John 15, Civil Disobedience, and Life as a Godly Arborist

Note: this script was used for a sermon delivered at The Foundry-Baltimore on November 20, 2016.

Good morning! This week, we are going to be discussing the first half of the 15th chapter of the gospel of John, in which Jesus tells his followers that he is “the vine” and they are “the branches.” Since this was the subject of one of the most personally influential sermons I have yet to hear in my life, I’m very excited to get to that discussion. But before I do, I want to share something with you that I’ve been thinking about a lot this week. It’s a lesson from my past life as an American literature teacher, and it has to do with one of those quintessential American writers you may have encountered back in high school: Henry David Thoreau. 

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HDT, rocking a mean chin beard (which was fashionable in the day), as well as a cowlick (which was not).

In 1847, Henry David Thoreau was living in a small shack he had built with his own hands near a place called Walden Pond in a wood owned by his friend and fellow American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had been living in that shack for 2 years with the objective of fully engaging himself in nature, and at that point, he would say things were going well.

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This is a replica of Thoreau’s shack at Walden.

However, back in the nearby town of Concord, Massachusetts, where Thoreau was still technically a resident, a problem was brewing: during his two years in the woods, Thoreau had been systematically and intentionally ignoring his taxes. Now, Thoreau was a well-known activist and self-proclaimed radical, so there is reason to believe that the local tax collectors had been avoiding him on purpose, if only to spare themselves what would have undoubtedly been a frustrating and loud argument. However, by 1847, America’s need for money to fund our country’s military invasion of Mexico, which had begun the previous year, had led to a call throughout the states to collect all past due accounts. So, one afternoon, a tax collector went out to visit Thoreau’s cabin in the woods, and by that evening, Thoreau, predictably, was in prison, where he stayed until the following day, when his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, angered him forever by paying his back taxes.

Two years later, Henry David Thoreau published an essay on his experience titled, “Resistance to Civil Government.” In that essay, he argued that when living as a citizen in a country that is committed to doing so much evil—Thoreau was a fierce abolitionist, who had committed significant time and money fighting the horror of slavery, as well as an outspoken opponent of the Mexican War—there is no acceptable position for a moral man to take short of withdrawing himself from that country’s support. He wrote, 

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong […] but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support […] Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But…Why is [the government] not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? […] Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?  […]

I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.

Thoreau recognized something incredibly important, and something which has shaped the way many have fought for justice in the years since his writing: that when we abide in a place, we invest in it…and the causes and actions of that place or state or government or religion are extensions of our investment. 

Just over a century later, Thoreau’s essay would be counted as one of the most widely read and taught works in the American public school system, and in the mid-1950s, Thoreau’s argument for what he termed “peaceful rebellion” through the withdrawal of consent and investment became the central platform of the American Civil Rights Movement. Of course, by that time, the essay had also been retitled by editors who felt its initial title was too aggressive: when Martin Luther King and others read Thoreau in school, his essay was known, simply, as “Civil Disobedience.”

Here’s why I wanted to open with that anecdote: the word “abide” is used 10 times in a span of 17 verses in John 15, and before we talk about what that word means, I want to make absolutely sure that we understand that we are not talking about rest when we use it; we are talking about investment. I think Thoreau understood something incredibly important about his role in the world in 1849: he understood that, as an individual, he had almost no ability to effect real change. He, as one man, could do little to destroy the evils of slavery or the Mexican conquest. However, by taking responsibility for the way his life connected to sources of actual power, he could promote change. if we’re going to have a true and right and effective understanding of what it means to abide, we need to know that we’re talking about the direction we focus our work—not the energy of the work itself.

This morning, we are continuing your series here at The Foundry called “Jesus Is ________.” In order to talk about this, you have been focusing on one passage finishing this statement per week, for several weeks now. Of course, the reason you’ve been investigating this idea-and the reason you’ve been able to spend several weeks on it already-is because Jesus is complicated. This, of course, is not surprising: Jesus is almost certainly the single most influential and interesting person who has ever lived on this planet. Even aside from the ongoing importance and influence of the church he established, Jesus himself is a captivating historical person! He was a poor carpenter’s son, from a nowhere town, born among a marginalized people, who, at a particular and pivotal moment in Western civilization, became internationally famous in just three years, all through the power of his voice. How? Because of the audacity of his message: Jesus changed the world not by seizing power, but by renouncing it. Over and over again, he told people that their strength was not found in politics or force but in generosity, kindness, humility, forgiveness…in the very things that people then (and even now!) more often associate with weakness and cowardice than strength.

So, yes: it is a worthwhile thing to investigate who this man is, and even to spend several weeks doing so. Jesus rewards that kind of work by revealing himself not only as someone who is interesting historically, but as someone who was and is marvelous: he is a one-of-a-kind figure, and we all ought to know him.

