1 John 4:7–13
There are few symbols that can be traced as far back in human culture and sacred history as the vine. The grapevine is, after all, an exceptional plant—rugged, growing in soils and climate where other crops won’t take hold, yet producing these great, heavy clusters of fruit—globes of sweet juice held together by the thinnest of skins. And the juice of these ample grapes contains a mystery: it can be transformed into wine, and when we drink that wine, we ourselves are transformed. The vine has long represented tenacity, bounty, transformation, and celebration—it represents life!
In the Book of Genesis what does Noah do after he gets off the ark? He plants a vineyard. In ancient Sumer, at the dawn of civilization, the written symbol for “life” was a grape leaf. Grape vines were sacred to Osiris, the Egyptian god of life and fertility, and they were painted inside of Egyptian tombs as a symbol of resurrection. And we can’t forget Dionysus and Bacchus, the Greek and Roman god of wine, passion, and religious ecstasy.
So, when in our reading this morning, Jesus adopts the image of the vine, the true vine, he’s doing it provocatively. He’s doing it with at least some awareness of the symbolism and the importance of the grapevine and its connection to life and to divinity that he’s now laying claim to.
But Jesus isn’t just laying claim to the territory of some other grape gods. Jesus does something so much more surprising, so much more outrageous, but we don’t even notice him doing it anymore. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” In all previous history, you could worship the gods of the vine, you could worship grapes as a god, you could drink the sacred wine as a gift from the gods, or you could pour it out in sacrifice to them, but never before in religious history were you informed that you were a part of the vine, never before were you painted into the picture as essential to the symbol’s equation, never before were you so intimately intertwined with divinity. Never before have we been invited to abide in God as God abides in us.
That’s the first surprise of this image. Jesus is not a God who’s disconnected from us. Our God is not aloof, not far off somewhere. Do you want to find God? Where should we look? Jesus tells us that we’re as tangled up together, as interconnected with God as a vine and its branches. Now, you tell me, where does the vine end and where does the branch begin?
When I was 14-years old, I broke my back because of a bone disease I have that severely weakened one of my vertebrae. I was brought to Boston Children’s Hospital and the doctors there said that my spine was the most severely damaged spine they had ever seen that belonged to someone who wasn’t paralyzed—yet. I remember the light flickering on behind the x-ray of my back and looking inside of myself to that precarious, twisted mess of bone and nerves and feeling so afraid. I remember thinking, “Is that what I am?” It turns out that was a very productive question.
The doctors told me they would do their best but that it was a serious operation to put me back together again and there were no guarantees. I needed to be prepared to wake up from the surgery paralyzed from the chest down. I would be under general anesthesia for at least 8–12 hours and I was afraid that I might not ever wake up at all. Anything could happen.
Lying on the operating table waiting for the anesthesiologist, mortally afraid of what might happen to me, I made a deal. Now, it might sound a little cliché and unsophisticated, and I wouldn’t always recommend it, and I was young, but it was an important moment for me. I promised that if God would let me live and let me walk and let me heal, that I would dedicate my life to God. I looked deep inside of myself and I promised to become the individual that God most wanted me to become.
And when the surgery was over, I was fortunate to have a remarkable recovery. And now that I was healthy and not so terrified anymore, I started wondering about the deal I cut. I knew, after all, even at that age that that’s just not the way things work. Sometimes very good people pray for healing and don’t necessarily get what they’ve prayed for. It could have turned out differently. For many people, in a moment of crisis, it does turn out differently. So, what was the point of that seemingly foolish prayer? Why couldn’t I stop thinking about it?
I thought about that promise almost every day for months and months. And slowly I began to realize that the power of that prayer wasn’t about walking or not walking, living or dying, the power of it was that in that moment of ultimate vulnerability I was given a chance to look deep inside of myself and really see who it was that I am—not a tangled mess of bone and nerves and guts—but the very best version of my future possibilities.
It was like there was this closed box somewhere deep inside of me holding this calling? opportunity? destiny? and in that moment of vulnerable, mortal prayer I suddenly had a reason to open the box and look inside. And as I continued to heal and continued to grow up, I realized that I was never going to be able to get that box closed again. That was the true power of that prayer—it showed me who I am.
It was like I looked down inside of myself and saw that I was not some untethered, withered, broken stick, floating through a meaningless void. I looked down inside of myself and I saw that I was a branch, and I got the briefest glimpse of where the branch begins, of what it is made out of, what it’s a part of. And just the briefest glimpse changed everything.
Carl Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “The decisive question for human beings is: Am I related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of our lives. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance. Thus we demand that the world grant us recognition for qualities which we regard as personal possessions: our talent or our beauty. The more a person lays stress on false possessions, and the less sensitivity they have for what is essential, the less satisfying is their life. We feel limited because we have limited aims, and the result is envy and jealousy. If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change. In the final analysis we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.”
Beloved, part of my calling is to proclaim and to remind and to assure and to reassure you that you, here in this life already, have a link to the infinite. You are a branch. You are a branch. You are a branch. And who can even say where the vine ends and the branch begins? Jesus is our source, God is the ground of our being, and we’re not merely brushing up against them, we’re growing out of them. When we abide in God as God abides in us, we abide in love and we produce the fruits of love by which we will ultimately be judged—by which our lives will be productive or wasted. For our lives to have their fullest meaning, in order to not be distracted by trivialities, we must look down within ourselves to see for ourselves where the branch begins. Where the branch begins is the beginning of everything that matters.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations