Vines are such beautiful plants. I once grew one when I lived in a Manse with a greenhouse, not for grapes to eat or to make wine, but just for the sheer beauty of it. I love the way the branches wind and twist, the shapes of the leaves and the gentle, curling tendrils. Grapes are an added bonus, and they look beautiful too, shiny with dew, round and luscious with fruitfulness.
But, of course, for us a vine will always remind us of this passage and this thought – I am the vine and you are the branches. And of course the point is that the vine and the branches are one and the same – a vine is pretty much all branches. So Jesus is saying something like ‘We are so deeply connected that you can’t really separate us.’ We are the same thing, we belong together, we live with each other and we can’t live well without each other. Live in me – just as I live in you. And then we will be OK and we will thrive and be fruitful. Today a vine can speak to us of connectedness, of the way in which being part of something or someone makes us truly alive. I find that such a powerful thought – and that’s what I want – to be so close to the God I know in Jesus that we can’t be separated without killing us… like a vine and its branches.
I know that we use ‘the grapevine’ sometimes as a symbol of the ways we share information, gossip, life, community. ‘I heard it on the gravevine.’ And sometimes the ‘grapevine’ can be a rather disturbing metaphor and makes us me uneasy. We talk sometimes of being ‘well connected’, knowing that in this world it’s not always what you know but who you know, or who pays for your interior decorating… or who has the PM on speed dial. Even the passage from the Gospel has some disturbing lines about withered branches being pruned and burned. But there is something about this image that we need to hear I think …. So that we can make and deepen the best kind of connections and know that God is reaching out to connect with us.
One of my favourite novels is EM Forster’s Howards End, and there’s rather a good film of it too. The book has a kind of motto, and next to many biblical texts, I think I hold it as one of the most influential phrases on my life. It is simply two words; ‘only connect’. In the novel it refers to the human need to make connections within ourselves and with other people – a need so important that, you might say, our lives depend upon it. The novelist appeals for an end to fighting between the soul and the body. He urges us to make connections between the different parts of ourselves, and with people who are different from us. And in this Gospel text Jesus urges us to connect with him – to be as closely connected to the divine as the vine is to its own branches.
And I know we don’t always find it easy to build connections, even with people. We’ve all been in those conversations when everyone has a turn at talking, but nobody looks anyone in the eye or really connects with the person sitting next to them. It’s harder on Zoom, I know, to connect deeply… And in our homes sometimes the different people in the house can sit or even sleep alongside one another, but drift to distant places from each other and rarely truly connect. At church when we can be there we can exchange warm greetings, but we don’t always really know what joys or sorrows others bear. Even within ourselves we do not always connect the life of the body with the life of the spirit, the intellect and the heart. And when we leave connections unmade, or settle for separation, then this can leave us more able to be both cruel to one another and less than human ourselves.
In theological language we might say that what is sometimes missing from our lives is a true sense of ‘communion’, a making real of our relatedness and our connection to one another and to God – the vine and the branches. But Jesus invites us to make those connections deeper, with him, and with each other. That’s what we want to do – what we pray that God will do – at a communion service.
This week I saw a really remarkable film – one I didn’t expect to be so moved by. It was called My Octopus Teacher – it won the Oscar for best documentary and it’s on Netflix. It’s the extraordinary story of a man who is recovering from something and spends each day for hundreds of days diving in the ocean and ‘tracking’ a single octopus. He gets to know this fragile and beautiful creature better than you could ever imagine was possible. He knows where her den is, he knows when she’s hunting and when she’s just playing. He knows when is in danger and when she’s OK. There is one tender moment where she reaches out a tendril (a bit like a vine) and strokes his face. He speaks of a relationship with her and there is clearly a real connection made with this creature – as she nestles on his chest and as he meets her every day. When she dies, he really grieves for her – and I defy you not shed a tear too if you watch the film. The diver came to abide with her and she with him. They built a daily and deep connection. I found myself thinking – as I watched his truly remarkable film – and it seems almost crazy to say this – that I want that kind of connection with God and I know that I am being offered it. Jesus says, ‘I am the vine and you are the branches’. Jesus is not a historical figure alone, nor an abstract theological principle… He can be the place where I truly live. He is the vine – and I am the branches.. What a gift.
To be part of the church is to be part of a way of being and a way of relating to the world. And above all it is a way of being connected to, of abiding in, Jesus of Nazareth. And that means, crucially, to be driven ceaselessly to deepen my connections and communion with those people he loves, to follow him where he goes, among the people and in the world.
At communion we share bread and we share the fruit of vine. And we pray that God will deepen our sense of communion with Jesus, with one another and with all creation. For we know that it is only when we are truly ‘well connected’ with Jesus that we shall bear good fruit in our lives. ‘No branch can bear fruit by itself, but only if it remains united with the vine.’ We are not our own, we are not on our own – but part of something – and it is the source of our life. Thanks be to God, Amen.