The Vine and the Aspen Grove

“We are not islands unto ourselves. We are not solitary clippings of plants sitting on top of the fridge; we are not even your average potted house plant! No – we are branches. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are connected to the Vine of Jesus Christ that existed long before we were conceived, and will continue to live when our time on earth has come to an end. Through our connection to that Vine, we will live forever.”

The Rev. Heidi Thorsen

Sermon Preached: May 2, 2021 at Trinity on the Green, New Haven (on Zoom)

Lectionary Year B, Easter 5: Acts 8:26-40 | 1 John 4:7-21 | John 15:1-8 | Psalm 22:24-30

Jesus said, “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.” May I speak in the name of God, who is to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Holy Scriptures come to us from a specific part of the world. It is a landscape filled with fig trees and olive trees, mustard seeds, and of course – grapes and vines. From that specific context, the words of scripture speak to us all in our own time, and our own place. That is one of the amazing things about scripture: it is both universal and particular. Scripture was written in history, and yet it speaks to us today through the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, I wonder what the Gospel might look like if it wasn’t set in the Middle East – in the environs of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. For example: what plants would Jesus have used for lessons with his disciples in another part of the world?

Imagine a Gospel landscape full of bamboo, lotus flowers, and rice paddies.

Imagine a Gospel landscape of pine trees, lichen, and moss.

Imagine a Gospel landscape of saguaros, aloe, and Joshua trees. 

I like this exercise because it reminds me that God is present in all of these places, even if Jesus only lived in a particular time and place. Jesus used images from nature to teach his disciples a better way to live in the world – a way to abide in the world, with a deeper awareness of the ways we are connected to one another through Jesus Christ. And that is what our Gospel passage today is all about.

As I read today’s Gospel, meditating on it throughout this week, these are the words that kept speaking to me. Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” In other words, this is one plant we are talking about, in this image that Jesus uses to teach his disciples. Jesus is not talking about a vineyard of separate grape plants, growing alongside one another in happy harmony – no. The image of spiritual wholeness that Jesus presents to us in this passage is one in which we are all part of a single living being – a single plant that is growing and flourishing. We are the branches; Jesus is the vine, the heart of the plant that connects us all; and God is the Vinegrower, tending to all of us in a single body – the Body of Christ. 

This Gospel image gives us a window into what eternal life looks like – in our lives today and in the life to come. Eternal life, you say! What does this passage have to do with eternal life? It’s true that our Gospel text does not use these words, specifically. But the concept of eternal life is, at very least, on the periphery of our Gospel text. Take a moment to consider the words of our Collect today: “Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life.” Those are the words that we prayed together, at the beginning of our service today. Also, consider the words of the Psalm that is paired with today’s Gospel passage. The Psalmist proclaims, “May your heart live for ever!” And later in the Psalm says: “My soul shall live for him; my descendents shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds he has done.” This Psalm is very interested in the idea of eternal life; in the idea that there is life in God that extends beyond our own individual lives on this earth.

And how can that be? How can it be that we, whose lives are fixed – who are born and live and die – how is it that we can have eternal life? The answer is in these words: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” I am the vine, you are the branches.

Through Jesus Christ, we live not to ourselves alone, but to the Lord (Romans 14:7). Through Jesus Christ we have eternal life through the realization that we are not separate entities. We are not islands unto ourselves. We are not solitary clippings of plants sitting on top of the fridge; we are not even your average potted house plant! No – we are branches. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are connected to the Vine of Jesus Christ that existed long before we were conceived, and will continue to live when our time on earth has come to an end. Through our connection to that Vine, we will live forever.

When we think of eternal life, in an abstract way, it is so easy to slip into a self-centered view of what that might mean. In my most rudimentary understanding of eternal life, I imagine myself literally living forever – never aging, living through centuries. Or perhaps, eventually, I am somehow lifted up into the clouds exactly as I am now, to walk through the garden of heaven as my distinct and separate self. But that is not the kind of eternal life that Jesus offers. The kind of eternal life that Jesus offers us is a life in which we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are not the vine grower, walking through the garden of heaven. We are the branches, growing out of the heart of Jesus Christ. We live forever because we are drawn out of our selfishness and isolation. We live forever because we are a part of God’s eternal life.

