The wind can be blowing, but if we don’t have our sails up, we won’t be able to catch the wind and let it take us somewhere. The sap can be flowing through the vine, but if the branch is broken off, it starves and withers away. If you don’t have kindling and wood in your fire circle, a match won’t burn very long.
As we have entered this season of the Spirit, we are reminding ourselves that the Spirit is everywhere – around us, in us, moving through us. What might this mean for how we live our lives? What does it mean to be a Trinity people? Sometimes we in the church focus so much on Jesus – his teaching and what his life on earth meant for us – that we lose touch with the Spirit. This was why Jesus said it was better for him to go away – so we would notice the Spirit. For the next couple of Sundays we will look at different Biblical metaphors for living life in the season of the Spirit.
Today Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches reminds us to keep it simple. Just live in the Spirit of Jesus.
Many of the Pharisees at the time of Jesus believed that if the whole people of God could keep the Torah perfectly for just one day, the Kingdom of God would come. Western Christianity has been highly influenced by this approach. If we could just know more, have stronger will-power, the kingdom would come. That is a lot to put on the backs of human beings! Does the Kingdom require perfect human behavior? Knowing and practicing the Law perfectly is not the key to the Kingdom.
So what is? The answer lies in becoming thoroughly connected to the Spirit, like the branch to the vine.
As many of you know, I grew up on a farm. I helped my Dad plant his first vineyard. It was quite and adventure! Dad contracted with another farmer to buy from him the brush that he cut off at pruning time. Then Dad set to work. He cut 18-inch sections of strong, healthy branches. He dug a trough in the soil in front of our house and buried the wood until after the winter. When the field was all prepared and the time was right, he dug up those sticks, and – low and behold – they had sprouted roots! Working quickly, the sticks were planted in the field in neat rows, watered in, and again, left to their own secret work. It wasn’t long before we began to notice green sprigs peeping out from those dead-looking pieces of stick. They were alive and well. Through the months that followed, Dad, the vine-grower, watched each of those sticks. Those that showed no green buds were quickly replaced. Later in the summer, we children were enlisted again to “sucker” the vines – to take off all the green shoots which were coming out of the trunk. The vines were off and growing. Dad watched carefully for the good strong canes, pruning off what was weak, or was too much for the young vines. After a couple of years letting them focus just on growing, he began to let them produce a little bit of fruit. At the end of each season, from then on, the pruning would be done. He could save wood to sell to other farmers when it was fresh cut, or he could pile it and let it dry, to be consumed in great bonfires – another part of the process we children enjoyed.
Jesus says that God is the vine-grower. This image is a Trinity image. God is Creator, the one who makes the things that grow. Then Jesus is the vine, the one who the vine-grower has planted and tenderly cared for over the years. So where is the Spirit in this metaphor? The Spirit can be seen in the water which moves as sap through the vine. The Spirit is the air which provides the carbon dioxide the plant needs to live. The Spirit is that creative power which moves over the face of the deep, bringing forth life. That magic that happened deep in the earth within those sticks my dad planted, that was the Sprit of life moving over the face of the deep, to use the language of creation.
From my experience of watching my father as a vine-grower, I could observe several things about God as vine-grower. Since I saw the vineyard from the time is was discarded prunings, I know that there is life in those severed branches. This image that Jesus gave us leaves so much room for grace! Those discarded, pruned away branches, still have life in them. There are certainly times in our lives when we feel like discarded prunings, like we are the ones severed from the vine of our family or friends, by no choice of our own. Any of you who have been divorced or widowed, or have sat with someone going through it, have heard that story of being cut away, discarded, left feeling useless – or, at least that is how it feels. But the Vine-grower goes back through and picks up the severed branches and starts whole new vineyards.
What I have seen over the years of healing work is that the pruning is one of the things that simplifies our life. Like vines, our lives often get so cluttered with growth that there are no nutrients left to feed the fruit. While they may look lush and beautiful, they may also become barren because they are spreading their nutrients over too many branches. In the same way, our lives can become so busy that we never actually produce much.
