We are continuing with our sermon series on the I AM statements of Jesus, which are found in the Gospel of John. Our I AM statement for today is “I am the true vine,” which is spoken during the Last Supper. It occurs in the middle of the so-called Last Discourse, which begins with the Passover supper and Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet and ends with the beginning of his Passion – the arrest in the garden. Unlike the others, this discourse is addressed to his disciples and takes the literary form of a last will and testament. Jesus is leaving his disciples a very personal message.
A while ago my mother dispatched my father to a course their car insurance company was offering on defensive driving, as she saw an opportunity to realize a small savings of about 30 dollars per year, per person. While I got to hear much complaining from my father for being subjected to those four hours of complete boredom, I was more amused by his description of the trip to the class. He said, “I almost got hit twice. And here I was on my way to a defensive driving class!” The first person was turning right and she looked to her right, but she never looked to the left – the direction he was coming from. And the other person cut in front of him to make a turn, or something like that. I didn’t quite get all the details. At the time, my dad was driving an old Crown Victoria, which was the same vehicle model as the police cars in their community. When he laid on his horn at the second person who cut him off, she pulled over and put her hands up in the air – because she thought he was a cop. He said, “Here these two people almost hit what looks like a police car. No one is paying attention these days. Everybody is distracted.”
And we’ve all seen it: people carrying on these lively conversations on their hand-held cell phones, not paying the slightest bit of attention to the road. When I was living in a college town, I couldn’t tell you how many times I’d looked into my rearview mirror to see a college-age young person in the vehicle behind me, phone in hand, texting away. Everyone’s in a hurry; everyone’s distracted; nobody’s paying attention.
As we start to see the glimmers of light at what we hope is the end of the pandemic tunnel, it is natural to think about what things will be like on the other side. What will things be like for faith communities and community organizations? I was thinking just the other day about groups like the Lion’s Club and Kiwanis. When I lived in Texas, I was in the Rotary Club. And most of my fellow Rotarians were churchgoers –not all, but most. So, people who seem to be active in community organization also tend to be involved in their churches. In all of these community organizations, it was commonly stated that it harder and harder to get volunteers. Participation is often down. And we know that for several decades, church attendance across the country has been down. The general consensus is that things like churches and community organizations are important. People would miss them if they all disappeared. But when you ask people who don’t participate, who aren’t involved, “Why?” The answer usually has to do with a lack of time. Nobody has time anymore. Everyone is busy. Everyone is distracted.
But what are we so busy doing? Why are we so distracted? It occurred to me that so many of our modern woes are related to our electronic addictions – our technology. And because of the pandemic, we’re more dependent on technology than before! We’re LinkedIn, Zooming online, with Wi-Fi, cell phones, e-mail, 5G smart phones, Facebook, TikTok, twitter – and we still have the “old” stuff, too – like telephones, television and radio. We’re drowning in this sea of information! And thanks to e-mail and smart phones and text messages, the “tyranny of the urgent” is always pressing in on us. Everyone feels like his or her issues are urgent and deserve immediate attention, and so we feel this psychic pressure as we’re frantically trying to meet everyone’s needs, or buy various products that are constantly being pushed on us. Only time will tell what toll all of this is taking on us, both individually and culturally.
We have more ways to connect with more people than we have ever had in human history. And yet, a psychologist friend of mine once said that the greatest dis-ease in our time is loneliness. Because Facebook friends aren’t real friends – you can’t have 250 close friends. And so many of our social interactions are reduced to superficiality. There’s little cost involved or commitment required in these electronic, virtual relationships. And one must wonder how our relationship with God fares in this hyper-connected culture of disconnection. If we don’t readily connect with those we do see, then how much harder is it for us to connect with a God we don’t see?
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the importance of connection, about the power to abide. He says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” He says, “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 me you can do nothing.” Using this agrarian metaphor, Jesus speaks of a most profound and intimate and demanding connection.
In our hyper-connected culture of disconnection, we often hear the claim: I’m spiritual but not religious. Spirituality, the thinking goes, is something that you can do on your own. You certainly don’t need an organization. It’s a private matter of individual tastes. That’s why the TV church and the Mega Church are popular in our culture. We are a society of consumers, and expect that we should have our needs met on our own terms. But as we know in the small/local church, religion requires being involved in a community – a community that places demands upon us, a community that has expectations and hopes. In other words, religion involves commitment, so it’s safer and easier to just be spiritual.
