Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life. Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life…
My great-grandmother was a wonderful person. I remember going to see her on the weekends, sitting in her tiny, little cottage. She seemed always to have a fire lit in the gas heater. Sometimes it could be hard to breathe, when it was 80 degrees outside! But I loved to visit with her, to listen to her stories…and to hear her laugh.
She died my freshman year in college, so I count myself fortunate to have had time with her for so long.
A year before she died, the entire family gathered at her house. Maybe a dozen could be inside, so the rest of us brought our lawn chairs and sat around eating snacks. She sat on the front porch and looked out at all her family.
Someone brought large pieces of paper and tacked them onto the outside wall of the house, covering a large amount of the wall itself. Then, someone came and drew a simple trunk with branches extending out: Mamaw and Papaw, their six children, their children….and so on. It was a large tree!
After they had drawn it, many folks came up and wrote their own name on the tree, in their proper place. We all stood there that day, all 129 of us as I remember, five generations of folks…looking at our family tree.
You know how it is with relatives: you can’t believe you’re related to some of them! But, on that day, we all could stand and see our tree, see how we were connected. I was Stuart, son of Marion and Luann, who is daughter of Annette and Jimmy, who is son of Allie and Jessie. I was a member of a family. I could see where I was rooted…
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said to those gathered that day. If you want to know where you belong, what your deepest identity is, where you are rooted, look to me.
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” If you want to know the deepest meaning and purpose for your life, look to me. It is only by living in me, and embodying me in your life, that you can be mindful of your vocation. And, we slip into that wonderful, mystical place of our identity as the Body of Christ.
We can imagine the Great Vine of Christ, stretching through centuries, and we can realize our place on this vine, in our own day and time.
If we think this is all a bit esoteric, we should reflect on our sacramental life, on our practice of faith. Our faith practice is filled with the embodiment of this image of interconnection and inter-abiding (to use Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful description).
Sacramentally, bishops ordain other bishops, and (so the understanding goes), the successive laying on of hands can be traced back to the apostles themselves. Each bishop takes her place on the great vine.
Bishops ordain priests and deacons, so our ordinations, with the laying on of hands, can be traced back to the earliest days as well. We take our place on the great vine.
Bishops and priests baptize, pouring the waters of life on all those brought into the Body of Christ, the Great Vine of Christ, within the Communion of Faith that we all share.
And bishops confirm, laying hands on each of us, as we physically feel our connection to the Great Vine, as it were, realizing our identity in the Communion of Saints, the Body of Christ.
We are sacramental people, and we realize how important this physical, incarnational understanding is. We realize that we live out the image of “I am the vine, you are the branches” each day of our lives.
We take our place in the Body of Christ, (as our Baptismal rite says in the Book of Common Prayer), and we “grow into the full stature of Christ.” (BCP302).
I love this image of the vine, and I love meditating on it…because it’s just as challenging as it is comforting.
We shouldn’t imagine the Christian life as being an easy walk in the vineyard.
I remember being in France, visiting the Taize’ community and taking off with my friend Meg one afternoon to walk through the countryside of Burgundy. We were near the ancient ruins of the great monastery at Cluny, and we saw fields everywhere, vines… And I thought about how wonderful it would be to live here, to live in these vineyards and see the sheep. But, I remembered I was there in April and not in picking season. I realized I had a very romanticized image of vineyards, one that didn’t see the bent backs, the gnarled hands, the sweaty brows of folks walking the rows harvesting the fruit of the vine, helping bring me my favorite wine.
“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
I have to say this portion of the image makes me cringe just a bit. I don’t want to be pruned, much less to be removed! I’m all good with the more romanticized notion of vineyards, with the mystical, contemplative reflection on all of us taking our place on the Great Vine of Christ. But, does Jesus have to go there? Do we have to talk about pruning and removing branches? What if one of them is me? What if I’m not bearing enough fruit, and this means that I’m going to be, what, snipped off?!
Here’s a joke I made up last week: what did the farmer say to the old, shriveled plum before he cut it off the tree? You’ve been pruned!
So, we see both the deeply contemplative and the deeply challenging within this text—which we realize the deeply contemplative always leads to a challenge in our lives, a reorientation!
What if….what if we struggle with this text because our world has, somehow, skewed the deeper meaning of what Christian discipleship is all about?
What if we have it backwards?
What if we have come to believe that being a Christian, being a follower of Christ, in the world today, is about receiving the fruit rather than bearing the fruit?
I think about the young man at the grocery store who helped me take my groceries out. He saw my collar and asked if I was a minister. When I said yes, his first question to me was “When were you saved?” Which is a common question and one that I deeply resonate with in my own life—and one that I don’t dismiss. But, it does make me wonder, when I meditate on texts like this one that the “point” as it were is NOT just to be on the vine, to be joined to the vine, but to live into our baptismal covenant and bear fruit in the world.
This may be challenging to say out loud (I don’t think so really, if we’re honest), but the “purpose” of our faith, of our life in Christ is not to go to heaven. It’s not to be saved. It’s not to just be redeemed ourselves. It cannot be about us… It cannot be focused solely on us, as this text reminds us, because we must bear fruit in the world.
The purpose of our faith is to “abide in Christ,” to become mindful, aware of our deepest identity in Our Lord, to realize the significance of our union with him in Holy Baptism, to draw strength and nourishment from his Body and Blood in Holy Communion. To dwell with him…to abide with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit…
And in so doing, in so BEING, we embody Christ in the world around us, wherever we go. We bear witness to the presence of hope and peace as we bear the fruit of compassion to those in need.
And this, we see, makes God happy…pleased… As Jesus says, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Easter 5, Year B
St. John 15:1-8
May 3, 2015