On Being Branches Connected to the Vine

eucharist1The image of the vine and the branches in John 15 gives us a powerful image of closeness both between ourselves and God and also with each other through our grounding in God.
Each of us is a branch connected to the vine which is Jesus. Jesus is telling us that the desires of each and every one of us must be rooted in His Desire, which is the same Desire as that of his heavenly Father. Between Jesus and his Father, there is no rivalry and Jesus does not enter into rivalry with us. From our side it tends to be a different story. We experience rivalry so constantly that it is very hard to imagine a relationship without rivalry. Just note how political and social debates are saturated with it.

Jesus’ words start to sound threatening when he talks about branches withering, being thrown away, and then burnt. However, it isn’t Jesus who cuts off the branches; it’s branches that cut themselves off. Life rooted in Christ has to be rooted in Christ. This is, or should be, a tautology, but we have a folk saying about cutting off the limb we’re sitting on. People who center their lives on one or more rivals instead of Christ are doing just that. Once cut off from the vine, we are consumed with rage with our rivals, a strife that burns us up.

We often think of union with God as individualistic but that is not so. On the contrary, union with the vine unites us with all of the other branches. This means we share our union with the vine with everybody else’s union with the vine. It is by being united to others through Christ that we have the ability, through grace, to act towards others in God’s Desire rather than through our rivalistic tendencies. Since there is no rivalry in Jesus, there is no way that Jesus would encourage rivalry with others who are connected to him. In his first epistle, John says that we should love one another because “love is from God” and God is love. (1 Jn. 4: : 7–8) Again, God’s love for us is deeply connected with our love for one another. God abides in us insofar as we love one another. If we cut ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from other people and if we cut ourselves off from other people, we cut ourselves off from God.

The image of the vine and the branches is, above all, Eucharistic. The Eucharist is a public event. The wine in the Eucharistic celebration is the blood of Jesus that he gave to heal all of us of our violent ways. The blood of Jesus on the altar shared with each of us makes present to us the death of Jesus at the hands of persecutory humans as it also makes present the risen life of Jesus. In exchange for the way we betray Jesus with our violence, we receive the gift of life through deep union with Jesus, a union like that of the branches to the vine. We associate blood with violence, such as with the term “bloodshed,” but blood is the life within us and it is life that the Risen Jesus gives us through his Blood. This is the wine, the blood, that flows from the vine to the branches to connect us to Christ and to each other.

Jesus’ New Commandment

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Jesus’ “new commandment” to his disciples that they should love one another (Jn. 13: 34) is simple. Or is it? If it were as simple as it seems, everybody would love one another and everything would be fine. But everything is not fine. Violence continues to break out time and time again. We get a strong hint as to the difficulty of this simple commandment by noting the context immediately surrounding this new commandment. Judas has just left the group to betray Jesus. Does this new commandment apply to him?

In the First Epistle of John, the author expresses this new commandment (1 Jn. 2: 8) by saying: “whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light” but whoever “hates another believer is in the darkness.” (1 Jn. 2: 10–11) When Judas left Jesus and the disciples, John said: “And it was night.” (Jn. 13: 30) This verse is often understood symbolically. Judas has rejected love of Jesus and the disciples and so he is in darkness. Does this mean it is okay to hate Judas who is no longer a believer? Is this how we follow Jesus’ “new commandment?”

In his first epistle, John follows up the love commandment with a denunciation of the “antichrists” who “went out from us” but did not “belong to us for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” (1 Jn. 2: 19) So, the “antichrists” had, like Judas, betrayed the Johannine community and once again, we face the pain we suffer through betrayal. The tone of John’s denunciations of the “antichrists” suggests that the new commandment does not apply to them any more than it applies to Judas.

Does the new commandment mean it is okay, even righteous, to hate traitors? That is the impression the First Epistle of John seems to give. We all know how difficult it is to have anything but hatred for those who betray us. Loving a traitor seems impossible. For a small community living under pressure and threat, it must have been doubly difficult to forgive those who betrayed them. In Matthew and Luke, however, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. St. Paul and St. Peter say the same in their epistles. Moreover, the story of Peter being called to preach to the centurion Cornelius is a powerful example of Israel being called to expand God’s love to their traditional enemies, the Gentiles.

