Today there are lots of ways to get connected. We can connect with SMS and email, Facebook, twitter, Skype, instagrams, and probably lots of other ways I’ve never heard of or understand. And it seems like there are dozens of ways to share the photos that we are taking all of the time. Yet in spite of all these ways to connect, we can have fewer friends that we actually see and talk to.
Though we are more connected than ever, surveys show that people are as depressed and lonely as never before. We are connected to more sources of news and information and entertainment, but we are almost drowning in information. Many are starved for actual experience, particularly the experience of being in real relationships.
Our gospel about the vine and the branches is all about having a relationship with God and being joined to Jesus. If this is real, it goes beyond all other relationships. That’s where the picture of the vine works best. But I have always found this gospel to be a difficult one.
Maybe it is because I am a psychologically damaged gardener. When I was growing up, I had to be forced into helping with the garden. The one thing I really enjoyed was using the power mower. I especially liked it when my dad bought a ride-on mower. Sadly the skills required for a power mower, including noise, speed and generally cutting things down, are not the same skills needed to carefully tend a vegetable patch or a flower bed or a vine.
If you grew up in the bush, you know that branches don't last long once they are cut off from the larger tree or plant to which they were attached. Us town people know that cut flowers last just so long in a vase, maybe a few days, maybe even a week. Then they die. Or maybe they were dying from the moment that they became separated from the plant. We admire the really successful people in today’s world. Wouldn’t we like to have their money and fame? But they are the very ones who end up falling apart in a very public way.
Cutting, pruning, being thrown into the fire: some of Jesus' language is fierce. He is describing what happens when we are not connected to the source of life. We end up cut off, withered, useless, like the branches and scraps we put in our purple wheelie bins.
But not all separation from the vine is bad. Pruning is good. Even though pruned bushes are not always pretty. Sometimes a pruned bush looks so damaged that it's hard to believe it will ever bear fruit or flower again. Maybe you have been in that space at some time in your life. I know I have. Cutting away the dead bits is the only way for new life to take place.
Being a disciple of Jesus does not spare us. The question is not whether we will be pruned, having our rough edges removed. The question is how we will respond when we are pruned: will we grow, or will we just do more withering? And the answer is related, it seems, to whether we are abiding.
Abiding is an old-fashioned word meaning to stay or remain. In the OT, the people of Israel were very poor at it. But they discovered that it is a characteristic of God to abide. Everything earthly and human is changeable and temporary. But God remains. In the NT we hear that God is unchangeable; his Word remains forever. Jesus’ earthly existence was only for a short time; but now he is eternally present. His presence with us never ends. God abides.
Remaining with Jesus was a life or death issue when he spoke about abiding. It was at his last meal with his disciples. Jesus knew where he was going and what would happen. He knew he was going to be taken away from his friends. Yet amazingly, he could say to them to remain with him, to stay joined to him. He wanted them to be prepared, to remain in fellowship with each other and to follow his teaching and example. And in a mysterious sense he wanted them to know that they could actually continue to be a part of him.
I visited a clergy friend in hospital yesterday. He and his wife have been kind to me. As he lay there dying, I wanted him to know what he believed. So I read him these verses about the vine and Jesus abiding.
This is the healing that Jesus offers the world today: the difference between mere connection and actual relationship. Simple electronic connection is not enough to nourish life. What does nourish life is relationship in community. And it should especially happen in God’s new community of the church.
I find that very hard to say, because I am naturally an introvert. At the end of a people-filled day, I have a need to go home and be on my own, because like all introverts I am energised by silence. Extroverts don’t understand that, because they are energised by being in the company of other people. What I do know is that my experience of the church throughout my life has been both pruning and life-giving. And I choose to see this as God’s work, even when my abiding has often looked more like drifting and drowning.
Whatever our personality, being in genuine relationship and real community isn't easy. Relationships have ups and downs and require give and take. We have to be vulnerable in relationships if they are going to really work for us, because if we are being open and honest, others are going to know our true selves anyway. That means we can never completely protect ourselves from being hurt. Communities are made of real people. All of us have our off days. And being in community means dealing with that.
Abiding in Jesus is an invitation to confess to him everything that is on our hearts, even the unpleasant bits. He invites us to know that we are accepted, loved, and forgiven. Jesus reveals the God who loves the whole world enough to send his Son.
We live well in relationship and community as we allow the life of the vine to flow through us and connect us as God's new community in Christ. In Jesus’ promise of abiding in us, God is not an abstract being far above, a Trinity we cannot understand. His promise is an invitation to experience the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as a saving and liberating presence in our everyday world. And for eternity.