The Branches of our Spiritual Life
In our gospel reading today, Jesus explains our relationship with God, with Jesus, and each other by the metaphor of the vine. This metaphor expresses how we are all interconnected – actually tangled – together in God’s love and grace.
The vine was the central line off of which sprouted the many branches. The vine provided nourishment to the branches. The branches leafed and bore fruit. The branches would intertwine with each other, so that though each branch was an individual, it was intimately close to other branches. And some fruit would grow near the vine and other fruit further along the branch. The fruit closes to the vine would be the tastiest.
The vine had to be cared for. That was done by the vinegrower. The vinegrower would cut out all the way to the vine any branch that no longer bore fruit … it was essentially dead. The branches that bore fruit were pruned. The fruit furthers from the vine was inferior since not as much nourishment reached the further end. So the vinegrower prunes back the branch to encourage fruit to grow closer to the vine. And the vine then has more nourishment to grow new branches. The branches cannot grow and bear fruit without the vine. The branch “abides” in the vine in order to bear fruit.
The plant is a marvel of interconnectedness. Branches stemming from the vine share the vine’s water nourishment, along with gathering their own nourishment from the sun via their leaves. The branches tangle around each other creating a wondrous mother lode of fruit.
And so, likewise, is our relationship with God and Jesus. As John tells us, God is the vinegrower, Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. The fruit on our branch are the fruit of our labor. The closer the fruit is to the vine, the closer our labor is to Jesus’s labor. If our branch grows too long it is because we have strayed from Jesus and our fruit becomes more undesirable. It is God then who judges our branch too long and prunes it back.
You and I are connected to God through Jesus in this intertwined plant of vine and branches. The vine is nurtured by the ground of God’s grace. The branches with their leaves are nurtured by the sun of our faith. God through Jesus provides the grace and we provide the faith that result in the fruit. The stronger our faith, the closer to the vine of grace are we and the sweeter the fruit.
God’s grace is always available to us. Grace is God loving us and caring for us without any restrictions or any demands. God gives of God’s self freely without charging us for it. That is grace. But if we do not have the faith to partake of the grace, then we fail to know God’s love and care. We need to truly believe in God and God’s eternal goodness. But this is easier said than experienced. God is out of reach of our physical senses. We sense God only by virtue of believing. But it is hard to believe if we cannot sense God!
And this takes us to faith … yet another idea that is beyond our senses and beyond the material world. Faith is accepting what cannot be seen or felt or smelled or heard by our physical senses. Faith is accepting that there is a whole “shadow” reality that science and mathematics cannot define or study. Indeed, faith arises from a sixth sense that also is undetectable by scientific means.
You simple have to decide to have faith no matter what the material world says. And if you can do that then you can sense God in that faith and experience God’s grace.
When we are bereft of faith, we dismiss many opportunities and events in our life as “luck” or random events. The opportunity or event simply is that – a single opportunity and a single event. But if we have faith and believe God is working through our lives and the life of the whole cosmos, we can see that many opportunities and events are placed in our life by God. Now the opportunity or event is not simply an opportunity or an event, but also carries with it a divine act of love and care. Each one has the potential of God calling us into some project of God’s.
And when we have faith, then we grow as a branch on the vine that is Jesus. That vine clarifies and focuses the opportunities and events that God presents to us. Our faith nurtured by God’s grace can now lead us to see the deeper expectation that embraces the opportunity or event. This deeper expectation is the cry of God for us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps for a particular opportunity or in a particular event.
But how do we grow good fruit in our spiritual lives? Doing good works in the footsteps of Jesus is important. We’ve talked about this in sermons many times. We grow sweet fruit when we do the simplest thing for someone. We grow especially excellent fruit when we stretch beyond our comfort zone and perform a righteous act of particular note.
These are very tangible ways we grow fruit on our branch close to the vine. We grow good fruit when we attend worship and participate in the church here. We grow good fruit when we pass on our beliefs to our children and grandchildren.
