Saturday, May 09, 2009

Easter 5B

I wonder whether you know the Aesop’s fable about the three boys who inherit a vineyard?  Now their dad was what you’d call a self-made man, he had worked hard all his life and the vineyard was doing pretty well, the vines were healthy and produced good fruit, but the one thing that worried him was that all three of his sons seemed to be allergic to the very idea of work.  As so often is the case in wealthy families, the next generation were keen on the idea of spending money, but not so hot on working for it.  And so, as he lay on his death-bed, dad called his three sons in and said to them, ‘my boys, there’s a secret I have to tell you ... but you have to swear to keep it to yourselves ... the thing is, I’ve made a lot of money over the years but most of it is hidden ... out there in the vineyard, buried amongst the vines, there’s gold out there and lots of it ... just be careful not to let anybody know what you’re digging for’.  And then most infuriatingly dad breathed his last.

Well, of course, for the next forty years the boys dug.  They were too clever to hire a backhoe and just rip all the vines out – that would have given the game away – so they spent every spare moment digging around the vines, systematically working their way through the vineyard and turning the soil over as they went.  My guess the soil was already rich and black, and as the years went by the more the boys dug, the more the vines produced.  They sent the grapes to market, although it was an annoying distraction from the main task, and as the vines flourished and every year the harvest was fuller and sweeter, their bank accounts grew fatter, and what with all that digging, the young men themselves grew lean and healthy.  But they never did find that treasure.

Well, I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you what the treasure was, but the fact is we in the church are a bit like those boys, except we’ve been digging for 2,000 years.  And just before he goes away Jesus says to us, ‘abide in me’.  ‘Make your home in me, just as my heart’s home is my Father, so your heart’s home is me’.  And just to make it all worthwhile he promises us treasure, the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It seems to me that Christians systematically miss the point of Jesus’ final instructions, certainly we miss the point of ‘abiding’, maybe we keep expecting it to be more highfalutin or mysterious, at any rate one of the most common mistakes Christians make – in my humble opinion, at any rate – is to spend our time metaphorically looking ‘up there’ rather than right here, expecting that whatever it is that Jesus promises us is going to come tumbling out of the sky.  At any rate, the writer of the Epistle, writing to his community around the end of the first century, already feels the need to spell it out.  And he does so by stressing the need for consistency – a couple of weeks ago the metaphor was light and darkness – if Jesus was light, you can’t say you’re following Jesus if you’re living in the dark – in other words, you need to see yourself clearly, acknowledge a few of the problem areas – and then he used the argument from genetics – if you’re really children of God, if you’ve got God’s DNA in you, then there actually needs to be a family resemblance, your lives right here and now need to show some evidence of that – not just in devotion to God but by displaying God’s priorities.  And here today he cuts to the chase, and picking up one of the central themes of St John’s Gospel he says, God is love.  Not, ‘God is loving’, not even, ‘God loves you’, but ‘God is love’.  It’s a definition.  That’s what God is, so the reverse is also true: ‘Love is God’.  Real love, that isn’t self-serving, that always seeks the best for the other person, that’s prepared to pour itself out, to give itself away in love for the other person - real love, that is rare and precious comes from the centre of a heart that is connected to the source of life itself.  And then, in the argument that should be getting familiar by now the writer says, ‘if you love like that, that’s how you know for sure that your life is centred in God – if you don’t love like that, then you’re kidding yourself’.

And here comes that funny word, ‘abide’ again  It’s a powerful word that means not only to live, to dwell, but to continue.  There’s nothing accidental about ‘abiding’, you can’t abide in a hotel room or a caravan park, to abide you need to have your roots down deep.  The Greek word that our Bible translates as ‘abide’ is exactly the same.  Meno.  You can’t meno by accident, you have to mean it, if you want to meno with God it means your roots go deep into God’s heart and God’s roots go deep into you.  You can’t just move away next week.  And the letter writer has got a particular reason for using the language of abiding, because he’s saying ‘if you’re rooted in God, then you have to be rooted in one another as well’.  Otherwise you’re kidding yourself.

And here we get back to the grapevines again, which is just as well because we human beings think a whole lot better in concrete images.  Jesus says, the way you abide in God’s love is by staying connected, by being grounded, by living together like an organic community with its roots deep in the soil that gives it life.  Here’s the first thing about Jesus’ image of the grape vine as a model of what Christian community is all about, and it’s that the water and the nutrients, everything that gives it life, comes up through the soil.  It’s a picture of our relationship with God that is not top down but bottom up, an image of Christian spirituality not as a gift from above but as that which seeps up through the groundsoil, intimately connected with our existence as creatures of the Earth.  God’s Holy Spirit, in other words, is not something extra that happens to us on top of human life if we’re very, very lucky, but the very condition and sustenance of our life, that which gives us life in the first place and which sustains us and nourishes us, sometimes without our even being aware of it.  And yet, as the boys in the fable discover, the treasure of the Holy Spirit needs nurturing.  We need to do the spadework, to dig in the compost, to be intentional about our connection with what gives us life.

And here’s the second thing: that the grapevine is a community. The stem, what keeps us grounded and connected, the conduit that draws the juice of the Spirit out of the earth, that which gives us structure and holds us together, Jesus tells us, is him.  We’re the branches, we’ve got our own work of photosynthesis to do and that helps to support the whole vine, we each get to produce grapes – and maybe your sort of grapes are different from or juicier than mine - but the point is that we are interdependent.  It’s an image that argues against a Christian version of individualism - you can’t flourish if you cut yourself off from the rest of the vine, go it alone and you wither and die.

And the third thing is that we get pruned.  That’s the sobering part of this picture.  Also it’s not entirely clear what Jesus means.  Are the branches that chopped off people who fall away, people who have to get culled out for the good of the whole vine, or is it that all the branches get a little bit lopped?  And in my expert horticultural opinion, I think, maybe a bit of both.  You see the branch that’s just not thriving, or that’s growing out in the wrong direction and you need to cut it out.  And it seems to me that sometimes there are people who, even if they look like they’re part of the grapevine, aren’t actually thriving, aren’t actually being nourished by the sap of the Holy Spirit.  And they cut themselves off.  Sometimes it’s their fault, sometimes it’s our fault.  We haven’t cared for that branch. 

But even the branches that stay connected need to get pruned so they can stay healthy and produce good fruit.  From the point of view of the branch, pruning sometimes seems painful.  You certainly know when you’re being pruned, when unproductive parts of you get cut back, or when what seemed like a fresh new direction is thwarted by the secateurs, and sometimes the pruning is so extreme you wonder how you can possibly grow back.  But the point is not that anytime anything difficult or painful happens in your life, that’s God pruning.  In fact, the branch that needs the heaviest pruning is often the one that’s suffered the most damage from frost or disease.  God’s care of us sometimes sets limits, sometimes encourages new directions for growth, but always is designed to keep us joined to the stream of life-giving nutrients, to keep us connected with the whole vine and producing the fruit that we’re designed to give.

The art of abiding, it seems to me, means to pay attention to what gives us life.  It means to be an intelligent grapevine, a community of care in which, together, we spend some time digging in the soil that sustains us, learning how to tap in to the currents of God’s Holy Spirit.  A community in which we attend to one another, learning to recognise the directions God is encouraging us to grow, attending to the branches that need some extra care, sharing the sap and marvelling at the grapes that grow, like a sort of by-product, when all the time we’re looking for treasure.