Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter, Sunday, May 3 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 8:26-40; Ps 22:24-30; 1 Jn 4:7-21; Jn 15:1-8
The image of the vine from today’s Gospel is a very rich and complicated one, and it’s one which I really only came to understand after I started growing and tending vine plants in my own yard. Because to get what’s being talked about here, you need to have a clear picture in your mind of what vines are like, how they grow, and how a gardener sustains their growth. Misreadings of this passage may have less to do with, say, problems of translation or issues of theology, and more to do with a lack of direct experience with vines.
First of all, and some of you of course will know this, if you look at a vine plant that’s been established for a few years, you’re not actually going to be able to find one clear central vine, or just one place where the plant is rooted. It’s not like a tree; there is no trunk. You’re not even going to be able to separate one distinct branch from another. It’s a tightly interlocked structure that stretches out in all directions; it puts down roots wherever it’s in contact with the ground and establishes new centres from there; it wraps around itself into an intricate, tough, interdependent and nearly indestructible matrix. There are older, harder, dryer branches, and new green pliable ones, but they’re all tangled up together, and there is no single point of origin which can be identified, separated from the whole of the thing.
And I think this is connects very closely to what the Gospel writer, and the writer of the Epistle, want to say about human life. We are this twisted and bonded matrix, all of us together. We are impossibly and intimately involved in a network of relationship, all twisted together with those who love us and those who hate us, and we never exist alone, never breath for a moment apart from that tangle of humanity. We are born connected by a cord of flesh to another person, and for the first few moments of our lives we share a single bloodstream; and it is never, really, different from that. We are always tied. We wrap around each other as we grow.
And that central core, the central branch which Christ identifies with himself; maybe we can’t really see it separate and in itself. Maybe it is, as far as our own perceptions and understandings can go, more or less indistinguishable from the great rush and tangle of subsidiary branches. Our relationship with God is as intimate and as mysterious as that. It is a living connection as real as the blood and sinew of an umbilical cord, we are entangled with God as one vine is with another, we share in that being; and yet it is so intimate it becomes, in a sense, invisible. And it is all of those branches that, for us in this world, make up the vine. Our own selves, and the selves of all those around us, exist so entirely and so deeply within God that we cannot see God; we can only see those lives around us, rooting us, tangling us in. This is, in fact, exactly what the writer of the epistle today is trying to say. The intimacy of God, what his community called “abiding in” God, exists for us only in the way we share our lives with other people.
Part of today’s epistle, of course, is the passage we’ve used on the plaque for our Panhandler Jesus—you can go outside and read it. And the longer I live and the more I read it, the more important this epistle becomes for me. It is profoundly, powerfully true. It may be easy enough to love an idea of God. But what we have now, what we are given as our way to love and to live within the truth of God, are the hard intractable facts of the world, and most of all the intractable facts of other people, people who will in no way conform to our desires for them, our ideas of what life in a community of other human beings ought to be like. We love God only in loving these realities into which we are thrown, these impossible human realities who are our brothers and sisters, needy, distinct, difficult, particular. Those whom we must love with God’s own passionate fearless love, however much it hurts.
And this is where we get to another aspect of the meaning of the vine. The vine metaphor is very common throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and it’s almost always associated with the idea of judgement, with the unfruitful branches being cut away; in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he adds onto this the idea of new branches being grafted onto the older ones. But the idea of pruning as cutting away those branches that don’t bear fruit is always prominent. But it seems like, somewhere in the telling or the editing of this passage in John, somebody—Jesus, John, an editor, who knows — paused for a minute and said, “But hang on. That’s not how you actually grow grapes.” When you’re a grape-grower, when you actually have the living twisted whole of that vine in your care, you spend a great deal of energy, at certain times of the year, not only cutting off branches that don’t bear fruit, but cutting back very hard at perfectly good and viable branches. Because that is what you need to do in order for a vine to thrive; you need to prune hard. Sometimes you prune almost right down to the ground, and you are cutting away lots of living vines while you do it, perfectly good vines really. And grape growers will tell you that the vines weep when they’re cut; that’s how they talk about it—the vines weeping as the pruning goes on.
And that changes the whole nature of that part of the metaphor. It’s no longer a simple dualistic image of the bad people, or the people who aren’t performing to standard, or whatever, being cut off and thrown into some kind of punishing fire or cosmic garbage dump. It’s about a process that happens to us, within us, in our lives together, a pruning that must be happen over and over, one which is not easy, but upon which the health of the vine depends. The facts of this world cut us and prune us, day after day, and we too must weep sometimes at the loss.
We must weep sometimes like the vines weep, because our lives fall short of what we wish they could be, because it is hard to live with other people, real and difficult as they are. Because our communities fail us and we fail others, because good things are destroyed, because we and the people we care for are subject to limits and age and illness, and eventually we are all cut down in death. Or just because it is hard to live in this world, because there is much that we must give up or never have, too many things we wish for and will never see. The world can feel sometimes like nothing but one long training in loss and renunciation, and even in joy we can’t quite escape that sense.
But the complicated life of the vine grows from that pruning. The individual branch that is cut may sprout new growth and new fruit. Or it may not. But the vine, the entangled organism, the matrix of our shared lives, somehow this grows back new. There is life in the vine that surges past the cutting. They are tough plants, vines. They seem to need a lot of special handling, but they can be so tough that you can cut them and even burn them right back to the ground, back to the point where the dirt is all you can see, and somehow they turn up again, out of some little bit of root buried somewhere, invisible.
And out of all that loss in this world, and all the ways that we fail in our common life, perhaps this something more can grow: the careful humility that can see other people as themselves, not as projections of our desire. The understanding of our limits, and the need simply to be gentle. The ability to admit that we know very little—that we know nothing, really—that we have no answers in the end; and to keep trying, nonetheless, to live out our small actions of love and justice. To love our sister or brother whom we can see, to love without fear, and to keep trying to see that person truly, to ask “what do you suffer?” and “what do you need?” and really listen to the answers. And we can do this because—and only because—we have been loved first, extravagantly, invisibly loved, with the love that makes us lovely and enables us to love others, that runs through the branches of the vine and sustains them.
It is this vine we are reminded of, when we come forward as we will soon, and receive the wine, the crushed fruit, the blood of the one who was buried in the earth and rose out of it again. It is the vine of all our tangled and cut and weeping lives, our helpless involvement with one another and our foolish amazing hopes. It is the vine, finally, of the God who is cut down with each of us, and who we believe brings us with us when he rises, tied to us by love as tough as flesh, as tough as vine.