“I am the vine,” Jesus says: connected to God, connected to the earth.
In the Hebrew scriptures, vines are a symbol of God’s peace and of prosperity. In Micah, the prophet describes a time of peace when “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” The vine represents that time of peace, the time of prosperity, the time of safety. In this passage Jesus takes that image and becomes the vine that embodies wholeness of life.
Except that the embodiment of the vine is not separate from us. The embodiment of the vine is ourselves connected to God through Jesus. It is God that cares for the vine and that tends and nurtures it. But a vine is not just one cell. A vine grows branches that twist and turn. They grow together. They grow apart. The branches have so many leaves. Like many other images in the gospels, this one imagines the human life as that of a larger organism. We are like a body with many different parts and all of them necessary.
We cannot be the vine in isolation. A leaf by itself is not a vine and will not bear fruit. A stem by itself is not a vine but it is part of the whole. This image reminds us that we need to be connected to the rest of the vine. Each of us are directly connected to God through Jesus and we need that connection in order to thrive, in order to bear fruit, in order to fulfil the purpose for which we are created.
Imagine yourself as one leaf on this vine. How can you begin to know what’s happening with other leaves or other parts of the vine? As a whole, this vine looks healthy and lush but as a leaf on the vine, you can’t necessarily know where the rest of the vine has grown or whether the leaf at the other end of the building is healthy.
The gardener, in this case God, has responsibility for the health of the whole vine and to ensure that the vine bears fruit. At Bible study this week we struggled with the idea that God, the gardener, would cut off branches and throw them into the fire to burn. We struggled with the idea that God gives up on us or on other people. Other parts of the gospels attest to God’s transformative power and the ways in which God’s love is unending and unconditional. Death is part of life and there will always be parts of the vine that are dying and falling away. Our faith story tells us that God remains even in death. But a natural cycle of life and death seems different from what is indicated here. We had trouble reconciling our images of God with a God who willfully cuts off and condemns particular parts of the vine.
Grape vines do indeed need pruning in order to produce fruit. One of our Bibles had a side note indicating that vines that are untrimmed produce bitter grapes. The pruning does serve a purpose and shapes the vine for that purpose. The pruning allows the vine to produce the sweetest and most abundant fruit.
For some, the vine includes only Christians and only Christians like us. It is tempting to want to eliminate from the vine people that disturb us or that make us uncomfortable. We cannot see the whole vine from our vantage point and we do not know how other parts of the vine contribute to whole. As a leaf on the vine we cannot remove other parts even if we want to. It is not our responsibility to be trimming and pruning. The responsibility for the whole vine lies with the gardener.
Perhaps in this analogy what needs trimming is not individual people but those things within us that will make us bitter—the grudges we carry, habits that are unhealthy to body, mind, soul and community, resentfulness, apathy—the things we might identify as sin and which separate us from God, our source and our root.
We might want to limit the vine to our own little region of the wall or our own stem but, whether we like it or not, the health of the whole vine and our own health are interconnected. As a leaf on the vine we might not worry too much if the vine at the other end of the building isn’t getting enough sun or maybe there are some unwelcome bugs. It’s at the other end and doesn’t really affect us. A bug infestation can travel so what was another leaf’s problem becomes our own. And we need that leaf at the other end of the building to absorb nutrients and sun to share with the rest of the vine.
We are connected to the people who share this little corner of the world with us and we are connected to people around the world. When we watch the devastation in Nepal we see part of our own vine being destroyed. It might not feel like we are connected because it is so far away and yet we can watch the events unfold. We can offer our prayers and our love. We can support relief efforts. We do this because we are connected. We are part of the same vine of humanity that is rooted in God.
We need our sense of being rooted in the divine, of having a source beyond ourselves. We need to allow the gardener that is God to nurture, water and trim in our own lives so that we grow healthy and strong and contribute to the health of the whole vine.
May our individual lives be deeply rooted in the source of love that creates us. May we know our connectedness to every part of the vine of creation with peace and compassion.