Easter 5B Sermon (2024)

5th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 15:1-8;
1 John 4:7-21; Acts 8:26-40

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 23:40): https://fb.watch/rKsSZsdL3-/


Our Gospel Reading this morning uses the nature of vines and branches as a metaphor for people and how we relate to one another, and to God. How we’re connected. Last week, it was the sheep and shepherd with comforting messages like Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me.” This week, it is the vine and the branches: “Abide in me as I abide in you. . . . If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Abiding in God produces and bears fruit.

But there’s also aspects of this metaphor which might make us uncomfortable. What’s that part about God pruning us in verse 2? What’s it mean to be pruned? And verse 6 is downright ominous: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Thrown into the fire and burned! By strange coincidence on the way here this morning, I was driving behind a pickup truck with brown, dried-out evergreen branches piled up in the back. They’d be great from starting a bonfire! Branches thrown on the fire. What does that make you think of?

If you’re like me, the image of hell fires aren’t very far from my imagination when I hear a verse like this. Namely, that Jesus might be referring to the notion of eternal damnation in the fires of hell. It comes to mind for me even though I didn’t grow up in a church where the common notion of hell was discussed much. Love and grace were definitely emphasized far more. You might say that I was fortunate enough in my young church life to have been connected to the vine of a loving God. It has certainly made it easier for me in my adult life to hear the basic changes in reading the Bible to let go of these kinds of images and readings connected to hell.

So isn’t it curious that hell fires still so easily come to mind when I read verse 6 in today’s Gospel Reading? I think this is because the notions of heaven and hell that were standard in the Christianity of a hundred years ago are still so strong in our culture. Images of the devil, wearing red, and welcoming people to the fires of hell down below are still quite common in our culture. Right?

Here’s the thing: these images are still very strong in much of the Christian church, where people insist on the doctrine of hell as a pillar principle of the faith. Do you remember the stir caused by Rob Bell’s book Love Wins about fifteen years ago? As pastor in an evangelical mega-church, he dared to question the reigning views of hell. He left the church, and being pastor at all anymore, within a couple years of the controversy that book stirred up. I remember studying that book at the church I was in at the time, and it led to me questioning in a sermon the existence of hell as a place of God’s eternal damnation. That same week a dear woman of that congregation came into to see me in my office. She had grown up as a Baptist and simply couldn’t think of her Christian faith without that common picture of hell. She told me, in fact, that she had cried during my sermon, looking around at all those who might be persuaded by my views on hell — weeping for them because she was convinced that they would be going to hell if they believed that there wasn’t any hell. Yes, some people seem to really need to believe in the hell, in order to believe in the Christian faith at all.

Recognizing that that’s the case, I think it’s so important to read them differently. The opposite really. I’d like to suggest that the metaphor of being pruned is precisely our need to prune our notions of God from all such violent notions of sending people to the hell fires of eternal damnation. God is love and we need to prune ourselves of any thoughts which are otherwise. Snip them right out! Prune them away! So that we might bear fruit.

Why? Because when we do so, we can see a better reading of verse 6. If we see the pruning in verse 2 as pruning out all our violent notions of God, so that we can be connected to the God of love, then we see what verse 6 is truly about. It’s not about God sending anyone to hell, throwing them into the fires. No, it’s about the consequences of not remaining connected to the God of love. When we do allow such violent images of God, then it becomes so much easier to justify our own violence. We can say, ‘God does it! We’re just an extension of what God wants to happen.’ And it becomes much easier for us to be manipulated by people who call us to violence against others.

Let me briefly bring in Christian Nationalism at this point. I will wager that believing in a God who eternally damns others to hell is 100% a centerpiece of their theology. A violent God in heaven makes it so much easier for them to believe in political violence here on earth to use against one’s enemies. In this case the metaphor is that when you are connected to a God who commands violence against one’s enemies, then it’s natural to read verse 6 as us, by God’s righteous command, throwing our enemies into the fires of our political violence. Do you see?

But if we read this passage as being connected to a God of love and pruning ourselves of all violent images of God, then we read verse 6 quite differently. If we fail to abide in God’s love, then we become dry tinder for the aspirations of people calling for political violence. We get manipulated into taking part in such violence. We are thrown into the fires of such violence. Verse 6, in short, is about the consequences of failing to stay connected to the God of love. We become easy prey for those people who call others to take up arms against their fellow human beings. We are thrown into the midst of the next round of fiery human destruction against one another.

So Jesus is pleading with us to be pruned of all the images of God which justify our own violence. Stay connected to the God love! It could not be anymore clear than when reading from both the Gospel of John and the Letter of John as we’re doing this Easter season. Our Second Reading tells us that God is love! Period. Full Stop. It’s all about love. Love wins! Next week, we’ll read on John 15 and Jesus will fully connect the dots once again that it’s all about love. What does it mean for us to stay connected to the vine? It means abiding in love. There’s only one commandment from Jesus, and it has nothing to do with violence against one’s enemies. The one commandment is to love one another as Jesus has loved us. How did Jesus love us? By laying down his life for us, even when we did not yet understand. Even when we were still failing to prune our connectedness with God of all violence. As St. Paul says it, God continued to love us even while we were still enemies. If God is our model, if God is the vine we want to stay connected to, then it’s never about torching our enemies with our violence, it’s about loving even our enemies.

OK, so I think we have a correct reading of the parts about being pruned of violence, or being susceptible to being thrown into the next round of it. But we need to spend a couple minutes thinking about the more positive image of staying connected like a vine and its branches. In this age of electronic media, we aren’t just connected, we’re plugged in. And we my not know what we’re being plugged into. What are learning about Facebook and other social media, for example. They market themselves as a positive way to stay connected with family and friends, right? And if we’re careful and smart about it, that can be our main experience with them. We stay connected. Facebook has sure been a good way to stay connected at Bethania through the COVID nightmare, right? But we’re learning that when we use these social media, we also plugged into things we’re not aware of. We get plugged into their algorithms that actually steer us toward the negative rather than the positive. We get plugged into and steered more toward posts which create controversy and carry the negative emotions around slander and fear and hate. We get plugged into bad actors who may even be robotic, “bots,” and who present themselves as friends while trying to pull us into harmful conspiracy theories aimed at conflict and violence.

So if we want to stay connected to a God of love in today’s electronic age, we also have to monitor what we’re being plugged into. When we consume social media, the Internet, and cable TV news, are they connecting us with a power of love that even reaches out to enemies? Or are they withering us with a steady diet of fear, lies, and hatred toward an enemy? If it’s the latter, can you see how many people are becoming tinder for the next round of political violence?

Brothers and sisters, let’s make sure that we’re unplugging ourselves from those negative media that pull us into the fires of violence. Let’s make sure we stay connected in Jesus Christ to a steady diet of a loving, gracious God who calls us to do the creative work of love, to bear that fruit, rather than the destructive work of conspiracy theories and political violence. More on that positive work of love next week. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, April 28, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 23:40): https://fb.watch/rKsSZsdL3-/

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