Sunday, May 02, 2021

Easter V

John 15

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful.3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

Any anxiety you feel about cleanliness likely comes from television.

Do you worry that your whites are not whiter than white? Your colours are not brighter than bright? Are your paper towels absorbent enough? Does your broom reach those hard-to-reach places? Do you need to dip your entire house in CLR? Does it even work?

Obviously, the Bible has a lot to say about being clean. But before I give you my one-minute overview, I want to dispel a popular myth. Nowhere in scripture does it say “cleanliness is next to godliness.” These words come from one of John Wesley’s sermons, given late in his life, and likely related to some sort of controversy around neatness and dress. In effect, he tells his followers that God condemns neither the sloppy nor the well-dressed, but in general, cleanliness is next to godliness. In other words, if you’ve been wearing track-pants for the last 400 days that’s okay, as long as they are clean.

So, what does the Bible say about being clean?

In Genesis, it’s animals for sacrifice, clean and unclean.

In Leviticus, it’s food, disease, and even the mould in your house.

In Numbers, it’s about ritual, and being ceremonially clean.

In the history books, it’s about being rewarded and restored.

In the wisdom books, it’s about a clean heart and clean hands.

In the prophets, it’s about cleansing the sin of Israel as a nation.

For Jesus, it’s about making lepers clean, and being clean on the inside (and not just on the outside).

And in Acts, and the letters of Paul, it’s about food, and declaring that nothing God has created can be named unclean.

I share all this because I’m interested in one of one of the most neglected lines in our passage about the vine and the branches. Jesus said, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” There amid all the talk of fruitfulness, and all the connections, and all the potential pruning, we get this simple declarative statement: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.”

Following my summary, Jesus is all about being clean on the inside, and not the countless ways people are considered clean on the outside. And I might go even a step further, to suggest that if we stumbled upon Jesus’ dog-eared Bible, there is one page (from Psalm 51) where the corner would decidedly be turned down: “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” the psalmist said, “and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

Do I have more evidence? Three other short verses, in fact. One that echoes Psalm 51, one that makes these heart-sayings a little more tangible, and one that belongs on a t-shirt:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5.8)

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12.34) 

For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Luke 6.45)

I told you it belongs in a t-shirt. Wear it to Mar-a-Lago, I dare you. (Okay, enough of that). But I think you see the progression here: Jesus blesses those rare ones among us who are pure in heart. Then he warns us about the treasure store we’re building up in life, and the extent to which it reflects the content of our hearts. And then a little brutal honesty, which Jesus only seems to resort to when the twelve were being particularly thick in the head.

And then he said “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” The scripture he shared, the hymns they sang, the Word he gave them—taken together these words made them clean. Attend a master class in cleanliness given by the Master himself, and you will graduate with an honours in having a clean heart. But then what?

In many ways, the “then what” is the sum of Christian living. We can align ourselves with the words, we can be cleansed by the words, we can even recite the words to others, but unless they remain within us, we’ll soon find treasure elsewhere. This is why the psalmist’s prayer is twofold: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” The most difficult part—the clean heart—has already been given, and given freely. This leaves us with the desire for steadfast spirit, something that God will also freely give.

The desire for purity is something that never goes away. Moralists on the right and activists on the left, everyone wants a particular kind of purity. Everyone is seeking a purer form of the treasure they store. But God seeks a pure heart, a heart made new through the grace of Jesus Christ, and a heart that desires constant renewal, renewal in love and mercy.

Brian Wren describes the way God found us, summed up with the simple words “forgiven, loved and free.” All the bright colours and better brooms cannot compare to the purity that God gives, the purity within us, and the purity within others, when we truly see. Amen.


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