Summary: A sermon for Remembrance Sunday (UK); Veteran’s Day (US)
John 15:1-15 We Remember Them
The verses we’ve heard from John’s Gospel this morning are part of what we know as the ‘Farewell’ discourse of Jesus, as he speaks to the closest of his friends about his impending departure from them. Jesus, as he speaks to his friends, seeks to offer them comfort and encouragement to prepare them for the traumatic event that is to come, when he will be taken from them by their enemies, tortured, scorned, scarred and killed. And yet, in the midst of all this harrowing news and the anxiety of his disciples, Jesus speaks of LOVE. The over-riding, all-embracing, power of LOVE.
I find these words of Jesus, as they are remembered by John, at once comforting AND deeply disturbing. They seem to have the capacity to speak into any time and situation, and their message is a particularly poignant one for today – Remembrance Sunday. Let’s look at these words of Jesus and the images he uses, to see what they have to say to us, this Remembrance Sunday.
The verses open with a picture of God as a vine-grower. A vine-grower who is ever-vigilant and sharp-sighted, continually looking for all the branches of the vine that bear no fruit, which he effectively cuts away. These branches only sap the plant of energy which could be used by those branches that show signs of bearing a crop. Yet, the disturbing thing is, that even the branches that do bear fruit, he prunes back so that even more fruit may come in the future.
I don’t know if you have ever seen a vineyard. In my travels in the Burgundy region of France (famous for its wines) I have seen vineyards where the vines have been cut right back to the ‘trunk’. They look like dead pieces of driftwood sticking out of the dry earth, from which it seems impossible that anything green and fruitful can ever grow again.
Yet, from the words of Jesus we understand that, no matter how harsh and remorseless the pruning of the vine might be, and no matter how impossible it might appear that anything might grow from the dead-looking stumps that remain, the vine is alive and full of potential, since it is firmly rooted in the warm earth. It simply rests, and is not dead. The vine represents Christ Jesus, and the branches represent all people who have welcomed the Word of God in faith. And the highest, ultimate expression of that faith in Christ Jesus, is LOVE. A life of faith that has apparently been sacrificed for the sake of love, and which appears to be dead.
This image of the vine, and Jesus’ words about the highest expression of love, bear striking similarity to the sentiments expressed on behalf of those who lost their lives in conflict and war – particularly as they are remembered on this, the Sunday (closest to / of) the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when (in the UK) we remember our war-dead. The picture of those heavily pruned vines, the old gnarled stumps of wood, sticking out of desolate fields, are potent reminders of the stark, desolate landscapes that were the battle-fields where so many died – and where so many continue to die today. In their highest expression of love (duty) for friends, family, security and country, they laid down their lives. And for this, we remember them.
The wider context of these words of Jesus, as they speak to us this Remembrance Sunday, is significant too. Remember, Jesus speaks to his friends to prepare them for the trauma of separation. The trauma of death and bereavement. As Jesus tells them he is going to confront the darker face of humanity, so the disciples anticipate the sorrow, the pain, of losing a loved-one, in the most brutal of circumstances. Jesus faces a death that will test the faith, and the love, and the strength, of his closest companions: a trauma from which they will never fully recover.
For those who went to serve in the armed services in conflict, and for those that waited for them at home, death, sorrow and bereavement was New Testament such a certainty. Always there was HOPE: hope of a return home to be re-united with loved-ones; a return to better times and a better world. Yet many, many did die, and many more suffered the greatest depths of grief which tested them to the limits of their endurance – their faith, their capacity to love. They – some of you present here today – suffered – and continue to suffer – as the disciples shared in their pain of separation for the loss of a loved-one. One who could never be replaced. Those who we remember today.
We REMEMBER today, this Remembrance Sunday.