But the deep, abiding growing is in constant prayer. Paul tells us to pray always. By that he doesn’t mean for us to spend our lives in a closet praying. But rather we leave a prayerful life. Our every thought and every action is a prayer. This life style grows fruit close to the vine.
If we know God as personal, we pray one on one with God. Silent prayer is a mainstay. Regularly and frequently praying to God grows our sense of God’s reality and presence. Even if you do not feel God’s presence, pray anyways… regularly and frequently. Eventually you will feel God’s presence.
And in that silent prayer, do not forget to thank God for the ordinary daily beauties in your life. Thank God for every good thing from a beautiful day or a long overdue raining day, to a precocious child who has all the answers to a children’s sermon, to a fulfilling visit with a friend or relative, to everything good. Eventually you will see the ordinary world as full of sacred and holy places and lives.
But we must not just pray to God, but pray with God. Our quiet, personal prayers need to be a dialog. The words we say in our heads need to stand side by side with the listening in our heads.
God being God, we shouldn’t expect an immediate reply. God probably would not reply in words we know or understand. We have to learn and grow a sixth sense that hears God’s reply. We have to be attentive to when God answers are prayers. It may be days or weeks or months before God answers … and in the rush and busy-ness of our lives we may simply accept what good happened as a circumstance of the moment.
For example, you worried for months that your child would never find a good spouse… prayed that someday she will. But over time … too long of a time … you all but give up. Then out of the blue she announces she’s getting married … to a good person. Don’t forget to thank God … without God it would not have happened.
Eventually, you will discover that God is always in your head and soul. And by that I don’t mean that God is a figment of your imagination. But rather you have finally opened the doors to your soul and invited God in. And God’s quiet voice will nag you for all eternity. Listen close to that voice … it could be very dangerous. It may – and often does – require you to leave your comfort zone and grow very, very close to the vine.
But that quiet voice or that light bulb that comes on out of the blue may be your salvation. For the time may come when you feel you are backed into a corner with no way out.
And this is the time when most of us resort to pray even if we weren’t a steady pray-er. Even so called non-believers may resort to prayer to a supposed non-existent god in moments of desperation. But if you have nurtured your relationship with God receiving God’s grace through the vine of Jesus and nurtured your faith to embrace that grace, you will have a powerful support for those times when you feel overwhelmed and out of control. These are the times when we discover that we are really never invulnerable or perfect or impregnable. We are vulnerable flesh and blood and much easier hurt than we wish to admit. And we are very imperfect. Our lives, our plans, our skills are no guarantee that they will provide the strength to overcome adversity.
Now is the time to really listen for God’s quiet voice. This is the time when we pick that sweet fruit we have grown.
For example, I suspect that some of us have experienced being laid off our jobs. And unless we have some hidden wealth the loss feels very much like a fall over the cliff of life. Oh, there’s the so-called safety net. We can collect unemployment … but that’s very little and limited by how long we can collect it. It pulls us back from the cliff, but only for a while. We can standby and watch our budget dwindle and our options disappear. We can seek out job sites on the Internet or find a job placement business and work with them. Our job becomes creating a resume and waiting and waiting and waiting for an interview standing in line with many other desperate people. And all of this we needed to do.
But if we have grown that sweet fruit, I believe we have the opportunity that unexpected possibilities will open up. Strangely enough, desperate events can give us the courage to break from our comfort zone – which is no comfort any longer. And when we’ve shed the idolatry of our comfort zone our mental ears are unstopped and we might just hear God’s quiet voice clearly. For example, God does not want us to be unemployed. But once the world moves in a certain direction and we loose our job, God is likely to say go here or do this because I, God, want you to go and do this now.
That’s how I ended up a chaplain …
You may not end up a chaplain, but you may end up something fresh and new and fulfilling … listen closely to that silent, loving voice. That voice and that love is the only true comfort zone – a comfort zone right next to the vine of Jesus.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …