God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Amen.
I John 4:16b.
Today’s lesson from the Gospel of John about the vine and the branches is four verses short of a sermon. Allow me to add the missing pieces. Jesus goes on to say, As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:9-12
It would be easy to misunderstand the metaphor of the vine and branches were it not for the commandment to love one another as I have loved you. This is what it means to abide in God: to abide in love just as Jesus loved. This is his commandment. There is no other; at least, all else flows from this single command. Yet, it is a strange commandment when you think about it.
One does not have to “command” a branch to abide in a vine. It is organically connected to the vine; to be a branch is to be part of the vine. Abiding in the branch is simply what it means to be a vine. The branch doesn’t have to “do” anything to become part of the vine.
In a sense then, what Jesus is saying is: “remember your true nature.” We are connected to God organically; God is love and to be human is to be grounded in love. Abiding in love is simply what it means to be human. Human beings don’t have to “do” anything to abide in love.
So when Jesus says: “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he is simply providing a description of reality. Love is the real thing, it is the power that creates and holds all things in being. To be in touch with reality is to experience being awash in love. Thus, to command a human being to love is a bit like telling a fish to swim in water. How can we live otherwise?
The fact is, however, that sometimes we do try to live otherwise; hence the command to love. Too often we loose our sense of connection to God, our grounding in love. We suffer from the illusion that we are unlovable or unable to love. We come to believe we are a branch without a vine, or that we are the vine ourselves.
We sometimes act as if money, or status, or power, or our nation, or “people like us” is the vine, the ground of our being. All of these illusions and delusions plague us. They are expressions of what the bible calls sin, all those things that alienate us from our sense of connection with God and with all of creation.
The command to love is, then, really an invitation to rediscover our true nature, rather than the imposition of an external law that is alien to us. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “I am a vine.” No, he says, “I am the true vine” or in Raymond Brown’s translation: “I am the real vine.” Jesus is simply describing reality, pointing us to the nature of things as they are. He is saying “I am the real thing, not a counterfeit.” The real thing, of course, is love. To abide in love is to remain who we are created to be by and in God.
It is in light of this that we must understand this business of burning and pruning the branches. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers: such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. John 15:6 I would like to suggest that this is an observation, not a judgment. It is simply what happens when we are cut off from the ground of our being in God, when we no longer abide in love. Without love, human beings wither and die. That seems to me to be an undeniable fact.
On the other hand, when we abide in love, human beings flourish. They bear much fruit, bursting like a cluster of ripe grapes on the vine. It is a beautiful image: an image of fullness, completeness, wholeness communicating a sense of having something wonderful to offer the world.
When we are secure in love, we have a lively sense of our giftedness and a willingness to take risks to allow our gifts to ripen and become part of the rich harvest of human generosity and service. Yet, the degree of our fruitfulness is directly proportional to our willingness to be pruned by God. Every branch that bears fruit [God] prunes to make it bear more fruit. John 15:2b
Here, too, Jesus is inviting us to see deeply into the nature of reality. Our lives are richer in meaning and purpose to the degree that we are willing to let go of all of those things that undermine our capacity to experience God as love. Christian discipleship, really following Jesus, requires a willingness to allow God to prune away everything impeding our experience of love, human and divine; which is to say, our experience of reality.
What this boils down to is allowing perfect love, mature love, to cast out fear. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we have boldness on the day of judgment, because as [God] is, so are we in the world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. I John 4:16b-18.
The hard pruning to which we must submit is the acknowledgement of our own inner demons, the fear that enslaves us and keeps us from experiencing the depths of divine love in our own being. It is our fear of judgment, of condemnation, of failure, our fear of seeing deeply into our own inner life and of being seen that reveals our need to hear the words of Jesus. If the real vine is love, why are we so afraid of remaining connected to God and to each other?
We must move beyond our captivity to the illusion of a God of condemnation and judgment, our resistance to integrating and seeing beneath the shadow side of our own self, so that we can perceive our true nature. Our fear cuts us off from the real vine that nourishes us at the root of our being, and so we skim across the surface of life rather than experience the depths of love.
Christian tradition teaches us that this pruning is essentially the work of contemplative prayer. It is through contemplative prayer that we acknowledge our fears, our inner demons, and expose them to the light of God’s love. Over time, the practice of contemplative prayer slowly strips away our fears, our illusions, and our preoccupation with superficial things, so that we may rest in the presence God, securely rooted in love.
Contemplative prayer basically consists of sitting in silence in a relaxed but alert posture, gradually detaching one’s self from all sensations, emotions, and thoughts in a state of pure receptivity. It is a means of opening one’s self to the mystery of God beyond concepts, with the intention of reaching out in love to God alone. Thomas Merton described it as an experience of the fact that God is infinite Love, that He has given Himself completely to us, and that henceforth love is all that matters. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, p. 73.
The seed of such experience is planted in us in baptism and nourished by Holy Communion and the life of prayer and service in Christian community. All this is preparation for its fullest realization through a direct, intuitive, interior encounter with God in the darkness and hiddenness of our inner life.
The basic and most fundamental problem of the spiritual life, writes Merton, is this acceptance of our hidden and dark self, with which we tend to identify all that is evil in us. We must learn by discernment to separate the evil growth of our actions from the good ground of the soul. And we must prepare that ground so that a new life can grow up from it within us, beyond our knowledge and beyond our conscious control. The sacred attitude is, then, one of reverence, awe, and silence before the mystery that begins to take place within us when we become aware of our inmost self. In silence, hope, expectation, and unknowing, the man of faith abandons himself to the divine will: not as an arbitrary and magic power whose decrees must be spelled out from cryptic ciphers, but as the stream of reality and of life itself. The sacred attitude is, then, one of deep and fundamental respect for the real in whatever new form it may present itself. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, p. 55.
Christian faith isn’t simply to believe certain ideas about God, but rather a journey of encounter with the living God in the mystery of our own being. “God is love” isn’t just a nice idea: it is reality, and Jesus invites us to experience the real thing for ourselves: I have said these things to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Amen. John 15:11