So pruning can bring life for both the vineyard’s vines and those which are taken away. By pruning, the vine has more nutrients for its fruit and the discarded branches, well…, they can become a whole new vineyard. Or, they are burned, returning their nutrients to the soil to feed new life.
So what else is there about the vine and branches image which speaks of life in the Spirit?
The central point I see here is that we can make life with God too complicated. We look for rules, tricks, buy self-help books, search far and wide. We forget to sit in the presence of the Spirit, which is everywhere. The key may be as simple as the whisper of the Spirit: “sit still and notice me.” Anthony De Mello tells an old story:
The Master grew old and infirm. The disciples begged him not to die. The Master said, “If I did not go, how would you ever see?”
What is it we fail to see when you are with us?” they asked.
But the Master would not say.
When the moment of his death was near, they said, “What is it we will see when you are gone?”
With a twinkle in his eye, the Master said, “All I did was sit on the riverbank handing out river water. After I’m gone, I trust you will notice the river.”
This teacher was a lot like Jesus, who said it was better for the disciples that he go away. Jesus’ presence may actually have distracted the disciples from the presence of the living, flowing river of Spirit. Like the sap flowing through the veins of the vine, there is not much required of the branches to receive the nourishment. No test to pass, no rules to follow, no hoops to jump through. Just stay connected. Notice me. Notice the Spirit. That’s all.
Another part of life in the Spirit is staying connected. Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Here, in the vine image, Jesus is not talking about his teachings. He is talking about his presence. Here is the thing – if we are all connected with God, then we are all connected to each other. So dwelling in God/Jesus/Spirit, means being connected with each other. This is the same vision that runs throughout Scripture, that in the Kingdom of God, all people will be joined together in one great community. All creation will be joined together in one. God is three in ONE. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE. ONE great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. ONE great banquet.
As we stay connected to the vine, and to each other, through the vine, we create one woven together community of all beings. It reminds me of the TaborSpace program’s mission statement: to create connected community, by providing a welcoming and nurturing gathering place, as a collaboration between the church and the neighborhood. Somehow, staying connected is at the core of living life in the age of the Spirit. As we stay connected, things happen.
And finally, dwelling in the vine is about love. Jesus says, “Dwell in my love.” When Jesus uses the word, ‘love’ here, he is using the Hebrew word loving kindness. God’s covenant love. Love that is lived. Sometimes we think of love as an emotion. But here, it is about unconditional positive regard. It is about kindness. It is something we do. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” Jesus was saying much the same thing. Keep it simple. You know I love you. Rest in that. Dwell in it. Make that love your home. Together, as vine and branches, we will love the world. And it will make all the difference.
If you want to practice living in the age of the Spirit, you can start when you wake up tomorrow morning. Before your feet hit the floor, open your heart to the Spirit. Ask God to walk with you step by step through your day. Just this much of a practice will make a difference.
As you build this practice into your life, then add other markers for your day. Each time you eat a meal, or enjoy a glass of water, open your heart to the nourishment of the Spirit. In those moments when you are waiting in line, be grateful for the pause in your rushing and open your heart to Spirit: “Here I am, Lord, let your love flow through me to bless others.”
In the evening, develop the practice of reviewing your day. St. Ignatius developed a very simple way to do this: Open yourself to the Spirit’s presence and ask, “Where did I notice you today?” Be grateful. Then, in the presence of the Spirit of love ask, “ When did I lose you today?” Let what comes fall into God’s love. Release it. Be grateful. Then go to sleep, restored, nourished and ready to begin with the Spirit again another day.
The point of the vine and branches image is not very complicated. Dwell, find your home in the loving Spirit of Jesus. Then live from that place. Live in love, and do what comes naturally.
Additional reading: Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 41.