There is a little word play happening in today’s Gospel text – it’s around the word meno, which the writer of John uses a great deal, because of its fluidity of meaning. “Live on in me as I live on in you” Jesus says in our version. The older translations read ‘abide in me as I abide in you’ and that’s the translation offered in the passage we heard from 1 John. Now, abide and abode are not words we use much these days, which is no doubt why the Inclusive Bible has made the change to the Gospel passage that it has. But there are some shades of meaning that enrich our understanding here. That original word meno means many things - to stay, to rest, to dwell, to remain (and yes, with that sense of continuity) to live on. It can mean to stay strong in ones resolve. But we need the underpinning of the dwelling words as well. As a noun, menai, it means a dwelling place, an abode, a lodging – a place indeed, somewhere to live, to have life as well as furniture! When the disciples early in John’s gospel ask Jesus ‘where are you staying?’, it’s the same word – and not used idly. Eventually they will come to understand that Jesus stays, remains, dwells, lives on - in God – and we do too if we remain part of the vine – because as Jesus will eventually say in John 17, ‘in my Abba’s house are many dwelling places’ – same word.
So where are we going to live in every sense? Well one metaphoric answer that John’s Jesus gives is ‘in the vine’. It’s a metaphor that tells us something vital about our relationship with God - that it is a relationship of mutuality. We need God, but - and this is the bit we often forget - God also in some mysterious ways needs us to bear fruit. So, let’s think a little about vines...
So, this is the picture that the writer of John has in mind. Christ is the rootstock and we are the branches that are grafted in. We live on in, we abide in Christ. There are also many of us, for it would be a poor vine that had only one branch - this is a communal picture as well as an individual one. Hence a very beautiful image for the ecumenical movement and indeed the interfaith movement is precisely this of the fruitful vine with many branches. So not just individually, but also communally we are going to live in the vine.
This of course provokes further questions. How do we live in the vine? What does this mean? The writer of 1 John answers the question in terms of love – when we love, then we abide in God and God in us, and consequently we should show love to our brothers and sisters also. To have the values embodied by Jesus live on in us, relationally, through actions of compassion and social justice.is part of the answer. Yet I think there is more to this idea of abiding, of dwelling in God and God in us. To live in God and to allow God to live in us – what might that involve? For this metaphor of the vine suggests a radical union with God, that stretches deep into our bodies, hearts and souls, not merely our minds and deeds. It speaks of an indivisible unity between human and divine, where the one indwells the other, without division. How might we know and experience this for ourselves more deeply? How indeed might we live there, in prayer and contemplation?
Each of us will have a different answer to that depending on our spiritual inclination and personality. For some in this congregation I suspect that the deepest sense of God is found in theology that makes sense – reading of God and of the wonders of the cosmos inspires wonder and connection. As our minds are engaged, so our spirits lift in praise. The discourse of theology is in itself a form of prayer, sometimes mediated by other kinds of language that is more allusive – poetry and story for example. For others among us it is in acts of social justice – aligning our hearts and wills with the needs of others, that we find ourselves uplifted and closest to Christ. Stretching our imaginations to touch something of the vastness of God enables us as branches of the vine to stretch our leaves to the tender showers of divine compassion towards ourselves and others.
For yet others among us however there is an earthier, gutsier longing – a longing to suck every drop of goodness from Christ our rootstock; a longing to be so grafted in Christ as to be indivisible from the source of Love. This longing prompts a knowledge of God that comes from the heart and soul, that is unmediated and non-abstract. Now, no kind of knowing is better and each has the capacity to join us to whatever we call the divine, but they are nurtured by different kinds of practice. And it is to practice that I now want to turn, for if grafting is God’s chosen method of bringing us into the vine, practice is the water, the sun and the fertilizer that help it grow.
In our times, a more intimate and direct experience of divine encounter has become essential for many people. Reliance on the faith of our forebears or the traditional rituals of the past does not answer the yearning of many hearts to know and be known. Hence across all traditions there is a resurgence of interest in spiritual practices that increase our awareness of close, personal relationship with the sacred. We see it already here at Pitt Street in the responsiveness of many to our Reflect and Connect sessions, both face to face and on-line, and to our recent retreat day. We see it in contemplative churches such as Benedictus, an ecumenical congregation in Canberra that seeks ‘an authentic, open-hearted and thoughtful encounter with God’, very much as we do here. There is no doubt that more could be offered here, in answer to the longing for a more contemplative approach, that gives space for the action of God upon heart and soul. (Let Jo and myself and the Church Council know your dreams, and the whispers you are hearing from the Spirit!)
Some of this undoubtedly arises out of the noise, busyness and rush of contemporary life, especially in our big cities. The longing for practices that value silence, solitude, simplicity and attention to the natural world is a necessary balance and counterpoint. Yet I believe the resurgence is deeper and points to a spirituality that is emerging out of the current post-critical evolution of theology and our understanding of God in Godself. As our images of God broaden to encompass the cosmic, so our spiritual practices need to deepen, like a tree sinking its roots deeper and longer as the branches spread. As the rays of our understanding extend, so we draw from deeper wells of nourishment and love, that nurture us in our becoming and transformation. And all this of course issues in fresh action in the world, for our deeper contemplation does not take us away from compassion and justice with our siblings in the human and more than human community, but towards it. As Meister Eckhart observed centuries ago, ‘what we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.’
Which perhaps takes us back to the question of where we live. For ‘those who abide (or live) in love, live in God and God lives in them.’ Now even as we long for this deeper belonging, we may perhaps harbour a secret fear that when God the vine dresser prunes the vine, we might be numbered among the branches cut off and added to the bonfire. Such can be the power of upbringing, false messaging, and the seductive whispering of ‘not good enough’ to which we all yield sometimes. But really it is these false messages that God prunes, so that our truer selves can continue to grow strong in the vine, where we live. As 1 John has it ‘perfect love casts out fear’. For we are born of love, for love and live all our days in love, and nothing can truly take us from this dwelling place of love. For this is where we live.
Our task as human becomings is to remember where we live – in the vine, in the love; and so to practice that we become ever more mindful of the love that is the source of all and gives energy to all – our true dwelling place. In the name of Christ, in whom we live and dwell and have our being. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Sunday 2 May 2021 (Easter 5 Year B) at Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sydney