There is nothing like a vine-ripened tomato. I know this, because I have just been betrayed yet again by a bright, red store-bought tomato that I cut open with the same hope Charlie Brown had of being able to kick the football Lucy was holding. Like him, my hopes were dashed. Tomato football. Red on the outside, green on the inside. Tasteless. Provoking me to bitterness!
I even buy the ones that say “vine ripened” on them, but they lie! That little piece of vine is still on the tomato, but when you cut it open, it is still green. It might have been on a vine, but it was cut early and then gassed to give it that nice, juicy red color. Oh, for the days of summer approaching, when I can go to the little tomato patch on my back porch and pluck my tomatoes still warm from where the sun has kissed them into sweetness! It makes all the difference in the world, when the fruit is ripened on the vine.
Jesus makes the same analogy- for grapes instead of tomatoes. Abide in Me, He says. Stay on the vine; let God’s life energy run from My Life through your life. This is the only way you can grow, you can ripen. Get cut off the vine, you’ll stay green and tasteless. Stay on the vine, and you become sustenance for the world.
Okay, I’m going to give you a metaphor, and I want you to guess what it is: What does a child have to do with grapes and grapevines, and vine-ripened tomatoes? A child clings to its mother, the source of his life and sustenance. The mother clings to her child, her life’s fruit, ripening there in her embrace.
Can a child grow to full, healthy maturity outside of the embrace of one who loves him? In the 1990’s there was a surge in adoptions from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Some of the children came from severely overcrowded orphanages. They were fed enough, but they were left alone in their cribs with minimal or no physical contact. These children suffered from severe delays in physical growth and neurobehavioral development. They developed serious infections easily. Despite being warm and fed, they still did not thrive. Why? Because they were not held. In Jesus’ metaphor, they were not living on the vine.
But a child who is held, whose life flows from the arms surrounding her: This child flourishes. This child thrives. There may not be enough food on the table to go to bed with a full stomach, but the child goes to bed with a full heart, and so he thrives. That’s what parents do, what grandparents do. They are the living branch from which their children draw their life. In our touch is their life. In the absence of our touch is their despair.
What is a child’s greatest fear? The loss of a parent. Being cut off from the source of their life, their security, their trust, their joy. Whether it’s death, divorce or abandonment, the loss of a parent inspires terror.
What is a child’s greatest joy? To be part of a family that loves them. To belong. To be held, and cherished. To feel the life of their parents, natural or adoptive, embrace them. This is joy. This is the source of life.
The French poet Victor Hugo once said, “A mother’s arms are made of tenderness, and children sleep soundly in them.” Life flowing into life, making life whole, ripening like a fruit on the vine.
And now Jesus says, This is the sort of relationship I want with you. I am the mother; you are the child. I am the vine; you are the branches. I am the life, and you are the receiver of life. Not orphans. Not unclaimed or desolate. But the fruit of God’s love, and the children of God’s embrace.
Of course, we’re adults. We get to choose if this vine-ripened life is the one we want. Yes, it is absolutely true that, in fact, our every breath comes from God, and if we think any differently, we’re just deluding ourselves.
In Acts 17, it says that “ in God we live and move and have our being.” That’s true, isn’t it? If God withdrew God’s life from us, would there be the sun? Would there be the earth? Everything, including us, would disappear in a blink, because creation derives its very life from God’s life, and without God it is nothing. Without God, we are nothing. The psychotherapist Carl Jung once said that “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” In a real sense, it doesn’t make any sense to say we can live “off the vine.”
But we know that’s not quite right, don’t we. Because we DO have a choice of whether to live in intentional connection with Christ, or not. To choose to follow in Christ’s footsteps, or not. To choose live a life aware of God, or not.
I’ve wondered why we would choose to live a life apart from the life-force of God. What goes on in our minds, our hearts? In John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, the devil says, “I would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Arrogance, the grasp for power, pride. “I would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
But what is behind arrogance? What is behind pride and the grasping for power? I wonder if it is fear. Fear that unless we control our own lives, we will spiral into nothingness. And behind this fear is the terror that we are all alone, and we have no one but ourselves. That the only thing which separates us from the black hole is our own will. Who can we trust? Only ourselves.
But the life of faith calls us to take a bold step, to take a chance that perhaps we are not alone. The life of faith calls us to trust that there is a lifeline, a living branch to which we are, in fact, connected, and which will not let us go. Robert Raines wrote a poem based on Matthew 18:1-4, where Jesus takes a little child to Himself. He writes:
“my three-year-old son
feels like that
when I take him in my arms
he holds my face between his hands
and we look at each other
kisses are enough
to blow away
how amazing that he
who am not
how awesome that
he thinks I am stronger than the
monster, that mysterious power which would
hurt or scare him
but even the Monster’s power fades
when he is with me,
for I am his father
Can I be like my son
and trust You
and not be afraid?
“I am the vine,” Jesus says to us, “and you are the branches… I have loved you as My Father has loved Me. Abide in My love, as I abide in you, that My joy may be your joy, and your joy might be complete…”
In the Name of the One who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
SCRIPTURE FOR APRIL 27 2018. JOHN 15:1-11
Jesus taught His disciples, saying, I am the true vine, and My Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in Me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit He prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been pruned and cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Live in Me as I live in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it grows from the vine, neither can you unless you grow in Me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from Me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown onto the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me, and My words are at home within you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how My Father is honored: when you produce fruit, when you mature as My disciples. I’ve loved you that way My Father has loved Me. Make yourselves at home in My love. That’s what I’ve done- kept My Father’s commands and made myself at home in His love. I’ve told you these things so that My joy might be your joy, and your joy might be wholly mature.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.
|The unfortunate reality of overcrowded orphanages provides indirect support for the negative impact of touch deprivation. Recently, researchers observed the development of infants raised in orphanages where the ratio of care providers to infants was low (9). While infants were appropriately fed, most often they were left alone in their cribs with minimal or no physical contact with the care providers. These children suffered from severe delays in physical growth and neurobehavioral development, and elevated rates of serious infections. Although these case studies suggest a link between tactile deprivation and developmental delays, findings should be interpreted with caution as several other factors may have had an impact on development.|
(9) Albers, Lisa H. Johnson, Dana E., and Hostetter, Margaret K. “Health of Children Adopted from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: Comparison with Preadoptive Medical Records.” Journal of the Medical Association 278.11 (1997): 922-924.