What Wondrous Love Is This?
Eric and I love to visit vineyards when we travel. We spent our honeymoon in Napa Valley driving between vineyards and sampling the fruit of the vine. Visiting family in Germany, we sailed down the Mosel River taking in terraced hillsides. While attending a friend’s wedding in Detroit we even toured some vineyards on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. The twisted, gnarly vines fascinate me, especially the very old ones. They look dry and dead until leaves appear in the spring and grapes are ready to harvest in the fall. Every wine grower has some story about an early frost or an invasive pest that threatened a recent crop. Even the casual observer can see that growing grapes and crafting wine is as much art as it is science. Even so, there is a rhythm to the seasons: planting and then waiting for the vines to grow; pruning and then waiting for the grapes to ripen; harvesting and then waiting for juice to ferment into wine.
Someone accused me recently of always mentioning food or Eric in my sermons. It’s probably true, and I will take it as a compliment. Jesus took most of his parables and teaching from the simple things of daily life happening all around him. I imagine that Jesus shared these words recorded in John 15 as he and his disciples were passing by some Palestinian vineyard. They had shared a last supper together, drinking the fruit of the vine. Jesus has already predicted that one of the twelve would betray him, and he had washed their feet. Those disciples must have been feeling anxious about what exactly the future would hold. Jesus surely knew that they would have difficulties remaining faithful to him when the going got rough and he was no longer with them in the flesh. So Jesus stops in the middle of the road and directs the disciples’ attention to the twisting grapevines heavy with young fruit.
“Imagine that I am the vine,” he says, “that my Father is the grower, and you are the branches.” The grapevine is enduring. It is that old, twisted, brown part of the plant with roots so established that is practically part of the grower’s family. The branches are new every year, fresh and green. But they have to be pruned and trimmed or else you get too many leaves and not enough grapes. Jesus wants his fearful, confused disciples to know that his presence with them is as enduring as the gnarly old grapevine. As long as they remain connected to him in spirit after he is gone in body, they will spring forth with new life. As long as they submit themselves to the selective pruning of the grower they will bear fruit.
The connection between the grower, the vine, and the branches is love. Love is what motivates the grower to tend the vine. Love is what motivates the Father to send his Son, and love is what motivates the Son to give up his life for humankind. It probably cannot be said more simply than in First John: In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (4:10). The branches cannot love either the vine or the grower unless the grower loves first.
We talk a lot about the love of God. This time of year, we hear passages like these from John and First John read at many weddings. I used part of this reading at the wedding I officiated last weekend. But I wonder sometimes how often we stop to really hear and absorb these words: “We love because God first loved us.” Do you know, do you really know, that God loves you? Do you stop to soak in that knowledge? I do not ask that to be condescending or manipulative. I ask because I had my own fresh encounter with the God of love during Lent this year. At a worship service I attended, the pianist played “What Wondrous Love Is This?” and I was struck because I could not remember that last time I had really felt that sense of wonder. I knew cognitively that God loved me, and I believe in a way that does not require me to be emotional about it all the time. But there is something to be said for slowing down and opening your spirit to receive, welcome, and wonder at the primary, concrete, and vulnerable love of God.
God’s love is primary because like the love of the grower for the vine, it come before any movement on our part at all. God’s love for us has nothing to do with how faithful we are, with whether we are good people, with our success or failure in this life. God loves us because that is who God is. Any faithfulness, goodness, or success does not make God love me more. Love like this is best savored, the same way I savor the smell of Confederate Jasmine that fills my backyard or savor a fine glass of wine that I did nothing to grow, harvest, or produce. Think back on the last time you were caught in a sense of wonder or sheer delight. Can you apply that feeling toward the knowledge of God’s love for you?
God’s love is concrete and earthy, not abstract and ethereal. God does not just have nice, warm feelings about us. God moves toward us in a very earthy way in the person of Jesus Christ. If we are prone to categorize love as a feeling, we do well to remember that God, who is love, is best known in the concrete act of incarnation – of becoming human – an act which ultimately led to the death of God’s own Son.
And this is the third thing about God’s love: it is vulnerable. If we are prone to describe God as powerful and transcendent – which may well be good descriptions – we ought to remember that in the incarnation, God gave us this power to become weak and vulnerable. In his human form, Jesus experiences hunger and grief. He is betrayed by one of his closest friends, tortured, and executed. Because of the incarnation, God the Father must bear the death of his only Son. That is vulnerable love. Then again, what is love if it is not vulnerable, if it will not risk everything for the sake of the beloved?
Receiving this kind of primary, concrete, and vulnerable love takes practice. As I look at these eight young people who will be confirmed today, I am aware of all the pressures in their lives telling them that they are not worthy, not good enough, not loveable. At their age, social acceptance can easily become the measure of self-worth. Whatever our ages, we each have markers in our lives against which we measure our worth. For me, at least, it takes deliberate effort to put these yardsticks aside and savor a love that is simpler, purer, and more enduring. I do it by taking in the natural world. (A birdsong just for me?) I do it by sitting in meditative prayer. (I am continually amazed by how clearly I can hear God’s voice when I actually stop to listen.) This is what it means to abide in God, to abide in love. It takes practice, not just for young believers but for all of us at any age. However, the more we practice, the more we see our own lives transformed from tiny green shoots into strong, fruit-bearing branches.
When John writes his first letter to the church, he is writing to a group that has become divided over doctrinal differences. Their separation is so intense that John even likens it to hatred. One of their problems, it seems, is that they have forgotten the primary, concrete, and vulnerable love of God. John is reminding them – just as Jesus reminded his first disciples – that they ought to abide in God’s love, to delight in it, to wonder in the midst of it. When they do, they will bear the fruit of love in their own community. When we delight in God’s primary love for us, we can love others even if we gain nothing from them. When we are awestruck by the concrete act of the incarnation, we can share our love in concrete ways, being with and for our neighbors during triumphs and tribulations. When we wonder at the vulnerable love of the most powerful God, we can take the risks that love demands, even sacrificing our privacy, our safety, our time, or our material possessions for the sake of loving our neighbors.
What I want these eight students to know today as they profess their faith is that their journey of faith neither begins nor ends today. Their journey began before the earth was even formed when God foresaw their existence, destined them for adoption, and loved them (Ephesians 1:4-5). I want them to abide in that love, to stay connected to that love, as closely as a grape branch is connected to the vine. When we abide in that love, we are able to remain faithful to our Lord, even when the going gets rough. When we abide in that love, we are able to experience Jesus’ presence with us, even though we cannot see or touch him in the flesh. When we abide in that love, our relationship with our neighbors is transformed, and our tender faith becomes strong and bears good fruit.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. May it be so for these eight young people, and may it be so for you and for me. Amen.