I want to tell you the story today of how I was first welcomed into the Anglican Church. Not the story of how I came to find the Anglican Church, but the story of how it came to feel like home. I was 20 years old and I'd just come back from bible college. I'd found a job working for a summer camp, but I had a good two months in the meantime that I needed to fill, ideally with something that would earn me a little bit of money. I went to church the weekend I came back. I'd been there a couple times before the year prior, but not really enough for anyone to know me. On that day, as the recessional played and everyone dutifully lined up to greet the priest at the back of the church I got to chatting with a woman in line next to me. She and her husband were retired. He’d been the director of the forestry institute at McGill for a while, she’d moved around between careers throughout her life. She told me how much they loved gardening but also that they were finding it harder and harder to get down and really work the soil. She invited me over to help her out with some of the weeding and she offered to pay me. And so every day for a couple weeks I would go over and help her pull out gout weed and plant Jerusalem artichokes and prune back the grape vines in the little trellis in the back yard. She would feed me soup for lunch and tell me the most wonderfully adventurous stories of her youth.
Those days became an incredibly sacred time in the story of my life’s journey. Although it had virtually nothing to do with church: not with worship, not with theology, not with music, it was an experience of authentic Christian community that ended up changing my life forever. I am the person I am today because of how I've been formed and one important piece of that formation is the gift I received in knowing Helen. She met a very real need in my life, both material in giving me a job, and spiritual in giving me a community to call home.
ABIDING IN COMMUNITY
The reading we receive in today's gospel portion is a difficult one to hear. On the surface there's a heavy note of judgement in it, one that's hard to ignore: “whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers”; but there's also a deep note of appreciation in it for a life lived in the community of the faithful. This story, after all, is part of the preparations Jesus is making for his disciples, for a time when he’ll no longer be with them in body. He's giving them a way to think about staying connected to him, and he's reminding them how important it is that the stick together amongst themselves as well.
There are so many occasions in life when it gets tempting to give in to the belief that we’re all self sufficient, that we can go it on our own. It's the modern ethos to believe that as an individual I have to patch myself together, piece by piece. There's no room for given-ness in the modern world, for attributes that are gifted to us by the community from which we arise. This might define the modern era more than others throughout history, but we’re not alone in this.
Humanity has always wrestled with the relationship between the individual and the community in one way or another. Part of the wisdom of the ancient world was that there was no individual outside of the community. We all exist in relationship with those around us and we interact with them and we depend on them. This was a lot more obvious in a time when we actually saw the links in the chain that connected us to the things that keep us alive, to the ground, to the farmers, etc. But it's no less true today.
Part of the message of the vine and the branches is that without others, without those links, we are nothing. But connected to others we find life and health. The way that we’re connected in the Christian community is through participation in the story of Jesus, in becoming a part of his life, death, and resurrection.
Being connected to Jesus and plugged into his story means so much more than simply believing that those events happened, or that the significance of those events is as great as the scriptures and the tradition says. Being connected to Jesus is a matter of being transformed, continually, throughout our lives. To live in the way of Jesus isn't simply a matter of some one time conversion, it's a matter of a lifetime of growth in holiness. It means being sanctified, continually transformed in our hearts and our minds and our very souls. It means growing into our identity as children of God and citizens of the kingdom. It means realizing and understanding who we are. This is the work of God in our lives, this is the work of the gardener pruning the branches of our lives, shedding the pieces of us that distract us from the knowledge that we each and all are loved and cherished by God.
To be grafted onto the vine is to be grafted into the story of Jesus and to grow alongside both Christ himself and the entire community that he draws to himself. It isn't always easy. In fact at times it can feel downright impossible, but it's all a part of the process of maturing into who we were meant to be. A vine being pruned is a vine experiencing trauma, but it's a trauma that ultimately works out for the good of the whole.
Theologically we get into some really dicey waters here don't we, because it seems like what we're hearing is that God sends destruction and trauma into our lives in order to make us grow. Maybe for the ancients that was a good thing, maybe it was a better suggestion than the idea that God sent destruction and trauma into our lives as punishment, but to modern ears it still sounds problematic. But there is a promise embedded in all of this that offers us hope.
The grace in all of this is that God doesn't place this burden squarely upon our shoulders alone. If God sends us through troubled waters in order to help us grow Jesus promises to travel with us every step of the way. ‘Abide in me as I abide in you’ he says to his disciples. This is no threat on Jesus’ part but a promise. It's a promise that no matter what you go through you are never alone. It’s a promise that God can use the worst moments of your life, where you feel like everything is being stripped away, to prepare you for something new and life-giving. It means that God will walk alongside you as you go through life. God will run beside you when you leap enthusiastically into new adventures and God will crawl alongside you when it feels like you just can’t go on.
This passage tells us something fundamental about what it means to live connected to Christ. It reminds us that God never promised that this life would be easy, or simple, but Jesus himself promised to abide in us, to live in us and he invites us in return to live in him. It reminds us that no matter what we go through as part of the body of Christ all of our family suffers alongside us and all of our family rejoices alongside us. It reminds us that in Christ we are all joined together in one fellowship of love, one body, one family.