But where does that leave us today? And-this is a more-than-fair question-what in the world does Henry David Thoreau have to do with any of this?

Well, the passage we are looking at today-the “I am” statement-is found in John 15, where Jesus says this to his followers: 

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 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. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

So, there we go: Jesus is “the vine.” But what does that mean?

Well, let’s start by setting the stage a bit: this passage, from John 15, is part of a 5-chapter run in the Gospel of John containing Jesus’s final instructions to his followers before his arrest and crucifixion. He has already entered Jerusalem-where he once again refused to participate in a militaristic overthrow of the government and instead attacked the religious leaders of the city, calling them hypocrites and thieves-and he is now waiting on the celebration of the Passover, one of the high Jewish holidays. At the same time, those who were hoping for him to lead a coup of the Roman authorities are determining how they might use the anger of the Jewish religious leaders to betray Jesus to the Romans and bring about his execution. Knowing this, Jesus uses this time to speak as clearly as he can to his followers about what they need to know in the coming days and how they should respond to the events that are about to unfold.

And in that context, Jesus tells the disciples something critically important: you are not new trees-you are branches

And without a doubt, that message must have sounded as strange to them as it does to you right now. But the metaphor is significant, and we can draw from it 3 conclusions about how we relate to God:

Conclusion #1: we are not executors or actors or CREATORS OF CHANGE

In the days before Jesus shares this “I am” statement with his followers, they must have also been pretty confused about why Jesus didn’t act on his opportunity to spark a revolution in Jerusalem. Certainly, that’s what everyone was expecting from him. And if they saw Jesus as a would-be revolutionary, then it would make sense to see them-to see the disciples-as fellow prospective revolutionaries. As we see at several points during Jesus’s story and ministry, his disciples are open to violence as a means of solving their problems, and they frequently seem to bicker with one another about their “rank” and “position” within their movement as it goes forward. But Jesus has little patience for their desire for self-empowerment, and this metaphor helps drive home that point: instead of telling the disciples that they are “soldiers,” he tells them that they are branches. He says,

“As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Think about the metaphor for a moment: the organism Jesus is referring to is a grapevine, which grows along the ground and produces branches which in turn can be nurtured, by the “vinedresser,” to spread across a latticework in order to create more space for more grapes to grow. But think, then, about what the roles in Jesus’s metaphor connote: what, after all, does a “branch” of a grape vine do? It doesn’t stay “rooted” in the soil–that’s the vine’s job. It doesn’t “flower”–that’s the bud’s, or the fruit’s, job. In fact, it doesn’t “do” anything, aside from gripping onto the latticework and allowing the nutrients of the vine to be clearly and cleanly transmitted to the buds and leaves.

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A grape tree, branch, and vine.

So think, then, about what it would mean to be one of Jesus’s disciples or lieutenants hearing this message: Jesus says to them, “your job is not to do things-it is to stay as perfectly connected to me as possible.” And now, consider that instruction on the eve of Jesus’s death! He’s saying to his followers, “Even after I seem to be gone, don’t rush out to act on your own-wait on me, listen for me, and remember that anything good that comes from you isn’t something you have made, but something that has been made THROUGH YOU by me.”

Conclusion #2: Our  job is to ABIDE.

Jesus tells his disciples, “A branch cannot bear fruit by itself…apart from me you can do nothing.” But again: they are about to be apart from him! So, what idea is Jesus getting at?

I think the answer to that question has to do with how we define what it means to “abide.” The word “abide” stems from a Latin conjugation of a word which might be more familiar to us: “abode.” An “abode,” of course is a residence or a house. Hence, opening the door with a “welcome to my abode,” if you’re a fancy dinner host or a lame dude inviting a lady-friend into your apartment. The point is, to “abide” is, in a manner of speaking, an active way of saying “to make a home.” And here’s the thing about homes: they require real work.

I am 34 years old, and I have never owned a home. Here’s why: I grew up in a house that my parents owned. More than that, I grew up with two brothers in a house my parents owned. Even more than that, I grew up with two brothers in a house my parents owned and with a father who, during my teenage years, was frequently forced to work in other states for months at a time. So, here’s one of the prevailing lessons of my childhood: when you own your own home, and something breaks in it, that is your problem. I’m sure I’m remembering all of this wrongly, but in my mind, every Saturday of my life between the ages of 15-18-which is to say, the ages when I lived at home but could feasibly drive a car and go out with my friends-there was some job or other to do on the house. There was yardwork, there was cleaning; there was weeding the flowerbeds, there was residing; there was roofing and painting; there was a neverending stream of work. To “abide” in the home where I grew up was no passive endeavor-it took effort. 

