Sermon: An Antiquated Notion

05.03.2015        Preaching Text: “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.” (John 15:5)

Our age has a frightful habit of carelessly discarding ideas from the past, even those that once served as settled truths. Specifically, I’m here thinking of the now antiquated notion that any nation that rejects God will suffer ill consequences.

And I think I know why it’s become passé. Too often in the past our nation prided itself on being a “Christian nation.” While there certainly is strong evidence to support this claim, it was too often overdone.

It is unquestionably true that the founding of our nation and its rationale for existing were informed powerfully by Judeo-Christian beliefs. However, there developed a tendency toward hubris, a tendency to assume American society as identical to the gospel.

Because of this overreach, American thinking – as well as the Church’s – has trended in the opposite direction. Because of the sins of the past, we now refuse the idea that maybe God – and God’s laws – still affect, positively or negatively, the way we organize our lives, both as individuals and as a society.

In an increasingly secular West, we assiduously avoid any God-talk in the public square, especially in politics, except in certain rare instances. Any talk about God’s judgment upon our way of life has become effectively taboo.

But should it be? Doesn’t our biblical faith talk repeatedly about God’s judgment upon human actions, both individually and collectively? Aren’t the Hebrew scriptures replete with admonitions against Israel for its perfidious rejection of God’s laws? And doesn’t the New Testament have something to say about this as well?

In today’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus emphasizes the centrality of “abiding” in him. He likens this abiding to a branch connected to a vine. The obvious inference is that if any branch is cut off from the vine, its very life-source is cut off as well. The only reason the branch survives, much less flourishes, is because it is connected to the vine.

Jesus further points out another truism of Christian life – that God is the vine dresser who necessarily prunes the branches. This is done, as we well know, not to damage the branch, but to insure that it thrives, that it bears abundant fruit. Any gardener knows what he means. Even I do!

This, however, tends to be yet another affront to contemporary sensibilities. God exists to affirm my own personal wishes and desires, in other words. Any God who would say ‘no’ to me or take anything away from me, even for my own good, is pretty much anathema.

Here, in Jesus’ words, our dreamy desire for God to put a stamp of approval on our earthly designs is rejected outright. Only God’s designs are capable of bringing about the well-being our hearts desire deep down.

Any parent understands this intuitively. We discipline our children, not because we wish them harm, but because we know that certain desires and habits will hurt them and prevent them from knowing true contentment.

To digress for a moment, but I’d like to let you in on a little secret. Linda absolutely LOVES English bulldogs! Whenever we see one on the street, she has to go over and greet it. Her argument, one hard to refute, is that it’s pretty near impossible to see a bulldog, with their slow lumbering movements and hang-dog expressions and not smile, or laugh, or both.

A few months ago, one of Jonathan’s friends had the temerity to get a bulldog puppy. Ever since, he’s been sending pictures and videos via the Internet which Jonathan dutifully sends to his mother, to her envy and delight.

There’s one video we couldn’t stop laughing over. In it, this now 4 or 5-month-old bulldog is captured repeatedly trying to jump up onto his owners’ bed. Over and over again he tries, and fails miserably. And each time he yells out with muffled frustration. It really is funny.

The owner explained to Jonathan that the reason they won’t help him get up is because bulldogs are notoriously stubborn (part of their charm, as I see it). The idea is that if they help him up he will forever insist on getting onto their bed, which they don’t want. In short, he must be trained in the right way.

We’re no different. This means abiding in God’s loving, parental care. To fail to do so is to choose unhappiness as we blindly wander off on our own.

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus adjures. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

He then underscores the point: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers…”

Who can argue with this gardening analogy? Isn’t that exactly what happens? Cut off from its life-source, the branch withers and dies.

In our spiritual and moral lives as well, when we cut ourselves off from the source of life, from God, don’t we risk cutting ourselves off from divine wisdom and truth? And doesn’t the love of God shrivel within us?

If something can’t go on forever, it won’t! If we cut ourselves off from the Source of life, from divine truth and love, our lives will be adversely affected.

It’s not that God decides to punish peoples or nations because they don’t toe the line. Rather, it is we who choose to move away from him, with all the attendant risks and dangers. If we, as individuals or a nation, fail to abide in God, is the inevitable moral and spiritual withering of society the result of God’s wrath or our own willful rejection of God’s blessings?

The increasing failure to even recognize, much less practice, the Church’s historic “Seven Virtues” is running apace.

The first four, the “Cardinal Virtues,” recognized by all civilized peoples, consist of prudence (practical common sense), temperance (moderation in all things), justice (fairness, including honesty, give and take, truthfulness, and keeping promises), and, finally, fortitude (courage).

The last three are known as the “Theological Virtues,” which generally only Christians know about. And these are faith, hope, and charity (or love).

When societies, and the individuals who comprise them, reject these practices, when they reject God’s ordering principles, are there to be no consequences?

Our central task, then, as the Church in contemporary society, is to abide in Christ. If we do that, we stand as a powerful and necessary witness to godly truths for which our world is hungering, whether it knows it or not. Amen.