learn to see ourselves as worthy of love will we open ourselves to receive love from others and give love in return.
Self-love is important, to be sure, but it is hard to see how love can come from the same self that suffers from its lack. It is like going to a dry well to draw water. In fact, self-love has to rest on a deeper basis. It has to draw from a deeper source. Our first lesson tells us not about self-love, but about God’s love. When we know and believe the love that God has for us, then we learn to see ourselves as lovable, as worthy of receiving and giving love. I can love myself when I realize that God loves me. Or rather, I am free to give and receive love when I realize I am deeply loved by God. That in fact is consistent with the train of thought in our lesson.
God loves me. God loves you. In fact, God is love. But, we may ask: “how can the author be so sure?” God revealed his heart for humanity in sending his only Son into the world, Jesus Christ. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. This means that God loves us for who we are, despite what we do to one another, to ourselves. In meeting us in our darkest, most loveless place, God makes possible a new encounter to begin, one in which our sadness and sin are overcome by God’s love. In that very dark and loveless place inside us, God’s love begins.
We know that all new beginnings, especially where relationships are concerned, need someone to make the first move. In a dispute, even if both parties want to be reconciled, one has to take the initiative if reconciliation is to begin. God takes the initiative. We have already said that God sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. This means that at the cross God removed forever all that prevents us from receiving God’s love. Our response to God’s initiative consists in turning towards Christ, confessing him as the Son of God, and sensing his presence within our own dark place. We start from here and feel our way gradually towards the new life God has in store for us.
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought also to love one another.” God’s love for us makes possible our love for one another. Love is practical. We should not see love as an abstract idea. Much less should we see love as religious jargon that church people use. Instead, we should ask: “what traits do those people have that allow us to recognize them as loving people?
Let us bring to mind for a moment those people we consider to be loving. Maybe it’s a grandmother, a brother, or a neighbor. Maybe it’s even a member or friend of this church. These people smile whenever they greet others. They ask questions that draw people out. They listen intently without interruption. They use touch, holding hands and giving hugs, whenever and wherever appropriate. They take a sincere interest in others, working at understanding their hopes and fears, passions and talents. They find out what brings joy to others: a time to talk, notes of encouragement, a helping hand, an evening walk. That is to say, they custom fit their attempts to bring joy to others. They engage in playful fun that causes the eyes of others to light up, letting their own eyes light up too. They cherish babies and children and through their words and gestures show that they delight in them.
Can we even imagine how effective our witness would be to our divided world if our churches were filled with people who loved in these ways? This helps us appreciate Jesus’ words to his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another” (Jn. 13:35).
God’s design for us is to thrive in communities characterized by loving interactions with him and others. But to many of us this may seem unrealistic. Or at least it hasn’t been true to our experience. We may feel inadequate. We may even feel sadness or guilt because we’ve failed to live up to our own ideal of a loving person. Perhaps the presence or absence of the other whom it was our responsibility to love reminds us of our failure.
The Gospel lesson helps us here. We cannot hope to become the loving person we desire to be on our own, but only in dependence on Christ. Jesus brings this truth home to us by means of a suggestive image. He calls himself the vine and us the branches. Let us think about this image for a moment. The branches are not the source of their own strength. The vine is—that is their source. In fact, they wither away when they are cut off from their source, when they become detached from it. This is why Jesus tells us that apart from him, we can do nothing. But when the branches remain attached to the vine, they receive nourishment, by which they thrive and bear fruit. The Gospel lesson helps us here because it is not telling us to become a more loving person. That is not our focus. Instead, it is telling us to make sure we stay plugged into the source. To remain connected to the vine means that the life of Jesus will be flowing through us, and this leads to a fruitful life. To be sure, we still produce the fruit. We become more loving, joyful, patient, gentle and kind persons. But all that is the overflow of our abiding in Christ, of our living in the peace of his presence, of our soaking up his words, of our asking him for whatever we wish, of our singing praises to him in our hearts.
We have said before that new life in Christ is receiving before giving, abiding before doing. We cannot give what we have not received first. Only as we receive and experience God’s love can we give love to one another. And only as we abide in Christ can we become the loving person we desire to be.
It is said, “in a vineyard, the best grapes are produced closest to the central vine.” We have to stay close. And it is God’s will for us to stay close. God is eager to see fruit coming from his work tending the vines. But that means we have to be pruned. “Every branch that bears fruit the Father prunes to make it bear more fruit.” We wish it were not so, but we need it. When I lived in New Hampshire, I worked on farm that grew cucumbers. In early Spring, we had to cut back the shoots of the cucumber plants to ensure a good harvest of big, healthy cucumbers.
Pruning is an interesting horticultural technique. It looks like vinedresser is killing the plant. But if he does it right, then the plant always comes back stronger. It produces more; it thrives; it grows beyond where it was cut back. Pruning is necessary, the farmer in New Hampshire told me, because the plant is trying to sustain something that isn’t necessary, that isn’t healthy, and therefore a distraction from its true function of bearing fruit or flower.
As applied to us, the image of pruning seems painful. And it is. But the Bible is consistent in its teaching that God uses the pain in our lives to bring us to maturity. Implied here is another organic image. The mature plant is the most fruitful. “Consider it all joy whenever you face trials of many kinds,” James tells us, “because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And endurance must have its full effect in you, that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2). All God’s people are called to maturity. Mature people rise to meet life’s challenges rather reacting from fear. Mature people consistently live out of their values, even when the stresses of life mount and pressure them to compromise. In Psalm 1, mature people are compared to trees that sink their roots deep next to streams of living water, that produce fruit in their season, and whose leaves do not wither. Similarly, in Jeremiah 17, we are told about those who trust in the Lord, who place their confidence in him. They are like tree planted by water, that send out their roots by the stream, and do not fear when heat comes, for their leaves remain green, and they are not anxious in the year of drought, for they do not cease to bear fruit.
In the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that we are about to share, we have a vivid picture of the nourishment that we receive from our abiding in Christ. In the Communion Order of the Reformed Church in America, we read that we come to the Lord’s table to have communion with Christ, who has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world. But specifically, about the cup it says the following: “In the cup of blessing he comes to us as the Vine in whom we must abide if we are to bear fruit.” Let this image impress itself on our hearts and minds as we approach the table this morning. Let us draw deeply of the nourishing vine. Then we will thrive and bear fruit and become the community characterized by loving interactions with God and one another. Amen.