And similarly, what Jesus is asking of his followers is not to be passive-he’s not saying, “I’m going to leave you, and I don’t want you to move until I get back”-he’s saying, “when I’m gone, I want you to work, and work hard, on remembering everything you possibly can about who I am.”

In verses 7 and 8, he says,

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

Jesus says that as his followers do the work of remaining faithful to him,  his words will abide in them, and then as those words manifest themselves in prayers, or requests, of God, God will hear and act on them.

There’s a lot of confusion about verse 8, and I get it: it’s easy to get the wrong idea. This sounds like wish fulfilment: “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” But that only happens “if you abide in me, and my words abide in you”. In other words, if you look and think like Jesus, the things you want will look and sound like the things Jesus wants…and when that happens, you will find that God can do great things through you. What we have here is a picture of what having making Jesus our “home” can accomplish: “abiding” in him is how “my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

So, conclusion #2: we are to do the active work of “abiding” in Jesus, and that means maintaining a clear connection to who he is and what he says.

Conclusion #3: IF we abide in Christ, God will accomplish great things THROUGH US 

In verse 12, Jesus says,

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

It’s not the first time Jesus has said this to his disciples–this is also the root of the “golden rule,” of course–but he does take another step here in explaining what he means by it. In the verses that follow, Jesus explains the “how” of his love for his disciples in two ways:

  1. He is about to lay down his life for them
  2. He “calls them friends”

The reason why explanation #1 communicates love is pretty obvious, but since it hadn’t happened yet for Jesus or the disciples, I have to imagine their attention was more focused on explanation #2: Jesus says he loves his disciples beacause he calls them friends. What does that mean?

In verse 15, he says,

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

Friendship, Jesus argues, is a matter of clearly communicating the will of his Father.

To help explain this, I want you to think about a garden hose. What would make for a “friendly” garden hose? Since that’s kind of a strange question, let me rephrase it this way: what would you want a garden hose to do, in order for you to see it as your “friend”? I’ll answer for myself: I want it to spray water. What can I say? I have low expectations for gardening equipment. But, actually, I’ll go one step farther with that: I want it to spray out all the water that goes into it. I hate to be picky, but I have good reasons for adding that caveat: growing up in that house my parents owned and doing all the yardwork all the time, I’ve had my share of garden hoses that were not very good friends to me: they were kinked, or leaky, or frozen, and they did not do what I needed them to do, which was to take all the water from one place, and then move all the water to another!

Friends, I think what Jesus is getting at here-what he’s getting at in this entire metaphor-is that, if we’re going to be real followers and real servants and real agents of God, we have to be good hoses. What we get from God on one side has to come out the other. This is what Jesus did: he says “all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” He was a good hose. A great hose.

But what about me? Do I pour out everything that God pours into me? Do I live as a “friend” to my neighbor? My spouse? My enemy? Or do I complain that God isn’t giving me “enough”-he’s not speaking to me, he’s not answering my prayers, he’s not moving where I’m begging him to move-in spite of the reality that I’m not giving one drop of that to anyone else? Can I really blame him? Am I really an instrument worth using? Am I really his friend

16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”

If we’re going to bear fruit, we have to be good branches, and that means 1) surrendering our desire to be the agent of change ourselves, 2) abiding in Christ, and 3) allowing God to work through us to effect change.

But how?

To return to our friend, Henry David Thoreau (you see? You knew this was always going to loop back around!) we have to start by severing our ties to the “bad vines” that we connect ourselves to–the vines that don’t have holy ends and goals in mind. In his essay, Thoreau tells us to  

“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”

But then we must take the extra step of fully investing ourselves-of abiding-in a good one. This is where Thoreau sees a path forward but, due to his own beliefs about faith, cannot wholly pursue it. Near the end of his essay, he writes this, about our way forward:

“They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humanity; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountainhead.”

Thoreau is no Christian, but he’s absolutely right in what it means here to be a “good branch”: it means “continu[ing our] pilgrimage” toward the “fountainhead” of our freedom.

For our part today, I want to encourage you to “abide” well by doing 4 things, seriously and even “religiously”: 

