Weekly Preaching: May 2, 2021

April 28th, 2021

Acts 8:26-40 is a spectacular text of high drama, portraying the excluded one being included and the simple power of the Scripture story, not a saga of winning and success, but of shared suffering and redemption. I preached on this after an incredibly messy and disheartening General Conference for our denomination. The Ethiopian’s question in reply to Philip’s question “Do you understand” “How can I unless someone guides me?” is perfect. To understand Isaiah 52-53, you need some guidance. Or the story of Jesus crucified. Verse 34’s question: “Is he speaking of himself or another?” is precisely what commentators on 2nd Isaiah have asked! And then the priceless, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The church’s historic, embarrassing reply has been plenty of things. The leading questions in this text, leading us to questions about God, faith, Scripture, evangelism, and the Sacraments, are best raised quizzically, not answered too primly.

1 John 4:7-21 is way more challenging. Everybody loves. Everybody is a fan of love. We get lost in parsing it as an emotion that happens – or doesn’t. “Love wins” is a skinny half-truth that can’t carry the weight of morality or holiness. It’s not that we know love, and infer God is like that. God is love, and we learn Love from God. It’s a sacrifice (v. 10) – not grudgingly giving up something you dig, but losing self and life, suffering for the other, the undeserving other, the uninterested other. Cruciform.

The immensity of this divine love is “perfected in us.” Or not. My life mission is that God’s sacrificial love will find its completion, its purpose, its embodiment in me – and more importantly, as we over-individualize what the New Testament does not, in the church. Church is, our dreams of being and strives to be, the perfection of God’s love. Put that above the entrance. The proof of such love comes, not with smiles and hugs or big coat collections in winter, but “boldness in the day of judgment.” Churches are to be bold. The world is watching – or not.

Lots of “abiding” here, he in us, we in him. “Abide” is such an intriguing word, implying staying, something calm tucked inside the staying, sticking with. Of course, “abide” can also mean “tolerate” or “bear,” as in “I cannot abide his behavior.” Grace is that God abides us, abiding with us.

“Perfect love casts out fear” merits attention. Our people suffer much anxiety – and everybody is fearful of so much. I admire Scott Bader-Saye’s excellent book on fear and faith, which includes this wisdom: “We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good. When we fear excessively, we live in a mode of reacting to and plotting against evil rather than actively seeking and doing what is good. Fear causes our vision to narrow when what is needed is for it to be enlarged… Our overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things.” Like the sacrificial and courageous Love of God.

John 15:1-8 would probably be best preached once the preacher has visited a vineyard (if possible), toured the vines, and interviewed the vintage. Jesus, his disciples, and first listeners participated in the production of wine, given the finds of so many wine presses all over ancient Judea. And it was at the Last Supper, as Jesus peered into a cup of red wine and saw a haunting glimpse of his own blood soon to be shed, that Jesus spoke of being this true vine.

If you can’t get to a vineyard, Gisela Kreglinger has written a fascinating book called The Spirituality of Wine. She grew up in a wine-producing family and teaches us much about how alienated urban people are from the land and what unfolds there. Jesus spoke to people who knew vines, vineyards, and winepresses. So his very vivid image of life with him would have been utterly memorable – and as listeners found themselves back at work, pruning, pressing, keeping the bugs away. Such would have seen, felt, and smelled quite tangible images of their relationship to Jesus.

Acknowledging the woes of alcohol misuse, Kreglinger shows how flowing wine is a constant image of the dawn of God’s kingdom. Then, her details drawn from viticulture are intriguing – and preachable. Sap from the rootstock journeys through the vine and gives life to the grapes. There’s this: “When a vine lacks water and is under stress, it is forced to develop deeper roots… The deeper the roots, the more the roots interact with and drawn from different layers of soil, and the more complex (and desirable) the wine becomes.” Vintners can’t just grow the maximum amount; sustainability requires some restraint, long-term care for the soil.

And then there’s this: “Left to themselves, vines grow like weeds… Part of cultivating the vines is to prune their branches and tie them onto wires….” Pruning has its homiletical possibilities – and Kreglinger suggests that the wires onto which vines are tied “are like the structures and rules in a religious community; we need them… they give us support and stability.” I find all this to be wonderfully suggestive and may well preach a sermon where I reflect in a leisurely way over vines, roots, being stressed, pruning, trellising (especially if I can track down a vineyard worker for an interview!). After all, monks back in the Middle Ages became the great wine producers and tended their vines as a spiritual practice accompanied by prayer. Even we grape-juice Methodists, with our peculiar and unhappy relationship with fermented grape juice, can ponder with profit the image of Jesus as the vine.

This business of fruitfulness is always ripe for preaching. (Pun intended). From the vine’s perspective, bearing fruit is different from the way we think about being good. Ripening fruit doesn’t grit its teeth and strive hard to get bigger and change color. It’s a passive thing, nutrients being pumped into the fruit, entirely dependent on uncontrollable rainfall and sunshine, and processes that are hidden underground where no one can see. Holiness is like this; do you remember how the doctrine of Sanctification works?

And then I recall when I was in the thick of writing on The Will of God. I asked a bunch of theologians about the subject – and one replied quite simply by saying, “If you want to do God’s will, start with the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. That can keep you plenty busy for the rest of your life.”

Prepositions matter in theology. A lovely hymn prays, “Abide with me.” But Jesus doesn’t speak of being beside us, but actually in us, and we in him. Mind you, Jesus isn’t going for any bland “I feel God in me” or “God is in each one of us.”  It’s way more serious and downright fleshy than all that.  Jean Vanier rephrased it, “To abide in Jesus is to make our home in him and to let Jesus make his home in us.”

Raymond Brown rightly says this vine language has “eucharistic overtones.” To think of the Lord’s Supper – in my book, Worshipful, I quoted Austin Farrer and then explored this thought and its inversion: “Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token, and with little understanding what they did, Peter, John, and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him… and that they, somehow, should live it out.”

When a disciple is filled with Jesus, he remembers what his physical body is: a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). As N.T. Wright rightly suggested, when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, “we become walking shrines, living temples in whom the living triune God truly dwells.” To ingest Jesus is intriguing: we take Christ into ourselves, and he is then within us. This goes beyond even the closest human relationship, even sexual intimacy. If Jesus is in us, there is zero distance between us. Over time, creative theologians would reverse the image: Jesus consumes us. We enter into his body; we get inside Jesus himself. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke imaginatively about this: “My penitence, my salvation, are His food. I myself am His food. I am chewed as I am reproved by Him; I am swallowed as I am taught; I am digested as I am changed; I am assimilated as I am transformed; I am made one as I am conformed.”

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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