In my first course on preaching I was taught this cardinal rule: never use something impersonal to illustrate the personal. That’s not bad advice, I suppose. I’d rather people didn’t talk about me as if I were a carburetor.
But Jesus never took that course on preaching, so he failed to observe that rule. “I am the true vine… I am the vine, you are the branches.” At least it’s organic, not mechanical, but it’s not personal.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: in John’s Gospel, any sentence that starts with “I am” is John’s way of saying that Jesus and God are speaking with one voice. Jesus is the vine. God is the vine. Yes, God is also the vinegrower—God can wear several hats at once. So can Jesus. But this vinegrower is also the vine, both at once. Who knew that God was so organic?
The fact is, the Bible is chock-full of all sorts of images to express how God is involved with us. Some of those images were personal, and they were indispensable, but other images that weren’t personal were just as crucial.
I’ll say it again, the personal images were and are indispensable. Those ancient writers were convinced, as I am today, that their involvement with God was so intimate and so engaging, that they couldn’t think of this as less than personal. They did NOT mean that God is like your next-door neighbor, only with some amazing powers—sort of like Samantha on “Bewitched,” except for being invisible all the time. They didn’t mean that. But they realized that whenever they paid full attention to another person, or whenever they paid full attention to themselves, they were opening up to a level of reality that we can barely describe. Their involvement with God was even deeper than that, but it wasn’t any less than that. They just couldn’t call it less than personal, and neither can I.
Personal images are indispensable. But by themselves they’re not enough, not if it’s God we’re talking about and not our nose-twitching next-door neighbor. Other images that aren’t personal are just as crucial, just as indispensable, to open us to the utter uniqueness of God’s “super-intimate” involvement with us.
Just look again at the variety of images the Gospel of John gives us to point to the Word-made-flesh-God who comes to us in Jesus: word, light, bread, gateway, resurrection, life, shepherd, way, truth, grapevine and vinegrower, plus a few more. Some of John’s images are personal; the rest are definitely not personal.
Which brings us back to this image of Jesus and God as the grapevine, with us as the branches.
It’s a bit like St. Paul’s favorite image of us as the body of Christ, with Jesus as the head and us as eyes and arms and legs and so on. That’s pretty organic too, plus a bit personal—sort of a hybrid.
But this vine and branches image is totally organic—straight from your local health food store. It even sounds like something Charles Darwin might’ve cooked up—survival of the fruitiest. But its main point is to remind us that our involvement with Jesus’ God and God’s Jesus is “super-intimate,” inescapable, nearer to each of us than we are to ourselves.
Lots of people today debate whether there is or isn’t a vinegrower out there somewhere. Jesus is hinting that we don’t have to start with that image.
Start instead with an image of you and me and everybody connected and animated from the inside by the vine none of us can escape.
When we live into that organic image, we do discover that this is no ordinary vine. This vine is too deeply involved with us, too connected, too intimate, to be just another plant. This vine IS the vinegrower, and this vinegrower IS the vine. Both at once.
When we awaken to this, when we live into this, there’s still room for debate, of course. There’s always room for debate. But we don’t have to get stuck there. Even our most pointed questions are animated and embraced by this vine, this vinegrower, this all-embracing, inescapable communion.
Jesus wants us to awaken to this inescapable, intimate connection with him and with God. We are the branches that live in the vine, just as the vine lives in the branches. And the point of all this is to bear fruit—fruit that will last (15:16).
This Gospel lesson doesn’t tell us what that fruit is supposed to be. But Jesus keeps talking. The fruit, he says, is loving one another, dwelling in the mutual love that he and God live together (15:9-17).
When we let ourselves live in this mutual love, we keep growing. Otherwise, we wither away.
You can hear that as a promise, or a threat, but it’s really just saying how things are. The only fruit that lasts is mutual love; everything else withers away sooner or later.
John’s Gospel is called the mystical Gospel, because it’s full of images that can set our heads spinning, trying to awaken us to the utter mystery of God’s involvement with us at every moment. But the point of all these mystical images is to move us to mutual love.
That’s awfully gritty stuff. Just try getting along with anybody—the closer they get, the more irritating they become. That’s true even, or especially, when you’re trying to get along with yourself. Because nobody gets closer to you than you do—except, of course, God, which I guess makes God the most irritating of all.
But irritating or not, Jesus’ message today is that there’s no escaping the mutual love that he and God are living in us. It’s irritating only when we fight it. We can choose to keep doing that, or we can choose to stop fighting and let mutual love move us. Why not let that happen?