  1. Know God’s Word. If you’re going to fully invest yourself in being a vessel of God’s love and Truth in the world, you have to be consistently, faithfully, and even constantly in pursuit of his Words. This begins with the Bible. It begins with reading the Words you have been given daily, and meditating on them. There are real and practical ways to do this: you can download the YouVersion Bible app and follow daily or weekly plans; you can open the book at random and read the first page your finger falls on; you can even start with a readthrough of the book of John, which you’ve been discussing here at church for 8 weeks now. But it goes on from there, too. It continues into opportunities like this one, this morning, where you are listening to and participating in teaching on those Words, and it goes on in conversations, debates, and discussions with other Readers. God’s Words are a bottomless source of wisdom and Truth, and it is foolish to believe that you can ever have “enough” of them.
  2. Talk to God. Sometimes I think the word we use for talking to God-prayer-does as much harm as it does good. It makes the act seem mystical, and it doesn’t have to be: just talk to God in the same way you would talk to other people. Tell him what you’re thinking. Tell him what you’re feeling. Yell at him. Cry to him. And then, do something most of us routinely forget to do: listen. Allow him to speak to you, and when He does, talk to someone else about what he said. Be a good hose!
  3. Wait on Him to Use You. Don’t be overeager to do what you see as good-abide in him, and allow him to position you in places where you can do the good he intends for you to do. For many of us who have been Christians for a long time, this is really, really hard. It’s like when you know someone really well, and try to finish his or her sentences: we know the kinds of things God is into-caring for people, being extravagantly generous, speaking Truth-and we tend to build plans for ourselves for how we can do those things. But if the plans you make are not the plans He has, you are setting yourself up for pain, confusion, and disappointment.

8 years ago, I was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, and I was confident that I knew what God wanted me to do with my life: I was going to be the “great Christian college professor,” redeeming a world of atheistic despair one final exam question at a time. I had spent 4 years in graduate school earning a Master’s Degree and finishing my coursework for a doctorate, and I simply knew that when I graduated, God would put me right where he wanted me to work. And he did. But it wasn’t as a college professor. I finished my Ph.D. in 2010, and that spring and summer, I was rejected for more than 80 college professorship jobs. I had precisely 2 phone interviews. Now, sure, there were logical reasons for this: 2010 was an awful year on the job market for most everyone, and college professors had it especially tough. But when I successfully landed a teaching job at a private high school here in Maryland, I came into that job angry and sullen and frustrated with God, who, as I saw it, had wasted years of my time already and was planning to waste more. It took me 6 months at my school before I began to realize that God had placed real people, with real needs, right in front of me. Slowly, my heart began to thaw, and I began to hear God speaking to me again: he told me that my students needed to feel safe and loved; that their minds were ripe for shaping and sharpening; that their lives mattered, and frankly, that I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and get to work. Now, six years later, he’s led into a new job as a pastor-a job in which my fancy doctoral degree is completely irrelevant-and I promise you, I am not going to sit idly by and complain about how God’s plans are out of alignment with my own plans again. I’m going to get to work. And that leads me to the last action step this morning:

4. Pour Yourself Into the Work He Puts You To. If you’re listening to God, he’s going to tell you what he wants you to do. He’s a good boss. And here’s the best part: He has already called us to action. But too often, we compromise and concede and worry our way out of the work that’s right in front of us. We doubt our “reach,” as his branches. But the point this morning is that, when that happens, it happens because we’re looking the wrong way. It is God’s job to have the imagination necessary to see where He can put us–he is the “vinedresser,” according to John, and it is his job to see how far his branches can reach and how much fruit they can produce. Our job is focus on who Jesus is and to marvel as He empowers us to carry that action out.

In the days and weeks ahead, many of us will wonder what we can and should do for one another. We can sense the anxiety and stress of our historical moment, and we are justifiably unsure of what the year ahead will bring. This sermon is not a call to shirk outward-facing responsibilities at a moment of panic or crisis. Not at all. Instead, it’s a call to deliberately and intentionally invest yourself and your life in a God who cares more profoundly and loves more completely than you ever could. My argument today is this: if you are willing to wholly submit yourself to the leadership and authority represented by Jesus Christ, I believe and have seen in my own life that His words and His power will accomplish more than you would ever think possible. There is a fount of love and action available to us that has in the past and will again reach out to save and transform lives, redeem and prosper communities, and even topple kings from their thrones. There are no limits-no limits whatsoever-to what God can do to love and save His people, and you and I are the hands and feet of that love and that power-but if, and only if, we are surrendered to its source.

My question for you, Foundry, is this: are you a good branch? Stemming from that question, let me ask you, Where is your heart, and your investment? Are you producing fruit? Where is it? What is it? What would it or could it look like? Do you recognize it when you see it?

And would you like to see more of it? More love in your city, more transformation in your own lives, more growth in your faith, more confidence in your beliefs, more hope for next month and next year?

If so, then are you willing to stop striving under your own power and abide-with every bit of the same energy and passion?

In one of my very favorite lines from that Thoreau essay, he writes, in a moment of clear frustration with the people of his day,

“There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.”

He’s right: real change in this world takes more than a single ballot. But then again, in what vine are we placing our trust? How much more good-how much more safety, love, and hope-is the God of the universe working even now to create? What fruit is it in his very nature to produce? Now, of all times, how absolutely critical is it for us to pour all of ourselves into the work he is calling us to do?

Let’s pray.