Midweek Musing: To bear fruit is to love
Reflection: Sunday 29 April 2018 – Easter 4
Sarah Agnew | Wesley and St Aidan’s Uniting Church
1 John 4:7-21 and
To bear fruit is to love. It is to feel love. To show love. To do love. And how are we to bear fruit – to love? We are to remain with Jesus.
That is the focus of this portion in John, not the burning of the non fruit bearing branches in apocalyptic anger and damnation. Not an anti-Jewish polemic that situates Jews as the non fruit bearing branches to be cast off. Not an anti-Judas rhetoric, either, that casts off a disciple Jesus did not himself condemn.
The Greek words for ‘cut off’ may carry some violent overtones, however, but I understand from those who have witnessed the pruning of vines that it is devastatingly more than simply trimming a branch or two here and there. I was watching Chris trim the bushes in the children’s courtyard this week, and that was heavy, hard, you could almost say, violent, work. Airo, one of the greek words translated as ‘cut off’, according to Richard Swanson means to seize violently and destroy. Then the author uses kathairo, which intensifies the verb to give it a meaning of annihilate. Within the agricultural context of this metaphor, such strong verbs are accurate to describe the event.
But the destruction, the fire, is not the point Jesus is making. This portion is not about the branches that are burnt. It is about the branches that bear fruit – and how.
Richard Swanson, who provoked my thinking on this passage this week, picks out another of the greek words: the one that is translated ‘every’ – every branch that does not bear fruit is pruned from the vine, as we heard in the NRSV translation – but it could actually mean each, or any. For Richard, this lessens the intensity of the act of pruning from that apocalyptic destruction of every branch that doesn’t bear fruit, as if there are tons of them, to a more regular maintenance for the health of the whole. Any branch that happens not to produce any fruit is removed. The fire is also therefore smaller, the branches put to another use, perhaps, Richard talks of farmers he knows using cut off apple wood to stoke fires for a sauna, rather than piled high in a bonfire blaze of waste in the paddock.
But again, the focus is not the fire. It is not the branches that are pruned from the vine. The focus of Jesus’ teaching here is on the bearing of fruit by branches on the vine. That’s what he mentions repeatedly. Bearing fruit. Which is to love. And how are we to bear fruit – to love? We are to remain with Jesus. Meno is the greek there, and it means, simply, to remain. To stay. Richard Swanson says : you realise that just means sit there, right? Sit. With Jesus. Presence. Attentiveness. Communion. Stillness. Recall Psalm 23 from last week.
Stay with Jesus.
This becomes a foundation for faithfulness to Jesus, a faithfulness that is shown through our love for God and each other.
I feel like the sense of abiding in Jesus as Jesus abides in us, the branches connected to the vine, is a flow of life blood through the vine and if one is truly, fully, attentively, in Jesus – because you’ve stayed put rather than rushing about trying to save yourself, do it all yourself – if we are that deeply connected then that life blood flows through us from Jesus, and then, your instinct is to love; love is your automatic response, because you are in Jesus, therefore you are in God, therefore you are in Love.
Which brings us to the letter from John – God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. Those who remain with love, who stay with love. Choose to love, and you’ll be where God is. Choose to be where God is, and you will find your way to love.
I am reminded of the story of a Scottish saint, a story of one who stayed with God. St Magnus of Orkney was so committed to the way of God as a way of peace and love that he did not fight, though he was commanded to serve on his king’s ships. He was so committed to God’s way of love and peace, that when conflict arose between his followers and those of his cousin, with whom he had inherited the ruling of the Orkney islands, Magnus chose to meet with Haaken and offered to leave the islands and go into exile. When his cousin refused that offer, rather than fight Haaken to the death to determine one king of Orkney, he volunteered to be executed by Haaken, so that the conflict would end, and peace would return to their home. My version of the story begins: on a cold stone chapel floor – I begin with Magnus praying. It was from his residence within the presence of God that Magnus met his cousin, seeing him with love though fear and distrust met him in return. Magnus resided, abided, remained, with God, to the point of giving his life rather than turning away from love. Remind you of anyone?
