Sermon by the Rev. Westley Conn, Ministry Fellow, Memorial Church, May 9, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
By Westley Conn
Ministry Fellow, Memorial Church of Harvard University
Will you pray with me? Lord, let the words of my mouth, and the thoughts and meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing to you, oh God. Our rock and our redeemer. Amen. Our gospel reading for today picks up right where we left off last Sunday when we heard Jesus proclaim that he is the true vine, we are its branches, and God the vine grower.
Verses nine through 17 of John's gospel, the passage Kayla Manning read so wonderfully, tell us what is supposed to happen with the vine grower, the vine, and its tangle of branches. What is to come from this heavenly vineyard has to do with fruit.
And not just any fruit, but fruit of the highest quality. Or as Jesus said, "Fruit that will last." Our reading from John is a part of what is called Jesus's farewell discourse. His final teachings before he departed from this world.
We at the Memorial Church are experiencing our own departures. After two years of extraordinary leadership and faithful ministry professor Paulsell is concluding her role as Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. And after seven years with you, I will be ending my time as ministry fellow in the Memorial Church.
Departures stir within us a myriad of feelings. Everything ranging from sadness to confusion, and sometimes even anger. In the passage from John, there's even another sentiment that's experienced with Jesus's departure, which is an unnoticed joy.
In verse 11 Jesus holds together the feelings of sorrow at separation with the joy that is to come. Beginnings and endings muddled together. Time becomes layered and intertwined. This is also true for us at the Memorial Church.
We hold the pain of parting, yet we still sit with joy at the announcement of our long awaited Pusey Minister. And what a joyful occasion it is to receive the announcement of professor Matthew Ichihashi Potts as Plummer Professor of Christian morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.
Professor Potts is a familiar face around this church, and no stranger to our pulpit. Both the literal one and our virtual pandemic pulpit. These aren't the usual ways in which we are accustomed to welcoming a new minister and bidding farewell to beloved ministers.
As our rituals of expressing faith and friendship continue to be limited by the pandemic we trust that with Jesus, this time of coming and going will be nothing short of an act of love.
This morning we are very much a mesh of branches hanging onto the true vine, emotions tangled in a farewell discourse of our own. In his concluding remarks Jesus said that his disciples were his friends, and that he appointed them to go and bear fruit. Fruit that will last.
With these words Jesus taught his followers how to live and how they are to believe. And he is teaching us what it means to follow him. In this passage John has Jesus call his disciples friends. He stressed that they are not servants, but are instead friends. Friendship is a common motif for the gospel of John.
The word friend used here is the Greek word filos, which is from the verb fileo. Meaning to love. From this we can see that Jesus is getting beyond the sentimentality of comfortable friendships. Jesus is saying that his friends are those who are loved.
Noted scholar of the gospel of John, the late Gail O'Day, emphasized, "That friendship is a socially embedded phenomenon. Particular to time and culture." In her scholarship O'Day examined the notion of friendship in Greek and Roman antiquity during the late first century when John's gospel was written.
She concluded that there are two primary virtues of friendship during this time. One is sacrifice. To put another's life before one's own. And the other, frank speech. To be open and honest. For the fourth evangelist Jesus is the ultimate model of friendship.
And not just any kind of friendship, a friendship with backbone. Jesus is the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep, "I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father." Jesus said to his disciples.
Jesus withheld nothing. He shared all that he knew with the disciples. His friends. And he is the good shepherd. Having put the lives of others before his own. Being a friend of Jesus gets us a little closer to what it means then to bear lasting fruit.
As friends of Jesus we are those who are loved by Jesus. And to be a friend of Jesus, one must love like Jesus. This is no doubt a tall order. We know that even the 12, Jesus's earliest friends, struggled to be loved by Jesus, and to love like Jesus.
The narrative of holy week, which is fresh in our memory, is complete with accounts of denial and betrayal. The only true friend in it all is Jesus, loving to the end. Perhaps then, this whole friendship thing is something we must grow into and practice.
It's clear that simply giving the title of friend to his disciples didn't immediately bestow upon them the virtues of true friendship. To be a friend of Jesus, to be a branch of the true vine takes pruning, tilling and nourishing.
Like the vine and its branches, Jesus's friends are woven together in a relationship with one another and God. And it is then that they, that we can bear fruit. To bear fruit is to act in love. Our epistle lesson, which Louisa Rossano read for us, tells us this in the third verse, "To love God, is to follow the commandment to love." We read.
When we prioritize the needs of those around us we produce a fruit that lasts. To bear lasting fruit is to love one another like Jesus, so as to yield love itself. Love is durable, it's the long lasting fruit.
The apostle Paul, another friend of Jesus, had something to say about this lasting fruit, about love in his familiar letter to the Corinthians. In the first part of that letter Paul described love as patient and kind. He said, "Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Love is not self seeking, it is not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love never fails."
This is the fruit that lasts. To be a friend, a follower of Jesus, means to be a church where members, branches are known for the acts of love they do together. No branch has a pride of place. All branches stem from the vine, from Christ.
Yielding lasting fruit, bearing love is a corporate act. Being a friend of Jesus is a communal activity. Fruit that lasts requires the tangle of branches, the true vine, and the vine grower. Bearing long lasting fruit is not about our individual accomplishments, or our personal choices. It is about a vine and its branches together acting in love.
This final teaching of Christ is important for us, the Memorial Church to hear. As professor Paulsell and I depart, and as professor Potts begins his ministry we must remember that church has to do with communal acts of love.
The Memorial Church is not a community that is about professor Paulsell or professor Potts, nor is it about me. The Memorial Church is not about the accomplishments or accolades of its ministers. But rather a community of friends, of branches stemming from the abiding presence of Christ, and the collective acts of love.
I however think that you already know this. It's clear that the Memorial Church is grounded and shaped by the love of Jesus. A branch bearing lasting fruit, if you are unsure of this ask Kath Courtemanche. Senior UChoir secretary, who wrote about it for our daily email.
When writing about her experience at our compline services she said, "After a long day I can lean my head back against the pew, close my eyes, and feel the tension melt from my forehead, eyes, shoulders, thighs, toes." Truly this is a lasting fruit. A collective act of love. Your fruits don't stop there. The Memorial Church has a reputation at the Phillips Brooks House Association. And it's not just any reputation.
After helping to collect over 400 toys for the annual Phillips Brooks House Association toy drive at Christmas you've let organizers know that bins, not boxes, are needed to gather up your collective acts of love.
If this isn't convincing enough of your friendship with Jesus, let my speaking before you this morning be another piece of evidence. When I arrived at MemChurch in 2014 I didn't even know where I was. You can ask reverend Sullivan about this. Let alone how to preach or lead a congregation.
You invited me to direct your church school. Entrusting me with the spiritual development of your most important members. After ensuring your children had no fewer than 800 candy filled Eater eggs to hunt, you asked me to be on of your ministers.
Your collective, and I might add patient acts of love formed me into the minister I am today. The quality of your acts of love are a testament to your friendship with Christ. A friendship that today knits together comings and goings. Joys and sorrows.
Because of this friendship Jesus has appointed you to go and bear fruit. Fruit that will last. I know you can do this, for I have seen you do it. I'm proof of it. I suspect you know this too, as Jesus, being a good friend has made known to you everything that he has heard from God.
God is the vine grower, Jesus is the true vine, and you are its branches. Branches who have a reputation for their collective acts of love. You are befriended by Jesus for a purpose. To bear lasting fruit. And any branch can do that, if it remains with Jesus. Amen.