Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I Am the Vine

The scriptures referred to are John 15:1-11.

My knowledge of viticulture is pretty much limited to a special I saw by John Cleese on PBS. I know some of the stuff goes into the flavor of wine: the type of grape, the type of soil, the weather, the cask, the length of time the wine ferments, the temperature it's kept at. Jesus, though not a vintner, probably knew as much as me if not more, just by virtue of living among vineyards. But a parable is not usually a thoroughgoing allegory. It usually has one main point and it's obvious that calling himself the true vine, he did not want to get into the details. His point was more basic. And it's hard for many of us modern Christians to grasp because we are WEIRD.

Let me explain. A lot of the research you get on the psychology and sociology of human beings is skewed. And that's because a lot of it is done by university researchers using university students. Where do you think they get so many people willing to take so much time to take the tests and do the kind of experiments that the researchers come up with? And even if the researchers branch out and try to get ordinary adults from a nearby city or even a number of cities, their subjects have several things in common that make them different from much of the rest of the people on this planet: they are WEIRD. The acronym stands for those from cultures that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Jonathon Haidt says, in his book The Righteous Mind, that, compared to the rest of the world, we are statistical outliers. Even in the West, Americans are more WEIRD than Europeans and within the US, educated upper middle class folks are even more so. He says the essence of the viewpoint of such a culture is this: "The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships." Give a bunch of Westerners a list of twenty statements to complete that start with the words "I am…" and they will put down internal characteristics such as "happy," "friendly," or "into country western music." But give the same list to an East Asian and he will complete the sentences with his or her roles and relationships, such as "daughter," 'father," or "an employee of my company."

This difference extends to all kinds of thinking. "Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts) but WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what's true about the category is true about the object.)" This extends to our morality. In the West, we put the individual and his rights above those of the group. The typical American hero is pretty much detached from relationships. He is either never married, divorced or widowed. Girlfriends come and go. If he has kids, he rarely sees or takes care of them. That is seen as tragic rather than neglectful. Oh, and when crossed, he will bring down society rather than compromise his autonomy or personal freedom or violate his code of ethics.

For instance, in the climax of the first Dirty Harry movie, Clint Eastwood's character, when he finds out the serial killer he is chasing has taken over a bus full of school kids, backs off and negotiates their release, right? No, he jumps onto the roof of the bus, causing the killer to drive erratically until he crashes it. The villain leaves the cover of the bus, takes a kid hostage and Harry shoots the guy, anyway. By the way, the killer was back out on the streets because Harry did an illegal search of his home. It is interesting that in every other Dirty Harry film, they make sure he is up against rogue cops, terrorists, vigilantes and serial killers who are even worse than him, or in the last film, people who make gratuitously violent horror films. They even joke about how his partners always die, collateral damage, like the traumatized children, in what he apparently sees as a personal contest between hunter and predator.

Now, of course, Harry is a fantasy figure. We would not really like a cop (or a government agent like James Bond or whatever John McClane is now) in real life, someone who acts as judge, jury and executioner, who enters homes without a warrant and who will shoot up or blow up several city blocks or destroy several cars that are not his own in a single-minded pursuit of bad guys. In real life, Harry would be fired, possibly imprisoned and definitely sued by the parents of those school children. But the fact that our iconic heroes are lone wolves says a lot about how we look at the world.

The majority of the world puts the needs of the community over that of the individual. And indeed that is probably why human beings have survived. We are not stronger or faster than most predatory animals, nor do we have large fangs or claws, nor the strength of a bear or great ape. What we have is an ability to communicate and cooperate and thereby bring down large animals and build large complex communities. And even while we worship rugged individualism here in the West, our achievements could not have been accomplished without large numbers of people carrying out their roles.

So why do we focus on the individual and not so much on groups? Part of it might be the fear of unthinking mobs. And that is a real consideration. Like anything powerful groups can do great good or great harm. The difference is if they are following anyone and who. A riot can be leaderless, though usually someone incites it, by words or actions. Mobs are rarely good. In the case of a following, however, it depends on who the leader is.