It follows that whatever John may have thought about loving traitors and enemies, the overall teaching in the New Testament would have us understand Jesus’ new commandment in John as extending to everybody, even Judas. We should note, however, that although the synoptic Gospels don’t express the same cold anger at Judas, there is no indication of forgiveness for him, either. The thrust of these reflections is that the new commandment does extend to Judas but that John is also very frank about how difficult, even impossible, this simple commandment is.

The key out of this impasse is the rider Jesus adds to the new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Jn. 31: 34) We are very prone to loving as we love one another. A big part of the way we love one another is to intensify our love by hating our enemies, especially those who have betrayed us. By abiding in our love for others, we hate those who are outside our group. If we abide in Christ’s love, then our love for others expands even to our betrayers because it is no longer our love, but Christ’s that moves in and through us. After all, Jesus had presumably washed the feet of Judas before Judas left. Might Jesus still want Judas to come back to the table? Would we welcome Judas if he should return?

For further reflections on this theme see http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/easter5c/

 

Celebrating the Saints in our Lives

GuestsoutsideAll Saints is a feast for all of us. Does this mean we are all sanctified in the sense of perfected in Christ? No, but it is a feast that celebrates the true glimpses of Christ that others have given us. What does Christ look like in the actions and bearing of those people who have had an effect on us?

The Beatitudes in Matthew give us a sense of direction and a daunting one at that. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful and making peace are clear signs of sanctity in the sense of imaging Christ who was and is all of the above. But what about meekness? What is so holy about that? In this context, meekness seems not to be about obsequiousness, which is not holy, but about being out of the loop of the power brokers. Being poor goes with meekness in this respect. Being poor and meek does not guarantee that one will image Christ and it is important not to trash the movers and shakers out of resentment. Jesus did not resent the young rich man’s wealth; he felt sorry for the guy because that wealth prevented him from becoming a follower. By adding the phrase “in spirit” to being poor, Matthew gives us a loophole that Luke’s version doesn’t. A rich and powerful person can be a saint if that person is willing to be a peace maker and merciful and to thirst after righteousness.

Being pure of heart so as to see God is an inner virtue. In his Epistle, John says that “what we will be has not yet been revealed” but when it is revealed, “we will be like [God], because we will see him as he really is.” (1 Jn. 3: 2) One of the fundamental things that purity of heart means is being empty of self so as to give room for God. This is a big part of what being “poor in spirit” is all about. The more we see God, the more visible God will be to others who see us.

Being persecuted and hated and reviled on Jesus’ account is not something that we normally think of as a blessing, but if we thirst for righteousness, we will prefer to be vilified than to be praised for betraying our principles. Making peace, or trying to, is a good way to make enemies. The poor and meek are targets for persecution because they are vulnerable. In Revelation, John the Divine assures us that when we come through such ordeals, we will be given white robes and will be among the pure in heart celebrating before the Lamb who was slain. (Rev. 7: 14)

Many have suffered badly at the hands of people in the Church. Many of those who came through “the ordeal” suffered it not from pagans but from fellow Christians. Such suffering that amounts to scandal can make some of us think there are no saints in the church. Elijah thought he was the only faithful person left in Israel until God told him of seven thousand prophets who had not bent their knee before Baal. Likewise, the uncountable multitude of people from all tribes, languages and nations shows us that there have been and are many saints than we sometimes think.

In my own life, four such come to mind most prominently. During my college years, my parents transferred to an Episcopal Church they thought would be more responsive to our pastoral needs than the one we left. It was. I visited the rector of this church every time I came home for vacation. He listened generously to everything I said although much of what I said was outrageous. His kind listening made it easier for me to see through my silliness than if he had called me out on it. Meanwhile, at college, I had a religion professor who not only taught me how to think theologically, but was a model of gentle listening and gentle prodding to nudge me in better directions of thinking. At the abbey, I was nurtured by a novice master who was one of the most self-effacing people I have ever known, self-effacing to a fault that some people take advantage of. He gently provided the space for me to grow as a monk. During a tough time at the abbey, we had an oblate who was like a grandmother to many of us. She couldn’t solve any of our problems but she could listen and encourage us and strengthen us to seek constructive solutions. None of these people cared about making waves in the world; they were content to be themselves. Let us celebrate this feast by remembering the saints that the “world” may not know about but we do.