Many in Australia and Victoria know a lot about growing grapes and grape vines. But perhaps most of us know even more about wine. Well consuming it at least. I have been told that growing grapes to produce wine is not an easy thing to do; that there is no such thing as a hobby farmer when it comes to making wine. Its a very labour intensive activity and there are many problems to overcome in order to produce a wine that you would serve to your friends.
I have tried a friends home-made wine once. In fact, he didnt only make the wine, but he grew the vines and the grapes as well. It was drinkable but as the old saying goes, "He shouldnt give up his day job!" Of course we grow grapes for much more than wine and you probably know that wine grapes and eating grapes are not necessarily from the same varieties. In the ancient world as in the modern world drying grapes to make raisins was a significant part of an agrarian society.
Abide in me
Anyway the passage read earlier isnt actually about wine production. Rather it is using the common and everyday experience of life as a metaphor from something much deeper. It is more like a parable. The author of the Gospel of John was using the image of a grapevine to illustrate the relationship between God - the cultivator; Jesus/Christ - the stem or the vine and the disciples and by implication us, as the branches producing the fruit. And in so doing the author used one of the most time enduring images of the Christian faith,
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower . Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.
Abide is a rather old fashion word. You may know the words of the hymn, "Abide with me
" which is the call or desire of the believer, for God to be present in times of struggle or difficulty:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
It has been a popular funeral hymn, but less so today. But the passage this morning is different from the old hymn. It is not that the writer of Johns Gospel is asking God to abide, remain or stay with me, the reader. It is in fact a call to the reader, to abide, remain or stay in God, or as Johns Gospel puts it to abide, remain or stay in Christ.
The Vine and the Grapes
We shouldnt move to far from this image of the grapes, branches and vines. It is a life-giving, an organic image of the relationship between us and the source of life which found in Christ and God. And we dont need to overly theologize this exhortation to remain in Christ. Nor should we make it into a story that reduces it to say, church attendance or being a Christian believer neither of which is not necessarily a bad thing but rather, if we stay with the organic, living illustration of the grape vine then we begin to see that to remain in Christ is to remain in the spirit of the life giving message of Jesus. That we are to maintain and live connected to the very source of life itself, as a vine remains connected to the earth. Really this narrative is about where you draw your sustenance for living. So stay connected to the vine, to the ground of our being.
Ive meet several people in the last few years who have told me that they no longer call themselves Christians. They are usually quick to say, "but I am happy to be a follower of Jesus." The term Christian has had a fair beating in the last 20 years. From paedophile priest to television evangelists, it is easy to see how many people can say, "Thats not for me." When Christianity, the religion that Jesus gave birth to although some say he would hardly recognise it today - wanders to far from its roots and loses its groundedness in the scared and the Holy, then its in trouble. And when all that is needed to be a Christian is to declare, "Im a Christian!" then the word "Christian" becomes empty and meaningless. It reminds me of the story Richard Foster the American theologian and Quaker tells:
Once upon a time, a group of men from Chicago left their jobs in the high-rise office buildings, moved to the prairie, and bought some farmland. "We're farmers now!" they all declared to each other. And all summer long they would go to the field to watch and waited for their crops to grow. However, when September rolled in, their fields were filled with goldenrod and all kinds of wildflowers and weeds. "Where's the corn?" they asked each other. And they wondered what they could have possibly done wrong. They were farmers now, what more did they need to do.
Well we know that there was a great deal more that they needed to do other than declare themselves farmers.
To remain in Christ is to follow the teachings and the life of Jesus. To draw on the power of the spiritual life found in a commitment to living into the sacredness of all life. But it is not to be seen as something separate from everyday life. Thomas Merton the Cistercian monk and writer said:
The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived.
To remain in Christ is in fact a discipline, or rather a practice, there is something to do. Maybe we could say that the word "Christian" is a verb a doing word rather than a noun a being word well of course it is both.
Henri Nouwen the Catholic priest and spiritual writer also said that:
"Maybe [institutional] power offers an easy substitute for the hard work of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God; easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Finding intimacy with the Holy is the surest way to let go of your [own] ego and transform your life. It requires you to face your fears with courage.
But there is also a sting in the tail of this passage. The viniculturist, the vine grower here is a metaphor for God. He prunes the vine and removes the dead branches. But again if we say with the organic image that in life thats what happens all the time then we begin to see the importance of this passage. If a plant loses touch with the earth, its source of nourishment it dies. I dont think we need to push the notion that those who dont remain in Christ are gathered up and thrown into the fire! The natural metaphor is fearful enough and that is when we lose touch with the ground of our being; the place where we are nurtured and nourished; when we fail to tend the garden of our souls, we dry up and die inside at least.
So in the modern world what are the Practices that help us stay connected to the source of our lives? I suggest that there are at least six.
Silence and Solitude:
Paul Tillich the American theologian said, "Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone." This maybe the most important practice we need to develop in our lives today. It runs counter to our modern way of being in the world.
Reading and Reflection (lectio Divina)
Reading the scriptures but not in a moralistic of literalist way, but as a source of ancient wisdom. I think this is something we need to spend a lot of time on so that we are liberated from the tyranny of literalism. But also other books that feed the soul and are read in a meditative way. Read in a way that I am open to be influenced by these writings.
Fasting and Moderation
Oh dear, I suppose we never said these practices would always be pleasurable. But I suspect we can all see a deep truth in the need, particularly in our culture to be thoughtful and measured in our materialism and our consumerism.
Celebration and Fellowship
This does not just include going to church on Sunday, but it can be a good place to start. It does mean thought that when we get together it is a good and uplifting experience and that we take seriously the relationship we have in this church, family, friends and acquaintances.
Prayer and Contemplation
Prayer needs to be seen as far bigger that just asking for stuff, even when the stuff is very important. Prayer as a practice needs the structure of meditation and the context of contemplation. Being in the presence of the sacred and being present to the scared in life is what prayer is all about.
Service and Compassion
The fruit of the spirit and the fruit of the vine that Johns gospel refers to is the work of care, compassion, justice, hope, healing and wholeness. It is both living wholly into life and sharing the gift of wholeness with those around us.
Abide in Christ; stay the course; stay connected to the source the ground of our being and draw your lifes nourishment from the soil of Gods good life among us, thats what the vines and branches are teaching us today.