This week, Faith in Real Life discussed a familiar passage from John chapter 15. Jesus says “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Our relationships, both with the divine and with other people, sustain us. As Vernon points out, studies have demonstrated that those with rich relationships tend to live longer. And as with other things in life, we get out of our relationships what we put into them.
5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7p. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
Last week, I tried to make the point that we can literally see God in the face of our neighbor. The ‘eye in the sky’ God comes to us in flesh and blood. We shift our unending fear of being judged and punished for our failings to the tactile acceptance of a human embrace. If you have been held instead of criticized when you were frightened, lonely or ashamed, you have a human taste of what God promises. Such human relationships take a long time to form but they provide a safe place from which we can live our lives. If we have such relationships, we live differently. Fear is far less likely to govern our lives. We don’t take everything personally. We can listen better. We can show regard for others without keeping score or dividing the world into ‘us’ or ‘them’. Love bears fruit.
We can still be hurt in all the ways humans can be hurt but there is a safe place in the midst all that we experience. It is the human experience of God’s promise that we love because we are first loved. These ordinary human relationships are a refuge and strength. They are the ‘For thou art with me’ that allows us to walk in the darkest valley. They foreshadow and express God’s steadfast love. In the words of today’s scripture, these relationships are the incarnate God, the vine that nourishes and gives us life. Without them we can do nothing.
Physically, psychologically and spiritually, connectedness and relationship are required for life to be created and sustained. Basic elements must be connected to make something new—hydrogen and oxygen must be connected for us to have water. Psychologically, it is well documented that humans fare better and live longer when they are in community. And spiritually, we cannot tolerate the helplessness and risks of loving unless we remain connected to the eternal. No matter how self-reliant our culture would have us be, living disconnected is as silly as a branch trying to grow while separated from the vine. We can not nourish others, we can not bear fruit, unless we are connected and nourished.
Do not, however, turn this passage into a threat or a vehicle for personal wish fulfillment. Branches do not choose to be connected or separate. Every metaphor is limited. This is a description of a state of relationship. It is not a set of directions, or a ‘how to’. Regardless of how it happens, when we are cut off from nurture and substance, we wither. When we are connected to those aspects of relationship, we thrive. The safer we feel in love the more our capacity to give and be mindful grows. That is true in our ordinary relationships and it is true in our relationship with God.
Nor is verse 7 (Ifyou abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you) a means to have God do our bidding. It too describes a state of relationship. When we live in God’s love, we have the courage to ask for anything and the humility to defer to God’s will. Jesus certainly did not get what he asked in Gethsemane. We may have our wants but we leave it to God to decide what is best for us. That brings us back to trusting and relying upon God. Our faith enables us to live in any present, humanly desirable or humanely aberrant, sustained by God.
There is a difficult paradox however, in that as important as safe relationships are for day to day loving—and even for our ability to see God, if we live long enough we will lose everyone of them. Even the best human being can and will fail us. We will disappoint and we will be disappointed. And, of course, even in the deepest relationship, one of you will die alone. The more important people are in our lives, the harder they are to lose. But lose them, we must. The longer we live, the more losses we will experience. Precisely because we were so connected, some of those losses do not feel survivable. We cannot imagine going on.
Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples for the hard reality of loss. He warned them that he would die, he warned them that they would be hated and outcast. They had put their hope in him. They had depended upon him. But soon he would die. That’s when living on is the hardest.
There is nothing about being a Christian that protects us from harm or loss. In fact our ability to love is directly proportional to our capacity to grieve. We will lose the very relationships that gave us a vision of God. We can be told such things but we cannot know what any of it means until we live through disappointment, failure and loss. (It is a lot like a graduation speech or premarital counseling—it may sound goo but most of it doesn’t make sense for at least a year or two.)
That said, it matters that we have been told. There are practices and disciplines that enhance and nourish connections—with each other and God. In real life, we make choices everyday about what is important in our lives. Where we put our time and energy says a lot more about what we worship than our words. In real life, it is easy to lose sight of what really matters. I often see couples with children and who are working. They are devoted to their families but the first thing that suffers is their relationship. (Couples in such situations often spend less than an hour a week in non-logistical conversation). I will tell them to create an hour a week to be together. They often return telling me; “We didn’t have time”. Their relationship will wither if they don’t find a way to seek nourishment. It takes effort and intentionality to stay in connection—but without connections we cannot be nourished.
Sometimes we organize our lives intentionally—sometimes reactively. Jesus was calling his disciples to be intentional. Jesus promised that a life organized around him—a life lived abiding in Him, a life lived in obedience to God’s commandments completes our joy. When we rely upon God and seek to love one another (which is what it meansto obey his commandments), we will be with God. We will be with the eternal.
That is a pretty big faith claim. It is hard to rely upon God. It is hard to survive the loss of people we love and who have sustained us, it is harder still to imagine relying upon God in the midst of such great pain. We often don’t know what is survivable until we survive. We don’t know what we can endure until we look back. We live in the faith and the promise that love will find a way.
We gather each Sunday to make the faith claim that giving and receiving love is of God. Any other focus in our lives will be short sighted and short lived. That is something we need to be reminded of. That is one of the ways we stay connected and abide in him.
Abide in his love. Seek the places and practices that keep love in focus. Obey his commandment to trust him and to love our neighbor. Let it be so.