In the church, Jesus should be our head, our leader. In fact, not only do we get our direction from him but also our life, energy and nourishment. This is what Jesus is getting at in using his metaphor of being the vine. He may have borrowed it from the Old Testament's portrayal of Israel as a vineyard or even a vine. But by making himself the vine, Jesus is making a distinction. The branches may be the ones that bear fruit but not unless they are attached to the main vine. In fact diseased or non-fruit-bearing branches can be trimmed without hurting the vine itself. Judicious pruning of branches actually stimulates new growth in a plant. The freed-up energy, if you will, can go into growing new branches and into better fruit.

Even in a community, if everyone is not on the same page, if everyone is not working together towards one goal, all that work can go for naught. One obvious illustration was the 1999 Mars probe that hit the atmosphere at the wrong altitude and disintegrated due to the fact that different teams working on the craft used different measuring units. Mixing metric and non-metric units caused the loss of a $125 million spacecraft. People did speak up about the discrepancy between the measured and the calculated trajectory but their concerns were dismissed. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Communication is crucial to community. Jesus says that if we abide in him, his words will abide in us. His words are our nutrition, because we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. God's word is important for it can, as it says in Isaiah 50:4, "sustain the weary with a word." As the two disciples on their way to Emmaus later said about Jesus, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road opening the scriptures to us?" And that fueled their immediate flight back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that Jesus was risen and they now knew why.

Specifically it is his commandments that he wants us to keep in mind and actually obey. The commandments he is speaking about in this context of abiding in his love are obviously the commandments to love God and love one's neighbor. But aren't those rather easy to keep?

If love was easy, Jesus wouldn't have to make it a command. If love was easy we wouldn't have so many broken relationships--spouses who have failed to love one another, parents who have failed to love their children, children who have failed to love their parents, siblings who have failed to love each other, and, of course, Christians who have failed to love one another. Jesus says our love for one another is how the world will know we are his disciples. Yet what they see instead is Christians fighting over non-essential matters, calling each other names, suing one another, and generally acting as non-Christians do, loving only those who love them and who agree with them on every particular. Small wonder people are dropping away from the church. We get enough hate in modern day politics.

And we can't bear much fruit, either. If we are not abiding in Jesus, then we won't bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If we don't abide in Jesus we won't bear the fruit of new followers of him, especially if we are alienating people rather than attracting them. Folks came to Jesus because of his words and actions. If we do not abide in him, we will exhibit neither.

The first thing Tech Support does when you call them about a malfunctioning computer is ask if it's plugged in and turned on. If you aren't plugged into Jesus, if your power switch is off, you aren't going to be able to do anything for him. How can you change that?

The first thing is to learn more about him. A surprising number of Christians know very little about Jesus except for the bare minimum. If you haven't read the gospels all the way through, or haven't lately, do so. If you haven't read a good book by a scholar who can express his findings to the average person, do so. I recommend I Came to Set the Earth on Fire: A Portrait of Jesus by R. T. France, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright, or almost anything by N. T. Wright.

So much for theory. Now put it into practice. Try loving God with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength. Try loving others as you do yourself. Try loving your enemies. Try disowning yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus. Try giving to all who ask you. Try helping those who cannot help you. Turn the other cheek. Bless those who curse you. And you know what you'll find? That you can't do it. Not without help.

Then start praying for God to fill you with the Holy Spirit, to come into you and your life and change you. Every time you fail, ask God's forgiveness and for his help in doing better. Ask that his Spirit make you more Christ-like every day. Remember that as a Christian you represent Christ to others as surely as a U.S. Ambassador represents America to other nations.

When you think of an apple tree or an orange tree or a grapevine, you think primarily of the fruit. Most of us could care less about a tree or plant if it doesn't yield something delicious and nutritious. So it is with people when they think of Jesus. They see the fruit we produce first. If the fruit is bitter or poisonous, they aren't going to be interested in the source. We need to bear fruit that will attract and feed others. Only then will they want to get to know more about Jesus and eventually plug into him.

What Christianity is really about is becoming more like Jesus. The only way to do that is to abide or remain in him. If we are in him and he is in us, if his word is in us and we obey his commandments, we will bear good fruit. And the benefit is that his joy will be in us and our joy will be complete. And if there's one thing we don't have enough of in this life, it's joy, the upwelling of excitement and delight that comes from being directly connected to our wonderful, loving and giving Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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