“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”
At Clevedale, there’s an old wisteria vine that every Spring around this time bursts with new life; its stems twining clockwise, counterclockwise, climbing, encircling, embracing the trellis, the beginnings and endings of its branches indistinguishable, yet each, growing from the center, connected and part of the one vine.
What a natural image of the divine design of Christian community!
Last Sunday, listening to Jesus, our good shepherd, we focused on being in community, truly, being community.(1) Now, we continue our Eastertide exploration of the meaning of the resurrection…
For, as I’ve said many times, the central belief of the Christian faith, “Christ is risen!”, without which there is no Christianity, is too grand and great a proclamation to be confined to the testimony of but one Sunday of the year, Easter Day. Thus, again, I say, in Eastertide, these fifty days between Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost, we have an opportunity to plumb the depths of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.
Today, we hear Jesus, as the true vine, describing his community. Jesus once asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”(2) So, in saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” in effect, Jesus answers his own questions: Who do I say you are? What is the nature of my church born from my life and ministry, death and resurrection?
Of infinite characteristics (for, as we’re talking about Jesus, who, as God, is infinite, I could talk all day and not exhaust the possibilities!), I offer only three. Each reflecting what was, is, and alway will be the counter-cultural character of Jesus’ church, which, yes, is in the world, yet not of the world.
Mutuality. The church, as branches of the vine, Jesus, is one body of fruit-bearing folk; like wisteria, interconnected, encircling, embracing one another.
This mutual interdependence, one-with-all and all-with-one and common dependence on One, Jesus, confronts, contradicts our post-modern Western notion of autonomy and American civil religion’s century-old belief in rugged individualism, both which value the self ahead of the community.
Not so for Jesus’ church. Rooted, abiding in Jesus, we bear his fruit. We are his fruit, which is… (Hold that thought; we’ll get to it!) Our individual cares and concerns are not negated, but rather reformed, transformed through our life in community, our life as community.
To put this another way, I, as each of you, am an individual. And by the right and truth of my existence, I have personal thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, hopes and ambitions. I also am with you. Therefore, as we are grounded in Jesus and bound to one another, my “I” will not, cannot be greater than our “we”.
Equality. The church, as branches of the vine, Jesus, is radically (from the Latin radix, “root”, meaning the beginning as it was designed to be) non-hierarchical.
Yes, the church, including the Episcopal Church, differentiates the branches of the vine between laity and clergy. And, yes, there are the biblical and historical roots that bore the “fruit” of this structure. Yet I also have seen the atrophy, the withering of the vine whenever folk, both laity and clergy, accept the false dichotomy that the function of the laity as the congregation is to congregate and the function of the clergy, as ministers, is to minister; thus, doing-to-death the life-giving, life-breathing qualities of mutuality and equality.
Not so for Jesus’ church. Fruitfulness is our concern as laity and clergy. Now, as a priest, my fruit may be different from yours and your fruit, as laity, may be different from mine. Yet you and I are mutual and equal in the sight of God; who, as the Divine Gardener, through the Holy Spirit, prunes and shapes the vine, prunes and shapes us to enhance our fruitfulness.
Responsibility. The church as branches of the vine, Jesus, has one calling, one raison d’être. To bear fruit. Of the countless ways to define and describe the fruit we are to bear my favorite is that we are to be as Jesus is and to do what Jesus does. Or in the words of today’s epistle: “As he is, so are we in this world.” Or, in short, to be and to do love…
In light of love, I must digress to say afresh what I’ve oft said. On the subject of love, we humans tend to speak of our feelings and how we feel about others. Not so for Jesus’ church. For our feelings come and go, rise and fall, wax and wane. And if our loving others is dependent on how we feel about them, then, doubtless, say, in moments of anger, we would not feel loving! However, God’s love, the love we are to share (and thanks be to God!) is not a feeling, but rather a Holy Spirit-given power to be benevolent, to do benevolence toward others, all others unconditionally, indiscriminately.
A final word. Really, a question. At Clevedale, annually, we…well, Pontheolla prunes and shapes that wisteria vine so that it will continue in good health, growing and producing the fruit of its fragrant flower. As I never will ask of you what I will not ask of myself: What old thoughts and feelings, attitudes and habits do I have, as an individual, and do you have, as individuals, and do we have, as the community of Epiphany, that block our bearing more fruit of love? To put this another way: What is it in me and in you and in us that God, the Divine Gardener, needs to prune?
(1) John 10.11-18
(2) Matthew 16.15, Mark 8.29, Luke 9.20
Photograph (4/28/18): Wisteria vine at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Spartanburg, SC