08 May 2012

Branching Out

John 15: 1-12

Fifth Sunday of Easter/ 6th May 2012/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

For the last two weeks on Thursday mornings, about thirty folks have been studying the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas was discovered in 1945, in Egypt, along the Nile River, although fragments of it were first unearthed in the late 1890s.  Scholars have known about this text since the third century, but no one had ever seen a complete copy until 1945.  It’s unlike the Gospels we have in the New Testament in that it has no narrative.  It’s a collection of sayings, teachings of Jesus that date back very early, possibly before Mark’s Gospel, to around 50 AD.  Of the 114 sayings in the Gospel, we’ve read the first 39 thus far, and I would say close to 80% are directly related – sometimes exactly – to what we have Jesus saying in the New Testament.  Thomas provides a window into the early church and helps us to see what stands behind Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

            Like last week, the Common Lectionary has us in the world of John and his community.  And like last week, we can hear something of Thomas echoed in John.  As we’ve seen over the last two weeks, in Thomas we have Jesus stressing the importance of knowing who we are and whose we where, of identifying and claiming the Source of our being, and remaining connected to that Source.  To remain connected to the Source means to be at rest, to trust.  Resting however is connected to action.  To rest in God then allows us to act, to move – to love.  Similarly, we have Jesus saying in Thomas, at Logion 50, “If you are questioned, ‘But what is the sign of the Source within you?” say, “It is movement and it is rest.”[1]  The reverse is also true; it is rest and movement.  Both-and.  At the same time.  The world of Thomas is non-dual.  It eschews either-or thinking.  It’s relational.

            We find something of the same teaching here in John 15, in this well-known text.  Read within the light of Thomas, we begin to see what might have been missed before in our hearing of the text:

You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  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.  I 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.

            Can you hear it?  Not either-or, but both-and.  Movement and rest; rest and movement.  If we rest, abide in him, we will bear fruit; we can only bear fruit if we rest, abide in him.  And we are called to be disciples in order to know the joy that comes with being able to rest in God, but also to be able to bear fruit, to branch out, to create, to flourish, to grow.  They’re related.  We cannot do one without the other. 

            But the metaphor says something even more profound – and maybe disturbing, or difficult to hear or even bear.  “I am the vine,” Jesus says.  “You are the branches.”  What’s so disturbing about this?  Think about it.  It makes the claim that for every follower, every disciple: Jesus is in you and you are in Jesus.

            Perhaps you’ll object:  “You can’t talk about union with God, it blurs the distinction between the Creator and creation.  You have to keep a distance.  Set us apart.  Don’t confuse the categories.  Human is human; the divine is divine. God is holy; I’m the opposite of holy.”

            But that’s what Jesus is saying here.  You might want to take it up with him.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  They’re all connected.  The branches are not separate from the vine but one with it.  If you cut off the branch, you won’t have a branch, a branch of the vine, for it loses its life. A branch is a branch of something. “A branch is a branch insofar as it is one with the vine.  From the branch’s perspective it is all vine.”[2]  The vine is the Source, yet it’s tough to tell where the vine ends and the branch begins, for it’s the same life pouring through it.

            What Jesus is really lifting up here is a transformation of consciousness, which happens when we discover that by virtue of his word – which has already cleansed us – we are, right now, abiding, existing, participating in the being and light and love of God.  It’s pouring through us even as we are living in it.  Whether we want to accept it or not, this is the way things are.

            If the vine-branch metaphor isn’t working for you, think of a sponge in the ocean floor.  The sponge looks without and sees ocean; it looks within and sees ocean. The sponge is immersed in what at the same time flows through it.[3]  Both-and; the ocean permeates it all.

