Sunday, May 10, 2009

Live in Christ as he lives in you, and bear fruit for the glory of God

Yesterday was my last day at the cathedral here in Omaha and I had the honor of giving the sermon. The text of it will be at the bottom of this post. 

Last week I was having the hardest time writing my sermon. We had two baptisms today, so using the lesson from Acts about the baptism of the Ethiopian court official seemed the most natural. But nooooo, whatever I wrote turned out badly. It was completely uninspired. Finally I gave up trying to write a baptism/farewell sermon and instead wrote a sermon focusing on the Gospel lesson for today from John about abiding in Christ and bearing fruit. 

The process of writing this sermon wasn't much better, but I didn't feel dismayed upon reading my sermon notes so it was the sermon I went with. It came haltingly and almost a little formulaicly. 

Yesterday morning with fear and trepidation I ascended the pulpit and delivered this sermon. At the early service I stumbled a bit, paused a bit too long in places, and rejoiced that I had notes to bear me along. I didn't feel happy about it at all. But after the service people told me that it spoke to them, so I had to be happy that something of use was in it. At the second service it came more naturally and flowed. I asked for it to be recorded, so I've listened to my sermon and found that it was much better than I'd thought even though it needed more work and skill (which comes from much, much more experience of preaching). 

Yesterday I was also admitted to the Fellowship of St John, the associates of the Society of St John the Evangelist (a monastic order of the Episcopal Church). Upon the Fellowship's cross which was bestowed on me today are the words, "Abide in me and I in you." After realizing that the words there were the same ones we read today, I saw that the Spirit was telling me to pay attention to my own sermon; I wasn't allowed to preach on the other texts because God wanted the words to be about abiding in Christ, not baptism or anything else. 

The Scripture:

John 15:1-8

Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."

The Sermon:

The words from John's Gospel we heard today are some of the most beautiful words he wrote. They're very mystical. "Abide in me as I abide in you." It calls forth a union with God, a quiet awareness of just how close God is to us. 

The language of abiding in Christ though seems to be a little, well, inactive. It suggests that it's all about a quiet meditative awareness of God's closeness, something only monks and nuns whose vocation is to such stillness can achieve with regularity. 

The word 'abide' though doesn't seem to get to the heart of what Jesus is asking of us. He's calling us to something more active than just sitting there. 'Living' might be a better way of latching onto the concept. This living in Christ consists of more than just that quiet awareness of God's presence; living in Christ also consists in prayer and listening. Our prayer life is an important way through which we are joined to God. We are listening to God when we pay attention to the words God gives us through others, even strangers. In listening we are open to not only God's presence but God's words for us today. 

Living in Christ is only part of the message. We have to bear fruit as well. Bearing fruit should come naturally from abiding in Christ; if we receive nourishment from Christ, it's only natural that we should share it. The 'bearing fruit' metaphor is more than just a nice turn of phrase. It points to the nourishing quality of the work. We're not just called to do good works but we're called to feed those around us with the love of God. 

The process of bearing fruit has a couple of parts to it. The first is preparation; our spiritual life feeds us, gives us spiritual gifts, disciplines us and gives us a deep well of wisdom from God. We have to be preparing our hearts for God all the time, so that is why listening is such an important part of living in God. We don't know when God will inspire us with something that will be helpful for someone else. 

The second step is serving. Strange, yes, that we go straight from serving to preparation, but whatever gifts God gives us we must be ready to just give away because serving is not about us, it is about the other person. We are servants for God, doing God's work. What we have prepared, what God has given us when we abide in Christ is then given away freely. 

The third is to rejoice! It is our joy to give thanks to God for all our gifts and for the opportunity to give them away. It's important to remember, again, that all good things come from God. The fruit we bear isn't really ours because the nutrients, the wisdom and love and grace, are from Christ. We just take them into ourselves and then give them away. All these good things, though, are gifts from God. God gives them just as freely as we do. 

The final step is to let go. The gifts are not our own but are from God, so when we have served others we must let go and let God do the work necessary. The other person has received a gift from God through us, and now God is at work in that person helping them to understand and to be nourished by that gift. Letting go frees us, actually. We get to stop focusing on what we've done to help and get to return to God. We're freed from the dangers of being egocentric and of holding the gift against the person. 

The process of bearing fruit does come naturally from living in Christ, but it also takes our own work. We have to contribute. But if we are truly living in Christ, then the abundance of God's gift should just spill over as we share our lives with others. 

While it isn't nearly as poetic as John's writing, here's a summary: Live in Christ as he lives in you, and bear fruit for the glory of God.

1 comment:

Country Parson said...

Pay attention when God is speaking to you!

PS A very fine sermon