St. Thomas, Whitemarsh, PA
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHCEaster 5 B – Sunday, May 3, 2015
1 John 4:7-21
1 John 4:7-21
|I am the true vine|
Jesus said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Jesus said: “Pray as though everything depended on God and act as though everything depended on you.”
Of course, Jesus said nothing of the sort. But it is amazing what people believe. Sometimes it's amazing what we believe, though we may never admit it to anyone else and often, not even to ourselves.
Last week we heard Jesus tell us: “I am the Good Shepherd.” And today we are presented with another of those great I AM statements from and about Jesus: “I am the true vine.” And like all the I AM statements in St. John's Gospel—I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life—they fill us with wonder and consolation, and also if we are honest, with a host of questions: What precisely is this bread? Where does this door lead? What is truth?
And even as we are consoled by these images, we may find ourselves challenged. In today's Gospel passage, as soon as Jesus identifies himself as the true vine, he reminds us that his Father is the vine grower. And here he comes with his saws and pruning hooks and shears. And none of us escapes his attention: pruned if we are fruitful, thrown away and burnt in the fire if we are not. Yikes!
Yet there is also a sweet side to all this agricultural imagery, a sweetness captured in that marvelous word Abide: “Abide 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.”
In what does this abiding consist? What constitutes it? Buddhists often speak of “calm abiding” as a central practice. It is the fruit of their own self discipline, of detachment, of a deep and persistent acceptance of the fragility and impermanence of all things. There's a profound truth here that we Christians can assimilate and learn from. Indeed the Christian monastic tradition shares this practice and much of this outlook.
But Jesus invites us to something more dynamic and breath taking than simple self discipline... not that self discipline is ever simple. He invites us to intimacy with him, an intimacy of mutual knowing and mutual loving, and of a patient and ever-deepening trust in the presence and power of God at the heart of the universe and at the center of our own hearts.
Trust in God. Abandonment to Divine Providence. Surrender. These are not easy words. I think of something the late Gerald May wrote some years ago. May was a psychiatrist and spiritual teacher at the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC. He commented particularly on the dynamics of addiction. Writing about one of those popular adages often, but mistakenly, attributed to Jesus—the aphorism: “Pray as though everything depended on God and act as though everything depended on you”—May says: “It appears to encourage prayer and intimacy with God, but before you know it, it tells you to act as though God weren’t in the picture at all.” Indeed, it soon results in the very opposite of abiding in Christ, leading us rather to exaggerated responsibility and individualism of the worst sort.
Why then do we so glibly accept such advice? Why is such teaching so popular? Here again May cuts to the heart of the matter:
...I think such sayings are popular because they rationalize our mistrust of God and our subsequent desire to master our own destinies. They are propaganda for willfulness. The falsehood of the adages is so acceptable precisely because the Gospel truths they undermine are so radical. The Gospel truths invite a degree of trust in God that seems impossible in the so-called real world. And they require the most awful and awesome spiritual sacrifice: letting-go of control. - from Shalem News, Vol 25, Winter 2001I know I'm not alone in struggling with this one. How many times have I prayed “God is God and I am not” only to find myself slipping into saying: “I am God and God is not.” Maybe it is just a parapraxis, a verbal slip of the tongue. But maybe it is also my own rebellious heart struggling to accept the fact that ultimately I do not control things... certainly not the Big Picture, but increasingly the many little pictures as well. Maybe I'm not quite ready to accept the fact that I dread appearing foolish. Or that I positively fear the claims of faith. Or that maybe I feel that since I've always carefully played by the rules, I'll have a pass on all that is unpleasant or difficult. Why take any risks? I imagine that this sounds familiar to at least some of you.
Yet not all is lost. On the contrary, perhaps all is found, the pearl of great price. For beyond all our control needs lies a freedom that comes from trusting in God, in surrendering to God. Trusting that God will not abandon us to meaninglessness, to despair, or to the emptiness that comes from the utter exhaustion of trying to be in charge of all things. Trusting that when God gives us something to do, he will give us the grace to accomplish it, whether or not we meet with success. Trusting that, as Dame Julian taught: All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.
How many of us have discovered this depth dimension when suddenly faced with a difficult medical diagnosis or a lost or broken relationship or some disgrace, public or private, that has shattered our carefully crafted self-image? When we have come at last to recognize that we are simply human, redeemed sinners, just like the next person... limited, finite and yet wonderfully created in God's image and marked by an infinite longing and drive for the Eternal, for love human and divine? What a great, if costly, gift!
Jesus speaks to us today and says quite simply: “...apart from me you can do nothing.” We depend on him, whether we know it or not... on his fellowship, his hidden presence, his transformative power. Indeed, the whole creation does. Without him we really can do nothing. But on the other side of that dependence, that surrender, that desire to give our hearts and our lives over to Jesus, is a marvelous fruitfulness and a generativity that will astonish us.
Jesus says: “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Giving it all up, receiving it all back... once again it's the Easter mystery. Which is our mystery as well, yours and mine. God is glorified in our being and in our doing and especially in our surrendering to Him. Together we can abide in Christ, the true vine. Together we can be a blessing for each other and for the world. Together we can become a living Alleluia.