Sermon – May 3

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.

There is a basic human need for connection. In his classic 1943 paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Abraham Maslow postulated the hierarchy of human needs.[1] And, although tinkered with over the years and applied to many different spheres and situations, Maslow’s study remains the bellwether for just about all studies in human behavior. According to Maslow, the most basic needs are physiological – the need for breathing, food, and water.

The next level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the need for safety. We all need to feel secure in our environment, and when we do not feel secure we tend to react to the world around us from a place of fear and trauma. While some might be puzzled by what has transpired in the City of Baltimore these past few days, I get it. Many of the residents there have for years lived with a fear of law enforcement – the very system that is supposed to keep us safe. The Freddie Gray death was a trauma that erupted in violent rage and frustration borne of a long-term trauma and fear.

Often our internalization of our fears and insecurities give rise to all sorts of psychological disorders and neuroses. Perhaps the most obvious example of this would be the responses of those who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. People who have experienced severe trauma will sometimes respond to the world around them as if they were still in an unsafe environment, even though their circumstances do not warrant such a response. This is something we are finding we must deal with as a nation more and more as military personnel return after repeated deployments to war zones. More and more we need to be able to provide safe harbor for those in distress.

The third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is the need for love and belonging.

In the absence of that human connection, we become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety, and even clinical depression. In fact, this need for love and belonging is so strong that it will sometimes override the need for safety. Consider a budding young person whose need for acceptance among his or her peers results in the development of anorexia. The need to preserve health is overcome by a need for connection to friends.

Or, think of studies which have shown that a child’s “ability to bond with a caregiver is such a strong biological imperative that once a bond is formed – even with an abuser – that bond is difficult to break.”[2]

There have been myriad studies and a plethora of anecdotal evidence that children do not thrive when they do not have an opportunity to bond with a loving caregiver. That need to be connected to someone – that need for love and belonging – that basic need for connection doesn’t disappear as we grow older. That need grows up with us.

And just as we have these needs for our physical selves, we have the same needs for our spiritual selves. In order to grow and thrive as spiritual beings, we must be connected to the source of spiritual life. Like branches on a vine, we must be connected to Jesus – the true vine. And I submit that in order to remain connected to Jesus, we need to be connected to one another in the community of faith.

And so, while I would never stand here and pretend that I know anything about horticulture or growing things on vines, I get where Jesus is going when he says I am the true vine. Because I do know that the vine is the “base camp” for everything that grows out of it. Just as grapes sitting on a table for a week would wither and dry up, so the branch they clung to would dry up were it not attached to the vine.

There is no mistaking what Jesus is talking about here. Jesus is making it clear that we – his disciples – are the branches; and, he is the one who gives us life and sustains us; he is the one who cares for us and leads us into abundant and fruitful living. Jesus is the one who connects us to God in a unique, nourishing and sustaining way. Jesus gives to us – to our physical existence – a spiritual reality. It is not merely something intellectual or something that floats over the reality of our lives. The spiritual existence we have with Jesus is a living reality; it is concrete and it exists in time and space.

Our connection to Jesus governs how we live in the world and how we relate to one another. Jesus is the True Vine, and when we, the branches, remain part of the Vine we bear fruit that leads to the kind of living that befits the citizens of God’s kingdom. The trick to being a successful branch on the Vine is to abide to remain; to continue; to stay with Jesus so that we might bear the tangible fruit of our connection to Jesus – fruit like those articulated as the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The only way to bear that kind of fruit is to be a branch that is a firmly affixed to the true vine. Jesus said 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 bear the fruits of the spirit unless you abide in me.

That fruitfulness – the fruitfulness of abundant life – is the result of Jesus’ life being reproduced in each of us because we abide in him.

This abiding thing is not easy to do without the help and encouragement of the community of faith. This passage makes it clear that we are incapable of doing this on our own. We are not self-determined individuals who can go our own way. We can do nothing without the strength and nourishment from the vine.

But let’s face it. We have a difficult time sticking to the vine. That’s why we need one another. To learn from one another – to hold one another accountable so that we will bear the fruit Jesus is nourishing.

I know there are people who say they don’t need to be part of the community of faith. They can be spiritual without their brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe they can, but I can’t. Sister Joan Chittister a Benedictine nun says “spirituality does not stand still, it engages the present. It needs to attach to the best of the tradition. It cannot stand alone. If my spirituality comes only from myself, I have become my own God.”

I need my brothers and sisters in faith to help me understand what the Lord requires. I need my brothers and sisters in faith to encourage me in a fruitful life. I need my brothers and sisters to hold me accountable when I am heading down the road to perdition.

We need each other to help each other abide in the vine. It is why we gather for worship. It is why we gather to study. So that we might help each other stay close to our Lord and bear fruit.

How do we rest, remain and abide in Jesus? We do that by remaining in the community that knows and loves and celebrates Jesus as Lord. We can’t do it alone. We must be connected both to the vine, and to one another. It is not optional. It is imperative to fill the basic need for connection implanted within us by our loving God.