It was Jesus who best modeled for us what this life of connection looked like. His was a life of action and reflection, action and reflection. Our lives are frequently imbalanced in this regard. We can spend too much time “navel-gazing” – too much time in study – becoming so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. The other extreme is to become whipped up in a frenzy of activity. Here we often see people’s ego taking center stage, needing recognition and appreciation. Some folks even become messianic, which can be very dangerous – with God’s will being confused with their own.
In a number of instances in the Gospels, we see Jesus withdrawing between times of significant ministry. The text will frequently say that he went off to a “lonely place,” or a “solitary place.” And there he prayed; there he found a place of reconnection with his Source, the Heavenly Father.
The Dutch priest Henri Nouwen says, “Out of his solitude Jesus reached out his caring hand to the people in need.” He continues…
Jesus indeed cared. Being pragmatists we say: “That is obvious: he fed the hungry, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the crippled walk and the dead live. He indeed cared.” But by being surprised by all the remarkable things he did, we forget that Jesus did not give food to the many without having received some loaves and fishes from a stranger in the crowd; that he did not return the boy of Nain to his widowed mother without having felt her sorrow, that he did not raise Lazarus from the grave without tears and a sigh of distress that came straight from the heart. What we see, and like to see, is cure and change. But what we do not see and do not want to see is care, the participation in the pain, the solidarity in suffering, the sharing in the experience of brokenness. And still, cure without care is as dehumanizing as a gift given with a cold heart.
Perhaps this is why Jesus sums up the Christian life in love. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love …” In his last will and testament before his crucifixion, Jesus gives his disciples this admonition: “love one another as I have loved you.” This is my command: “love one another.”
It’s worth keeping in mind that, as one writer puts it, “In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion, but an act of the will.” Because frankly we don’t always feel like loving one another. Some folks make it difficult for us to fulfill Jesus’ new commandment; and if it were merely up to our emotions, we would not love them at all. But Jesus doesn’t command us to feel like loving; he just tells us to love. Love is something we do. It’s an action. Love is the fruit we bear when we abide in Jesus, and love is what brings others to Jesus – so that they too might abide in Christ, that their joy also might be complete. The Christian life is a life lived in response: “We love because he first loved us.”
In one of his many books, Lloyd Ogilvie opens a chapter with these intriguing words. He writes,
I want you to meet my best friend. I’ve known him for thirty-two years. He’s been with me though trials and tragedies, pain and persecution, ups and downs, success and failure. He is the kind of friend who knows all about me and never goes away. He has a special way of helping me to see myself and do something about it. He accepts me the way I am, and yet that very acceptance makes me want to be all that I was meant to be in spite of all the difficulties around me. He laughs with me over my mistakes and weeps with me in my sorrows. He has been faithful all through life’s battles. I have never been left alone when I suffered criticism, hostility or resistance for doing what love demanded. He is with me when truth triumphs and is always there to absorb the anguish of defeat in a righteous cause. We share a vision, a hope, a dream together…my friend and I. As a matter of fact, he gives me the daring to be true to what I believe regardless of cost. He meets all of the qualifications of a real friend: he loves without limit; he is loyal when others turn away; he listens to my hurts; and he liberates me to grasp life with gusto, regardless of the consequences. I have only one hope: when I come to the end of this portion of life and pass on to the next, the one thing people will remember is that I was his friend. My best friend, says Ogilvie, is Jesus Christ!
In a way, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s too much. Until, of course, we realize that Ogilvie is simply saying what Jesus already said. “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…”
There was a man in the early church, St. Gregory of Nyssa, who offered a vision of human life as a relationship to God that informs every aspect of our lives together. Gregory saw life as unending progress of discovering what God is doing in human life. Sin, according to Gregory, was the refusal to keep on growing in this discovery. He says, “The one thing truly worthwhile is becoming God’s friend.”
We all sing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but I wonder if we’ve really taken time to think about what that means. So that is my charge to you – think about it – that’s your homework for the week. What does it mean to become God’s friend? How would we live our lives differently with Jesus as our best friend? “No longer servants…” he says, “but friends.”
 Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life (R. 2004, Ave Maria Press), pp. 32-22
 Congratulations-God Believes in You [about the Beatitudes] (1980, Word Books), pg. 115-116