Gospel: John 15:9-17
[Jesus said:] “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, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 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, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
I grew up in the church, small Lutheran Church outside of Harrisburg. Just a handful of kids my own age, and at some point I was asked to get involved in some synod ministries. There was a synod youth person on the bishops staff, and a board of 10-15 youth from all over the synod that would plan events and get others involved. There was a confirmation camp each year that 20 some congregations participated in, and the pastors all went, and your youth directors went. And there was a leadership training camp that you could be chosen to attend. I participated in these events both as a camper and as a counselor and as a staff person when I was an adult. Never before did I see these verses lived out so clearly.
The first night of camp, a mix of emotions from the younger kids and a mini reunion for the older ones and the counselors. But every year it seemed, the director’s sermon was the same. You are not here today because you chose to come to camp. You are not here because your parents or your pastor or your church mandated that you come here. You are only here because the Holy Spirit has called you to be here, and has gathered us here. That set the tone for the week. That the Holy Spirit has a purpose and a calling for each of us, and that there was a reason that we were all there. We were chosen for this.
The counselors and the staff were not in the business of saving souls. We’re in the business of planting seeds. We’re in the business of telling the truth about God’s love, and your identity as a baptized and beloved child of God. And living out our faith for a whole week. We rarely saw the fruits of our labor – but every once in a while, we heard that something had grown. The number of us, who went on to seminary. Those of us who became council presidents at the congregation we joined after college. The ones who nobody ever heard from again, but showed up on a facebook reunion to tell you how much your words meant to them 20 years ago. Our job that we was to scatter as much seed as indiscriminately as possible over each of those kids – and something always grew.
The last way in which that community reflects this scripture is that we are all still friends. We all still consider each other sisters and brothers, whether its been 1 year since we’ve seen each other or 20. We know the source of that love and friendship – the source of that life giving way to live – and it keeps going through the years, as we remain connected to it.
The radical claim that Lutheranism so often lifts up – is that we do not enter this bond of love with God through our own choosing, not even by our own faith, but by Jesus’ faith in us. “You did not choose me,” Jesus says to us. “I chose you.” Jesus initiates this bond of love by his giving up his life for us, not because we could possibly ask him to or earn the grace that he so freely pours out for us. We cannot earn God’s grace even by our servanthood to him that we give; instead, Jesus says, “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.”
Thank God for friends. Thank God for people who choose us and lift us up. For people who run to us when they see a need and for people who reach out a hand. For the people who love us for no reason in particular and for every reason.
It’s these relationships that bear fruit that will last. Several years ago I was leading a synod youth retreat at Lutherlyn, and these verses were our theme. We learned that because we belong to God, like branches of a vine, we can live well together and bear fruit for the sake of the world. We reflected quite a bit on what it means to bear fruit, including thinking about actually fruit. Fruit is something that has seeds on the inside. Something produced by a plant that feeds or sustains something else. But the seeds are there too – the seeds get spread all manner of ways – ways that we might not even realize because the seeds are so small. The fruit might get eaten or it might rot on the ground – but the seeds are there. So there’s a chance something will grow.
When our love bears fruit for the sake of the world, the seeds of the kingdom of God’s love are in it. The seeds of the kingdom are planted far and wide – and just like that parable of the sower and the seeds, some might not grow. Doesn’t matter. The ones that take root, we might never get to witness that growth.
These days, I haven’t been as involved in youth ministry – but have been working on the opposite end of the spectrum of christian community. At my previous call I found myself at a memory care unit in McKeesport, being asked to lead a monthly bible study for dementia residents.
These people don’t remember me from month to month. They don’t know what church they went to as a kid. They can’t tell you what their favorite bible verse it or any scripture really. But you know what they do remember? Jesus loves me. Amazing Grace. Leaning on the everlasting arms. They sing Jesus loves me this I know almost as loud as Vacation Bible School kids. They don’t know their friends or their families, but they know the songs that expressed Jesus love to them when they were kids.
Never have I seen Jesus faithfulness so clearly expressed. These people who have no way of serving, no way of expressing their faith, or witnessing. These folks who are often behaviorally all over the place, and hard to talk to if not impossible. They knew.
When I first became a pastor it was somewhat shocking to me that not everyone had similar experiences growing up in the church. Many people I was ministering to and working with, had gone through their whole childhood not fitting in anywhere, not feeling particularly loved or chosen by anyone, especially within the church.
I used to balk at the whole Jesus loves me repetitive Sunday school sing song faith building – but now I see its purpose. Beyond knowing scripture or understanding theology or practicing their faith – do they know that they are loved? Unless we deeply understand in our being that we are beloved, and Jesus has chosen us – we are missing the source of our identity. If the only thing the church is able to do is let people know they are loved, worthy, valuable, we have planted the seeds to grow fruit.