Topic: Biblical Verse: John 15:1–15:8
Fifth Sunday of Easter / Confirmation Sunday
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
John 15:1-8; 1 John 4:1-11
It all falls apart. And that’s not a spoiler!
This weekend welcomes the stateside opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the eagerly anticipated sequel to the wildly successful 2012 Marvel Super Hero team-up movie. The first Avengers grossed over $1.5 billion dollars worldwide, so the expectations for this next movie in the franchise are very, very high. Everything in the other Marvel movies over the past few years has been leading up to this point. There’s a lot on the line, for a lot of people.
So what does a blockbuster movie featuring a dozen super heroes have in common with real life, especially when you look at the bigger picture of what’s been going on in the world around us? It all falls apart.
The world is falling apart. There’s no denying that. And who would deny it? News reports and social media have been filled with stories that highlight the nature of the imperfection in which we live. The lives of people in Nepal were rocked by a massive earthquake, sixteen times more powerful than the one that devastated Haiti in 2010. Even now, relief workers are doing what they can to deliver basic supplies like food and water, and remote mountain villages are completely cut off following landslides. Even the solid mountains moved like quicksilver. Thousands of people have died and thousands more remain missing.
A different kind of chaos rocked Baltimore this week, where riots and looting broke out in a community that had already known suffering and loss. Freddie Gray’s family mourns his death following an injury sustained while in custody. Store owners and workers lost their livelihood as their shops were pillaged or burned. In a nation that has been set on edge with highly-charged incidents of police violence, it might seem like we can only watch and see what might come next.
But the world isn’t just falling apart out there, is it? There’s not much point in caring about the world-at-large when the world as you know it gets shaken around and disassembled and the picture of your life begins to get cloudy and black. What do you do when your health starts to fail you and you face illness or injury, time and again? How can you go from day to day when it seems like your life is missing love and your relationships are strained near to breaking? Where’s a super hero – or a team of super heroes – when you need one?
No spoilers here, but in Age of Ultron you’ll see what the Avengers have to deal with when it all falls apart. If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you already know that Tony Stark’s plan to protect the world from threats foreign and domestic – or intergalactic – doesn’t turn out as he’d hoped. Wanting to put a “suit of armor” around the world, he and Bruce Banner unwittingly create one of the Avengers greatest enemies, the artificial intelligence known as Ultron. The newly-conscious Ultron quickly determines how to bring peace to our falling-apart world: wipe out the human race. One of his first moves towards that end is removing the Avengers from the equation. Ultron, with the aid of a couple of other new characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, takes steps to make the heroes doubt themselves and each other. How will they fix the damage that’s been done?
How do you fix a world that is falling apart? It’s a theme that runs through Age of Ultron. Tony Stark’s approach is to do it himself. That’s how he usually does it. That’s how the world around us tells someone to fix things. When it all falls apart, you’ll hear, you need to get yourself together. Take care of yourself, because no one else is going to. Especially here in America, a person is held to be the captain of their own life. Have faith in yourself and focus on your own needs. Faith in God? Why? If God exists, didn’t He let it all fall apart on you in the first place?
The world is going to point you away from Jesus. There are a lot of false prophets out there who says to ignore Christ and put your faith in man, in yourself. On the surface, the arguments you hear might sound like they make sense. After all, there are lots of people in the world who don’t follow Jesus, and they seem to be getting along just fine, maybe even better than faithful Christians. But life away from Jesus, life away from a relationship with God through Christ, is a pretty shaky thing. When it all falls apart – and you know it does – there’s nothing lasting that you can cling to, especially if you’ve been depending on your own strength. Despite all your work, despite all your efforts, despite your hawk-eyed vision for the future, everything that only comes from yourself will come to naught, or worse. In that respect, Ultron has got humanity dead to rights: we are the problem.
You and I are here today because God’s love continues to be at work in and for our fallen-apart world. Jesus delivers that love for each of us, bring us together into a restored relationship with God. You sin and my sin can no longer hulk over us; we are forgiven in Christ. It’s in that relationship that we have a foundation more solid than iron. It’s solid precisely because it’s not based on you or your work to fix what’s falling apart, but on God’s. The foundation of our faith is Jesus’ cross and his empty tomb, the proof of God’s love for us. Even though our sins were like scarlet, God sees us clean as pure snow, washing us in the water of Baptism and claiming us as His own.
As our congregation celebrates the Rite of Confirmation for nine of our young people this weekend, consider that it points back to Baptism. If you’ve been baptized, like the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8, God has adopted you as His child. That’s something that will never change. As God’s children, we’re called to follow Jesus, our brother. As Jesus puts it in our Gospel text today, he is the vine, and you and I are the branches. He’s our foundation. He’s the one who brings us all together and assembles us together.
Remember your foundation in Christ, especially as you’re encouraged to ignore your faith or walk away from it. I’ve seen families move off from our life together, neglecting their relationship with God in Jesus after their children have gone through Confirmation. They put their focus elsewhere. But what happens to branches that leave the vine? They dry up and wither. They have no foundation when it all falls apart. So abide in Jesus. Stay in him. Our confirmands have repeatedly heard us tell them, “Confirmation is not graduation.” It’s not an ending. It’s a milestone in the journey of Christian live. Continue to receive what Jesus gives in his word and holy gifts each week as we come together as those who follow Christ in worship. Seek out God’s word, not just here in worship services but by engaging with it in the Bible during the week. Together, we continue to live as branches of the vine.
Jesus, the vine, gives you everything that you need to live. But as branches of Christ, living isn’t just simply existing: living branches bear fruit. In Christ, you live to make a difference in a falling-apart world. In His love for you and me, God sent His Son to lay down his life for us. God is love, eternally giving from Himself to us in our need. Fed by that love, then, you and I are called and empowered to love others, who are just as in need of God’s love and compassion as we are.
Even though you are not the mighty Thor, you’re still mighty in Christ as a baptized child of God. Christians are providing aid to people in Nepal – aid like monetary gifts, relief kits, and on-the-ground medical assistance – to the widow, to the orphan, and to the injured, regardless of whether or not those receiving that aid are Christians. Members of congregations in Baltimore have been working to clean up and repair businesses that were looted or otherwise damaged this past week. Baptized Christians who are police officers, firefighters, paramedics, doctors, or nurses are living out those vocations around the world as agents of God’s love when things falls apart.
Abiding in Jesus, the vine, God’s people continue in a daily relationship with Him in trust, prayer, and obedience. You and I can’t keep His commandments or love one another, apart from Jesus. But whatever the world may throw at you as it all falls apart, be it earthquakes or riots or hostile artificial intelligences plotting to destroy the world as we know it, you can have hope. He who is in you, is greater than he who is in the world.
The world may try to take you apart, but it’s Jesus who will bring you – and keep you – together.
And that’s definitely not a spoiler.