Jesus’ final words on love and relationship, in John 15, describe the community he has planted and cultivated with his disciples and his hope for the community they will continue to be and become. He describes the first congregations of the faithful and every congregation since. We live together as an organism that has been planted for a purpose. We are a tangled mess of branches and shoots, sprawling out across the landscape. We are connected to one another, supported, supporting one another and need of cleansing now and then. Because of the vinegrower and then vinegrowers’ abiding love for us, we are capable of producing good fruit.
Which doesn’t make life in congregations easy all the time. Genuine relationships have ups and downs and give and take. We have to be vulnerable in relationships, which means that we can never completely protect ourselves from being hurt. Communities are made up of real people. Some are nice and easy to get along with, and some are not. And all of us can have a bad day or bad decade and are capable of acting like the idiot in the vineyard. Being in community means dealing with that, abiding with one another through that.
True community is a rare organism. In our day, there are lots of places for people to connect, but very few places where we abide with one another in loving and productive ways. We connect on social media. We have common interests. We work together. We may share a neighborhood or an agenda, but we aren’t building deep relationships which support people through life and death, grief and renewal. There aren’t many places where people can be cleansed of the dead weight of the crap that is dragging them down. There aren’t many communities that help people bear new and holy fruit. There aren’t many places that love people into transformation, that will change the words people offer every day and shape the final words they will say.
A congregation is such a place. It is such a place not because we are better people or holier people or because we just keep sticking around. It is a place of transformation because– through no power of our own – we abide in Jesus and in God’s love. When the individual strands of our lives are tangled together in messy, complicated relationships that are utterly dependent on Jesus, and at home in the love of God we become fruitful. We produce what we could never produce on our own. Together in Jesus, we have the grace to bear with each other through each day and each behavior. Abiding in God’s love, we have love that transforms one another’s hearts and minds. At home together in agape love, the legacy of our lives is shaped.
This is our identity as a congregation. We are those who hear the final words of Jesus and want our lives to abide in him, in his love and in his relationships. We don’t exactly know how to do it, and that’s ok. If we remain together, God does it through us. We stay connected to those who are filled with anger and hate because Jesus stays with us when we tell him who he should judge. We remain with those who tell us what we should have done, even if they are wrong, for the work of cleansing is God’s work. It turns out we are all being pruned, cleared, cleansed, and shaped. Wrapped together in the messiness of our branches and shoots and cleaned up by God, we are more productive, fruitier, more transformative than we would be any other way.