Colossians 1: 15-20; John 15: 1-17
Surely one reason why Jesus’ teaching is so memorable, and why it has such a hold on the human imagination, is because it is so visual, so stocked with memorable images. So to describe Jesus as a teacher, as we often do, is somewhat misleading as the power of Jesus’ teaching rests upon his power as a poet and a story-teller. And today we encounter in our reading one of his most rich and striking images, that of the vine and the branches.
It’s not entirely original to Jesus. In this passage in John’s Gospel Jesus is drawing on an Old Testament picture of God’s people, as found especially in the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, where Israel is visualised as having been planted in the world by God as a vineyard and called to bear fruit to the world. Israel had failed, however, and in the experience of defeat and exile it had been destroyed and cast into the wilderness. And now Jesus has come to reconstitute Israel, to renew and to rebirth it and here in this passage he sits with his disciples in the upper room on the night of his arrest and he sees in them the nucleus of the new Israel, this new people of God growing out of the roots of the old one. And he knows the trials that await them. He has spoken of their rejection by the world which will mirror his. But this image of the vine and the branches carries great reassurance for it speaks of connectedness: their connectedness to him, inseparably joined as they are to him, rooted and grounded in him and with his life flowing into theirs like sap; but also their connectedness to each other as the shoots of a vine branch and intertwine and live in one another.
This is an organic image of the Church where roots and shoots and stem and branches all connect and indwell together in one great bundle of life and vitality. Connectedness is the key. This image, however, applies not just to the Church. The Church, after all, provides a model for the world. The Church is called to embody the truth about humanity, the truth about God’s purposes for all of creation. The Church is called to be a microcosm of the world and therefore the way it is imaged in the New Testament provides a template for human society, for human life in general. And again, therefore, connectedness is the key. You may know the 17th C poem by John Donne: ‘No Man is an island’ which begins,
‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…’;
and then, a few lines on,
‘… any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.’
And at its best humankind displays this sense of connectedness, this sense of our diminishment when any life is diminished. Just a few verses on in our reading Jesus says, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Here is this great vine of love whereby our life together connects with God’s life and draws from it, and we lay down our lives for one another as God in Christ lay down his.
And surely this pandemic has brought home to us this connectedness. We are connected by touch, by breath, by presence, connected in one common but very vulnerable humanity. But we are also connected by technology and it is this of course that has come into its own in this pandemic as we find ourselves networked through Zoom and through text and email. And Covid has been bad enough – what would it have been like without this technology? What deeper levels of isolation? And yet of course our very dependence on that technological vine has only left us yearning all the more for physical, face-to-face, connection, for real presence beyond the virtual vine. And so, in this technological age where we are overwhelmed by gadgets and devices, Covid has demonstrated not only the gift but also the limitations of technology: how indispensable is what the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called the I-Thou relationship, the immediate, face-to-face encounter with the other in whose eyes I see my own reflection.
I would suggest, however, that this image of the vine in our reading invites us to consider two other areas connectedness that are essential to our humanity and that we are in danger of losing in our modern world. The first is our connectedness with nature. This today is, of course, increasingly urgent. Over fifty years ago a historian by the name of Lynn White Jnr wrote an influential article called The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis in which he pointed the finger at the Judaeo-Christian worldview as responsible for our calamitous relationship with nature. The problem, White argued, was that the Bible presents human beings as set over nature rather than as part of it. Whether it’s the emphasis on humans being made in the image of God, or whether it’s the command to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ and to have dominion over the animals, there has been a tendency to view nature in subjection to us, rather than seeing us as part of one great vine, embedded in and emerging from the soil. And certainly there are other ways to read these passages from the Bible that would see human beings as part of the great community of creation, albeit with a distinct vocation within it, and our current crisis calls out urgently to open up to those re-readings.
From tomorrow the world’s biggest climate change summit, COP26, is being held in Glasgow. COP26 is an important moment for global climate policy. Scientists have warned that if global warming is not kept below 1.5°c above pre-industrial levels, the consequences are irreversible. At COP26, for the first time each nation will be asked to set a date for achieving net-zero carbon emissions. This is a more powerful objective than previous agreements, as net zero sets out a vision for carbon neutrality. Governments are also required to make explicit pledges about what they will achieve by 2030. Ahead of COP26, governments have been increasing their commitments. The COP is an opportunity for these to be stated and welcomed globally, and also to welcome the return of the United States to the Paris Agreement.
A central calling of Christianity is to live in a way which enables both people and planet to flourish. As Churches and as part of a wider body of faiths, we have a strong moral voice to bring as we approach COP26. But in order to use that voice we first of all need to recognise the injustices of the climate crisis, and then start ourselves work towards responses that are fair for everyone. As Christians, we recognise that our neighbours spread across the world, from local to national to global. Our calling to love our neighbour means that we have a responsibility to seek partnership, listen well and prioritise the needs of others. So as a Church, we should take this Sunday as an opportunity to reflect on our own complicity in the climate crisis, and the steps we can take towards change. At the same time, we can amplify our commitment to climate justice by calling on the UK government to do the same. By virtue of living in this world we are connected to it and therefore are connected to and through God’s creation, which means that each and everyone of us has responsibility to care for it and for each other.
And, that brings me, much more briefly to the other connection that we need to rediscover and that our secular world is in danger of losing, our connection to God. In the 1st chapter of the Letter to the Colossians we find this extraordinary depiction of Christ, the firstborn of creation, the one who births creation, of whom it is said that ‘all things have been created through him and for him’ and ‘in him all things hold together’. In him all things are connected. What this passage describes is summed up by the word ‘contingency’: the word ‘contingency’ names our utter dependence upon One who is beyond us – someone who, as my bereaved friend puts it, is beyond ourselves, beyond our control and comprehension. And Covid and the climate crisis reveal our contingency. They reveal our fragile vulnerability in a world which we deceive ourselves into thinking we control. And without the cosmic Christ, we are rootless and there is a deep vacuum, an emptiness, an absence, a void at the heart of everything. And of course nature, as we know abhors a vacuum, and where we create a vacuum we fill it with other things – with consumerism and violence and power-games – and the vineyard lies in ruins, its branches withering and dying, cut off and burning all around us. ‘I am the vine and you are the branches’. We are connected. We are connected to one another in our humanity in a way that technology can never replace. And we are connected to creation, to nature from which we have come and of which we are a part and which me must safeguard for future generations. And we are connected to God, who in Christ has birthed all things, through him and for him, and in whom all things consist and hold together in loving dependence.
Revd Sabrina Groeschel