“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says. Abide is a perfect word for the kind of eternal life that Jesus is talking about. The word abide doesn’t carry all the baggage of our everyday human living – our quest for self-actualization, or improvement, or survival, or striving. To abide is to live differently, to dwell in the presence of God. To abide is to let go of our isolation, and embrace our interconnectedness. To abide is to live forever. And that eternal life is something that doesn’t just begin when we die. That eternal life begins as soon as we choose to abide in God, as branches of God’s eternal life.

But what do we make of those branches that wither and are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned? Whenever I read the word “fire” in the Bible, I almost automatically think of hellfire, sin, and damnation – this is, after all, the cultural baggage that I carry as a Christian. And yet looking at this passage more closely, it’s important to notice that God the Vinegrower doesn’t cut off branches out of spite, malice, or punishment. God doesn’t even cut off branches because they don’t bear fruit – we have all gone through periods of struggle and fruitlessness, after all. Rather, God the Vinegrower prunes the branches in order to make the branches more fruitful. All of the cutting in this passage is about pruning, about growth. Those branches that have withered have failed to thrive as a part of the common life that Jesus offers. God does not cut them off. God simply gathers them, when they are already withered and gone.

Perhaps eternal life works that way too. Hell is not a deliberate cutting off; a damnation. Hell is simply a withering and a withdrawal from the life that we have in God. Hell is separation from God. But it doesn’t have to be that way for us branches. God wants the branches to thrive, and prunes the edges of our deadness for that very purpose! As branches, we thrive in connection to the whole. We cannot live for ourselves alone, because there is no life if we do.

Take a moment to imagine yourself as part of something bigger – an ancient vine that is growing, and has never stopped growing. Imagine that Jesus is that vine. Imagine that you are one of the branches. Imagine that the people sitting near you in the pews are also branches. Imagine that the people whose faces you see in the boxes on Zoom are also branches of that same vine. Imagine that the people you walk by in your neighborhood are branches. Imagine that people sitting at the bus stop are branches too. Imagine that families who mourn the loss of their loved ones due to violence are branches. Imagine that people in India who are sick with Covid-19 are also branches. Imagine that your ancestors – your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents –  are branches of this one amazing life force. Imagine that your children, nieces, nephews, and children yet to be born are branches on this same vine. We are all connected, one living organism rooted in Christ. As branches, each of us struggles in our own way to thrive and bear fruit and abide. We are all connected to the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

How would you live differently today, if you remembered this interconnectedness – this being part of one whole? How would you live differently every day this week? Every day of your life?

I want to leave you today with another image from the landscape of God’s creation – not the landscape of fig trees, olive trees, and vines, but a landscape somewhat closer to our own, geographically speaking. On the edge of the Colorado Plateau in south-central Utah, there is a grove of quaking aspen trees – with bark that is a dappled white, and leaves that rustle in the wind ranging in color from green to gold, depending on the season. But this grove of trees is unlike many of the other forests that we might think of – because scientists have determined that it is one organism, one plant with identical genetic markers and a single root system spanning 108 acres. This grove is a single plant because of the unique way it grows – sending out roots through the ground that grow up through the earth, creating new trees. Trying to wrap their minds around this unique organism, scientists have given this aspen grove a name. They call it Pando, which means in Latin “I spread.” You cannot tell the age of this plant by cutting down a single tree and counting the rings, because each individual tree is only a small part – a “branch,” if you will – of the central vine, the interconnected life of this grove. Scientists estimate that this incredible aspen grove is thousands of years old.

If Jesus preached to his disciples in a different part of the world – say, in southern Utah – I wonder if he might say these words: I am the roots of the aspen grove, and you are the aspens. Those who abide in me and I in them flourish, because apart from me you can do nothing. My father is glorified in this. Abide in me.

We live not to ourselves alone, but to Jesus Christ. We live, connected to one body that unites us all in one life. Our wants, our needs, our fruits stem from that common life. And so living, we will live forever.

In the name of God, the Vinegrower, the Vine, and the soil in which we live and move and have our being. Amen.

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