And who is it we are meant to love, with this love that flows from the strength of the vine’s core through its healthy branches?
In Acts we hear of the eunuch and Philip. In the time this story originates, the eunuch is the epitome of the outsider for the hearers of the story. He is not Jewish. He is not fully human in the eyes of society, no matter now rich or high in status, as this eunuch is in the ethopian court.
From Bill Loader:
While some biblical traditions preserve legislation which excluded them from holy places (Deut 23:1), there are others which held out the prospect that one day they along with foreigners could belong (Isa 56:3-5). Jesus declared that some of us make ourselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God (Matt 19:10-12), and may well have been defending himself against accusations that he did not marry and instead embarked on mission. It was typical for him to identify himself with the marginalised. Luke has probably chosen this story with the hope of Isaiah in mind, rather than the exclusion of Deuteronomy. The gospel is reaching out beyond Jerusalem and Judea to the uttermost ends of the earth - at least as they saw it. This eunuch was most likely a foreigner who had been attracted to Judaism. He may have had other business, but seems to have intentionally travelled to the temple to worship. The story also assumes he possesses a scroll of Isaiah. Not many people did, so this may reflect a level of prosperity. The fact that he could read it also suggests literacy.
We hear that Philip is prompted by the Spirit – can you remember your own feeling, when you have been attentively abiding in God, and God’s love has flowed through you – I imagine that is how it felt for Philip, that rush of compassion as in the stories of Jesus whose guts wrenched when encountering someone yearning for love, desperate to be met by God, by hope, by welcome for their humanity.
Who are the eunuchs of our time? The ones society deems less than human? They may even be in positions of some power, wealth, status.
For example, I wonder if our viewing of people like ‘politicians’ as less than human lowers our expectations, and theirs, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? What would it be like to meet politicians with kindness, to speak of them as we would speak of our loved ones? What might love do then, to bring about changes, plant seeds for future change?
Who are we called to love, and how?
We might call to mind a more modern day saint, Mother Teresa, for whom prayer was a deep attentiveness, a mutual listening, - she once replied to an interviewer’s question about what she does in prayer – mostly I just listen. The interviewer asked, and what does God say? Mostly God just listens, too. This is abiding, remaining, simply sitting there with God, and from that abiding, that attentive remaining there with God, what love flowed through that woman? It was simple, and one of the most profound witnesses to God and to love and to the dignity of every human being that the world has seen in recent times, or perhaps ever.
Who is it for you?
Where have you seen it in your own life? When have you known discipline in your spiritual practices and seen your responses, your choices, your relationships shaped by love?
Again from Bill Loader:
Luke's story allows a reading which sees something magical in the sudden disappearance of Philip, but it may not have been intended in that way. Off went the eunuch. Off went Philip. We hear what Philip did, but not what the eunuch did. There is a major Christian church in Ethiopia still today which traces its roots to this event, a legend of origins. Small apparently insignificant chance encounters filled with the Spirit of love can change the course of history. It is like water in the desert. Watch for what might grow. Our task is not to make the magic moments - only history will tell us what they are - but simply to be attuned to love and sing its song.Because fruit contains within it seeds for more fruit, for taking the vine further
Love bears fruit of love which bears fruit of love which bears fruit …
So that in battlefields and orphanages, in parliaments and newspaper offices, places where the humanity of humans is ignored, dismissed, diminished, humans will find the courage to stay with love rather than give in to fear, even if it costs them all they have to give.
The author of Acts depicts the first apostles as putting the emphasis on Jesus' life and on his death as rejection which God reversed and on the basis of which Jesus' message of forgiveness could now be proclaimed with confidence to all. Luke leaves us to read between the lines about what Philip might have said to the eunuch.
Because when you abide, when you remain, in love, in God, you see with love, you see with God, and that is to see the other as worthy, as having inherent dignity: to see others as beloved. And what can you do then but love, with the costly, generous, courageous love that flows from Christ the vine through these branches that remain?
Provoking the Gospel, Richard Swanson: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/category/provoking-the-gospel/
Lectionary Resources, William Loader: http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/BActsEaster5