            We can thank the long, often overlooked witness of Christian mystics, whose writings over centuries caught this vision of what Jesus was saying here.  The Spanish mystic, John of the Cross (1542-1591) – known for the phrase “the dark night of the soul,” a man who journeyed in the darkness and discover there an inextinguishable light – said, “It seems to [the soul] that the entire universe is a sea of love in which it is engulfed, for, conscious of the living point or center of love within itself, it is unable to catch sight of the boundaries of this love.”[4] 

            When life is lived from “the center” or “the Source,” all life is shot through with the glory of God, there are no boundaries of love, no place beyond which there is not love. And we don’t lose our distinctiveness as branches in this love; we actually come to realize what it means to be a branch of the vine.  Martin Laird, a contemporary scholar of Christian mysticism, is very helpful here in making clear the point of all of this:  “the more we realize we are one with God the more we become ourselves, just as we are, just as we were created to be.  The Creator is outpouring love, the creation, the love outpoured.”[5]

            This, too, is rest and movement.  Rooted in the Source, we branch out, which is really the purpose of the vine, to extend branches, to grow, to flourish, to create.  Isn’t this what Jesus himself showed us, isn’t this what he offers us, isn’t this the way that he showed us?  “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Jn. 15:11).

             What Jesus seems to be saying here is that any perceived absence from God, if we feel absent, is illusion.  If we’re the branches, then the vine is here too.  God is closer to us than our breath. We exist in God and God exists in us.  Our ability to grow, to bear fruit, to branch out – individually, inter-personally, even as a church – is directly related to our awareness that we are existing in the Source of God, already.  For apart from him, we can do nothing, would be nothing, would not be.  Apart from him there is no growth, because he is growth.  Apart from him there is no life, because he is life. 

            What an enormous difference we can have in the world if we more fully lived this way, with this awareness.  We might better see God’s presence in the world and within us, especially in difficult times.  We might have a better sense of what God is calling us toward, both individually and as a church. Sometimes the relationship involves a pruning of the branches in order to allow further growth, but that’s a whole other sermon.

            Is our relationship with God allowing further sprouting and branching out and fruit-bearing?  What is the yield in our life?  Where’s the evidence of it?  Perhaps we might come to see that reality and the people of the world are far more connected to us than we ever suspected.  We might be given new eyes.  That’s how the great German mystic Meister Eckhart (c.1260-c.1327) famously put it: “The eye with which I see God is exactly the same eye with which God sees me.  My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge and one love.”[6]  (It’s worth re-reading this several times to fully fathom what’s being said here.)

            It’s not surprising that Jesus took the fruit of the vine, grapes, used for the making of wine, and lifted up the fruit of the cup as a profound symbol.  It’s worth noting here that we Protestants have an ambiguous relationship with symbols.  Nothing is “just a symbol,” for symbols (when they’re really acting as symbols) have power; they have power because they point to and participate in a deeper power that stands behind the symbol. Jesus gives us the cup as symbol to point us to this deeper truth: that through him, in him, like him, we are connected to God.  Isn’t this what Communion means – union?  More than a memorial meal, this is a meal of participation in the gracious presence of God in the present moment.  Jesus gives us this meal to remind us, to show, and to help us grasp that individually and together (both-and, at the same time) we are united with him – we abide in him and he abides in us.  And the same Lord calls us to grow, to branch out, to bear fruit – fruit that is worthy of God’s name, worthy of God’s grace.  May it be so.

[1] Lynn Baumann, trans. The Gospel of Thomas:  Wisdom of the Twin (Ashland, OR:  White Cloud Press, 2004), 108.  See also Logion 40, “Yeshua says:  A grapevine was planted away from its Source where it remains unprotected.  It will be torn out by its roots and destroyed.” (88).
[2] Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2006), 17.  I am heavily indebted to Laird’s insights here in this remarkable, thoughtful, wise, indeed beautiful book.
[3] Laird, 17.
[4] St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, II, 10, cited in Laird, 17.
[5] Laird, 17.
[6] Meister Eckhart, Sermon 16, in Meister Eckhart:  Selected Writings, cited in Laird, 18.

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