Photo credit: Tim Mossholder
Readings: Isaiah 27:2-6, John 15:1-9, Secrets of Heaven #684 (see below)
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Jesus used a lot of metaphors to try to communicate the nuances of spiritual reality. This metaphor of the vine is familiar to and beloved by the Christian tradition, and like the good shepherd metaphor, would have been very familiar to the people hearing it firsthand. They would have had intimate knowledge of viticulture, as grapes were an incredibly important crop to the ancient Mediterranean world. And they would have understood its use metaphorically as well, as the Jewish scriptures would often employ the image of a vineyard (and God as the vine grower) as a way to communicate ideas about the relationship between God and Israel.
But while Jesus, probably intentionally, employs a familiar metaphor here, he uses it a little differently to the way it is often used in the Old Testament. For the most part, the whole nation of Israel is referred to as a vine or vineyard, and occasionally, the people as the vines themselves. In Jesus’ metaphor though, we (people) are not individual vines nor are we collectively the vineyard, but instead we the branches.
So why the difference? What is Jesus trying to communicate here? Jesus is emphasizing inter-connectedness. As branches, one next to the other, we are all connected to the roots, to nourishment and stability, via the same trunk. We are invited to see the journey of our everyday living pictured in the life of the vine: nourishment on one end, fruitfulness on the other, and to understand that our inter-connectedness with the vine is what allows that journey to happen. Jesus doesn’t want us to forget about our inter-connectedness, to God and each other.
Nature and gardening metaphors abound in the bible, and this is not surprising because nature is before our eyes almost every moment. There are plenty of metaphors, ones that Jesus uses too, that imagine a person as a single plant. In these metaphors, God is often imagined as a gardener who tends either the vineyard or the plant/tree. There are ways in which this is helpful. As we heard in our Isaiah reading, God can be an extremely zealous gardener, in a way that communicates care, protection and diligence. And I quote: I, the LORD, watch over it; I water it continually. I guard it day and night so that no one may harm it. And, when we are invited to picture ourselves as a tree or a plant, it emphasizes our wholeness and freedom. The potential downside is if this God-as-gardener image starts to communicate distance and aloneness. I don’t know about you, but I don’t, I can’t, garden all the time. And even the most diligent human gardener can only focus on one tree at a time. But God is not only sometimes paying attention, only sometimes working for our benefit.
So into that metaphor, Jesus introduces the notion that God is not only the gardener but also the vine. That God’s connection to us not only comes from without but from within. Jesus reduces the distance, communicating that we cannot actually be apart from God. We are branches that are a part of a greater whole, intimately connected to God all the time. We are still called to be fruitful as our main task, but this task is cast as a partnership. I will abide in you and you in me. Plus, our freedom remains; we can refuse the abiding, we can refuse the fruitfulness, but like in all the biblical gardening metaphors, that will have its own consequences.
So, in one of his final teachings to the disciples in the gospel of John, Jesus really doubles down on our inter-connectedness to each other. He extends a familiar metaphor, one in which Israel is usually a vineyard or vine collectively, and zooms in on a more micro level. We can certainly feel communality as vines in the same vineyard, but Jesus intensifies that by calling everyone to be part of the same vine, evoking increased intimacy, increased inter-dependence, and increased connection.
This way of understanding our relationship to each other is reflected in the way that Swedenborg talks about heaven, as we heard in our reading today. Swedenborg also writes:
Since that is what heaven is like, no angel or spirit could ever have any life without being part of some community, without joining in harmony with many others. Community is simply harmony among many. No one's life is ever isolated from the life of others.(1)
Yes, we are all individual vines growing in our own contexts and there will also be an individual aspect of our spiritual lives that requires this singular view. But, it is also true that, as the quote says above, no one’s life is ever isolated from the life of others, not existentially, not spiritually. We human beings are a communal people, not simply because we might enjoy it, but because this is the way that the spirit that is constantly flowing into us naturally organizes itself.
So, I would like to bring this all forward into a consideration of the practice of communion, which we will share together after this sermon.
The Swedenborgian tradition has always emphasized the individual aspect of communion. We can see that fact even in the name it has more traditionally taken in the church: Holy Supper, rather than communion, which has the same linguistic root as community or commune. The heart of our whole tradition is the importance of each person’s lifelong spiritual journey, and the Holy Supper is a spiritual meal, one that provides nourishment for that journey. The bread corresponds to God’s goodness and God’s love, flowing into us, giving us life. The wine corresponds to God’s truth and God’s wisdom, ever available for our enlightenment and growth. Eating these elements, taking them into our body, corresponds to our openness to God’s love and wisdom, to our commitment to bring them into our lives. In the end, in this process, we can only approach God as ourselves, as one person. In freedom, we offer our own essential vulnerability, accountability and devotion; no one else can do that for us.
However, sometimes that emphasis overshadows the fact that our journeys, though individual, are most likely to be successful when undertaken with the support of a community. This is why church exists. And there is something so powerful about taking communion together, with our friends on the journey. I recall the first time I gave communion at the Church of the Holy City after being called to be pastor. Often we administer communion with people coming up to the altar in stages but that day everyone squeezed in along the rail, shoulder to shoulder, with not even a tiny bit of space between. And I found that to be such a hopeful, poignant and spontaneous expression of community. We were all embarking on an adventure together, side by side, and we wanted to be together.
And my friends, we all know that connection like that has been one of the hardest things to preserve during this year, in all realms, not just church. The days when we could kneel shoulder to shoulder on the altar have not yet returned, not quite. We relinquished that powerful enactment because we cared about each other’s lives, and that was and is the most beautiful of offerings. And now, as we have worshipped together online, we have discovered a new kind of community, unfettered by geographic location and physical proximity. But with intention, I believe we can still call the reality of being shoulder to shoulder into being, even online. Today, as we take communion together but apart, let us take a moment to connect in spirit to each other, to imagine that we are branches growing side by side, each person connected to their God, the main vine, in their own way, but all part of one plant with the same fruitful purpose.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #687
2 In that day— “Sing about a fruitful vineyard: 3 I, the LORD, watch over it; I water it continually. I guard it day and night so that no one may harm it. 4 I am not angry. If only there were briers and thorns confronting me! I would march against them in battle; I would set them all on fire. 5 Or else let them come to me for refuge; let them make peace with me, yes, let them make peace with me.” 6 In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit.
1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
Secrets of Heaven #684
The Communities That Make Up Heaven
THERE are three heavens. Good spirits inhabit the first, angelic spirits the second, and angels the third. Each heaven is deeper and purer than the one before it. The result is that the heavens are perfectly distinct from one another.
The first heaven, the second heaven, and the third heaven are each divided into countless communities. Each community consists of many people who because of the compatibility and unanimity among them form a single personality, so to speak. And all the communities together form a single human being.
The distinctions among the communities are created by differences in mutual love and in faith in the Lord. Those differences are so far beyond counting that I cannot list even the most universal kinds.
Not the smallest difference exists that is not fitted into its exact place in the overall plan. In this way it can unite with all the other pieces in perfect concord to form a common whole, and the common whole can contribute to unity among the individual pieces. Thus everything combines for the happiness of the whole (rising from the individuals' happiness) and for the individuals' happiness (rising from the happiness of the whole).
In consequence, each angel and each community is an image of the whole of heaven and a kind of heaven-in-miniature.