We live in what we call the modern age. And one of the key developments of our modern age is the emphasis on the individual. Individualism as way of understanding what it is to be human has been growing in importance for at least the last five hundred years and shows no sign of stopping. Sometimes, our emphasis on the individual brings with it good things: individual human rights and personal freedom come to mind. I may or may not like your ink and piercings, I may not agree with what it says on your T-shirt, but I value self-expression and authenticity.
But individualism may not be the best lens for understanding what it means to be human, for understanding what it means to be created in the image of God. The cult of individualism has a shadow side, and that shadow side is disconnection. Social isolation. Or to put it more simply, loneliness.
We live in an age of loneliness. In Canada, 30% of Canadians are reporting persistent loneliness. In the US, the number of people who say that they have no one to confide in more than doubled in 20 years, from 10% in 1985 to 25% by 2006. And for young adults, the statistics are even more disconcerting. I heard an interview on CBC Radio recently with Lori Santos, a professor at Yale University. She reported that over 50% of US college students report feeling lonely, and about a third are so depressed its hard to function.
These are consequences of loneliness that are well documented. Loneliness leads to cardiovascular disease. Loneliness leads to depression. And in children, loneliness leads to anti-social and self-destructive behaviour. When there is a lack of connection, we suffer. We wither.
Which is why I hear today’s gospel speak so clearly to us today.
The image of the vine is an image for our time. The vine speaks of connection. Of relationship. Last year I spent a lot of time looking at grapevines as I walked through the Rioja region of Spain. One thing I noticed right away is how interconnected a grapevine is. Though the vine may have begun as individual specimens planted in a row, it quickly becomes this tangled web of relationships in which it is impossible to say where one plant stops and the next begins.
“I am the true vine”, says Jesus. “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
Jesus is giving us an image here of what it means to be human.
In our modern age, we usually think about what it means to be human in individualistic terms. A human can be thought of as a physical unit, as a body. Or a human can be thought of a psychological entity, someone with consciousness who thinks. Indeed, the famous saying “I think therefore I am” was the very saying that kicked off our modern age.
But humans are not mere physical or psychological beings. Humans are relational beings. We were created to be in relationship with each other and with our Creator. That is the most important thing in our lives. That is what makes us fully alive. That is what it means to be truly human.
In our modern age we’re used to thinking in individual terms. But what if the image of the vine is a better image of humanity? What if the thing that really makes me me is my relationship with you?
We need connection. We are like branches on the vine. If we are cut off we wither. Sometimes we hear today’s gospel as judgement, but I hear it as truth-telling. Jesus is just telling it like it is. When we are cut off, our physical, mental and spiritual health suffer. We dry up. We become prone to anti-social behaviour.
There was a horrific event in Toronto this week, the murder and injury of many people by the man who drove his van onto the sidewalk. I only know the little that I’ve read in news accounts, but there are hints in those accounts that the perpetrator was a lonely person, and that he might be an extreme case of the withering that happens when one is cut off from healthy human connection. None of this is to condone his action. Violence, misogyny, hatred – these are withered branches that are to be gathered up, thrown in the fire and burned. More information will emerge in due course, so I don’t want to make too many assumptions. But we do know that a society in which many people are lonely is not healthy.
As humans we need connection. But those connections can’t just be based on common needs or interests, and certainly not on shared hatreds. I think that’s why in the first letter of John which we also read from today, the author holds up the same image of interconnectedness and the same language of abiding to talk about relationships, but instead of using the image of the vine, he uses the language of love. “Beloved, let us love one another. If we love one another God lives in us. For God is love.”
You see, human connection is good, essential. But human connection is fragile. Sometimes we connect for the wrong reasons. But even when we love one another, our human connections are subject to failure. People move. Relationships are difficult. Couples divorce. Loved ones die. Connections are fragile.
Loved ones dying is actually the context for what Jesus is saying to the disciples in today’s gospel. The gospel reading we heard is set on the night before Jesus will die, and they all know it. And Jesus’ friends are scared. They’ve had this amazing, life-giving connection with Jesus and with each other, and they are afraid because it’s going to end. Human connection is fragile.
Which is why Jesus tells them that this is bigger than human. God is the vine-grower. The vine is an image of the tangled web of relationships which is human connection but also goes beyond human connection. It is connection that is rooted in something bigger than ourselves. This is God’s vine, and it will survive anything that we humans can throw at it, and it will persist and grow and bear fruit. The vine is God’s initiative. We love because God first loved us. We abide in him because God abides in us. In fact when we are in the vine, there is no clear boundary between where I stop and God begins, nor between where I stop and you begin. It is a tangled web of beautiful relationships. It gives us our identity. And it gives meaning to our lives.
Jesus also talks in today’s gospel about bearing fruit. We as the church have such an important role to play in all this because we are first and foremost a place, a community of connection. The fruit that we can produce is to build community, to make connections, one caring relationship at a time, while ensuring that we remain connected ourselves, rooted in God and rooted in love. I believe we have a mission to reach out to those who are lonely, who find themselves cut off, and to offer them connection. That won’t always be easy, in fact, maybe it’s here that we can relate to the language of pruning that’s required for the vine to bear fruit. But this is God’s work, and so it is our work too.
Jesus says to his disciples, “abide in me as I abide in you.” We abide in God and God abides in us. When we love one another, God lives in us. For God is love. The most important thing in our lives is to be connected, to be in relationship with God and with each other, for that is what makes us truly human and fully alive.
Homily: Yr B Easter 5, April 29 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 8.26-40; Ps 22.24-30; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8
Image by Aaron Logan