Week of Sunday May 6 - Easter 6
Gospel John 15:1-8
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
I always talk to my grapevines when I prune them. I used to do it when I had to prune vines by the hectare, too. At home, we always talked to the sheep, as well. Not just the yells of exasperation, but conversations. "Come on girls..."
I once spent a few days with Chris Bretag, who breeds rams. I couldn't get used to him saying, "Come on men, move along!" We’d always had ewes, for the most part.
This is the sign of a disturbed mind... or is it? You can't avoid the reality that plants and animals are not mere machines, once you work with them. Another farmer friend, factory-farming pigs in cages, fattening mobile lumps of meat, would still talk to them with fondness.
There is life “like unto ourselves” in the world around us.
Our minds are disturbed because the economic structure of the world, and the materialist underpinnings of much modern science, say that these beasts and plants are just machines. They are built on carbon, rather than steel and alloy, but there is no soul, they are not really an organism, but are simply reducible to atoms and chemistry.
The corollary to this is that we are the same. People are numbers to be organised and exploited. We treat employees as assets, and then liabilities to be pruned during the week, and then go home, and live the weekend as real people, who love their children.
This severe contradiction sits in the middle of our lives. Popularist sentiment at the local shopping centre is happy for refugees in boats to be turned around and sent home, even if they sink and drown. But in the middle of the same mall, like an altar in a court of the temple, sits a fresh food shop purely for pets, where you can buy outrageously expensive meat treats of all kinds, and pig's ears by the bag.
Our family laughed at this stall and its owners’ optimism when it opened, but now watch amazed, as it flourishes. In this low socioeconomic area, what should be an indulgent and laughable luxury, is used to lavish love on our pit bulls. In a suburb that struggles to pay its doctors' bills, the vets flourish, and shops advertise health insurance for pets.
What’s happening here, is that we are reacting to the mindlessness of the machine metaphor of life. We are rebelling against the implication that we too, are simply a machine. So I love my little dog with all the passion and humanity that is denied me where I work. I project even more purpose onto the cunning and devious cats in our house than they really have, as an antidote to the purposeless I am forced to practice each day.
When we come to read John, we bring this disturbed mind with us.
In some ways, we see much more than John. We live in a time of a science that has been spectacularly successful in empowering technology. We have seen, too clearly for comfort, how conditioned we are in so many of the responses we once thought were our own. We are disturbed by how similar we are to the animals around us, sharing DNA that differs by only a few percent.
Much of life seems mechanistic, and when we imagine it this way, we can achieve amazing results. So amazing, in fact, that for much of the time, we are happy with this way of seeing the world, and being a part of it.
As one with scientific training, this milieu inclines me to be embarrassed by my faith. Christianity often seems to add one more animal to talk to; a special one up in the sky beyond the clouds. It's all very well to say that Dawkins, et al, are attacking a caricature of faith, but many people seem to believe in just what he derides, or at least something so close to it that they cannot avoid being greatly discomforted by him.
John has his limitations. He didn't like the Jews who were opposed to Christianity, for example. They were simply wrong. Branches to be pruned and burned, most likely. He didn't know behavioural psychology. He was pre-modern, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.
But he was not a fool. Yes, he read the psalms... A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you... (9:17) but it is us who translate such poetry into the heresy that God will not let bad things happen to good people. We are the ones who have said that, and then squirm when Dawkins laughs at us.
John read Job. John read Ecclesiastes. John read the Psalms of lament. He experienced all the pain and perversity of life that we experience; in fact more of it. We are the lucky ones; the ones who live in denial of death for so much of our time here, because of our greater life expectancy, and our unprecedented security and luxury.
In fact, if anyone is living in a fantasy world when it comes to reality, it might be us!
What happens if we listen to John with "green ears?"
The Old Testament used the vine as a symbol for Israel, God's chosen people. For example:
I planted you as a choice vine,
from the purest stock.
How then did you turn degenerate
and become a wild vine? (Jer 2:21)
The reading in John begins, I am.... the true vine. We are talking about the God revealed to Moses in Exodus, about ultimate things.
The true Israel, the true vine, is the people seeking to live in harmony with God. Those who abide, or remain with God.
In a “green theology,” we could see they are the ones who recognise they are a contingent people, merely a branch of something greater. They are not a law unto themselves. If they cut themselves out of the vine, they separate themselves not from some theoretical god, but from the sustainable reality of the world and all that is, and what lies beneath it.
In this sense, they know they need to conform to the vine, and suffer pruning. Not as childish or naive people in thrall to some overbearing God of superstition, but as one part of the organism of the planet in which they must live. Indeed, the only planet within which they can live. They do not live by using machines which they manipulate for their advantage, but with in a life upon which they must depend.
To put this in stark agricultural terms, if the tractors we use to grow our food are not sustainable, then the very way we are growing our food is destroying us. (To be clear, I think the farmers are the least of our worries.)
If we will not submit to pruning and bearing good fruit, we are a cancer on the world, which needs to be cut out and burned.
It is arrogant that we worry we are destroying the earth. Is it more likely that earth is already spitting us out, and that we are being pruned. I can never forget the warning of Ian Malcolm, fictional though he is, that it is not life that is at risk on earth. It will go on. We are the ones at risk!
When we read this part of John, if we leave the lofty position of the city sophisticate of the 21st century, and remember the blood and guts of farming on the ground, we will hear a very different message. John is not naive. He is supremely realistic. He offers us a reflection on Jesus that is immensely challenging. Will we suffer being pruned back to our biological reality? Or will we persist with the delusion that we are above and beyond the limits of Earth, and that we are Gods?
The imagery of the vine comes from a Hebrew culture which was steeped in the idea of being faithful to God, and where judgement was imagined in terms of drought, famine, and invasion. If we look beyond our "sophistication" which predisposes us to see this as, well... the somewhat naive imagery of the time, we might see that it is far less time contingent than we imagine.
We are entering a time where we fear pandemics. Famine, and ecological collapse, and war, go hand in hand. The politician’s planners are preparing for water wars. Nothing has changed. The judgements are the same as they always were, and the causes are the same. We live to ourselves, rather than as branches that need to be in harmony with the vine, and suffer pruning of our own desires for the good of the whole.
It is almost time to prune the vines, and when I do, I shall talk with them again. My mind is disturbed, and it is sane. We do not live in a machine; we are part of the life that is of God. If we will not live like this and honour all of life, then we are ripe for pruning. We have already withered back from the full flourishing of our humanity, and we will be burned.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.