“I am the vine, and God is the vinegrower . . . 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 ou unless you abide in me.” John 15:1, 4
This passage can be an interesting commentary on a lot of things: faith, the Church, who is “in” and who isn’t, and a whole lot of other challenging conversations. If we look strictly at the Church, it may also provide us with some ideas about why people reject the structure and institution of the church, especially if church folks take this literally. In verse 6, we read “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Humpf! Take that you non-abiders! It sounds pretty exclusive to me!
Yet, Jesus did not live his life excluding others, so what can we learn from the word “abide” and how it may or may not keep people out? Abide is a deep connection, almost a “living within” someone or something. There is a comfort in it, and a bonding that has occurred, where connection could mean just hanging on and being rather casual with a relationship. When we abide with each other, the best example we have is families living in the same household. When a child moves out of the home, it feels as if part of the branch has been torn away, and the parents, siblings, and absent child will have to work to build a new way of relating to each other.
It’s the same in the church. We can build each other up, nurture, water, have substantive relationships or we can be in competition for getting our own way, pushing our own ideas, and having control over things. “Abide” seems to mean the former rather than the latter. The Church tends to be tangled at times. Most of the tangles happen when people stop praying for answers, stop listening to God and each other, and stop working for consensus.
But let’s face it: the Church is made up of sinners, not saints. Granted they are sinners who, for the most part, are striving toward perfection (wholeness in God’s love), so when the “abiding” happens, things stay pretty healthy. When someone feels excluded, pushed aside, or is treated like an outcast, they are connected, but dangling from the vine with brokenness. That is when so many leave the Church. Denominations (made up of sinners!) aren’t perfect, and the leadership makes mistakes, especially when the majority rules rather than builds a cooperative effort for working together.
One of my pet peeves is to be ignored or cut off when I’m speaking. Maybe it’s because at times I catch myself doing that without realizing it. I try to focus on the people and hear what they are saying – they are important to me – they are my church family. So that’s why I decided that to do what I’m called to do as a pastor, I have to work within the structure. I may not always agree with what the “larger” denomination says or decides, but I know in my heart that God has called me to be part of the United Methodist Church, so this is where I am.
I become tired of the tangles. I become frustrated with the lack of listening. I am often overwhlemed with all that needs to be done. Yet, I am connected. I abide. I love the folks I serve, and most of all, I love the God I serve with all of my being. That’s the bottom line for me. That’s where it all begins – my relationship with the Triune God. As long as I stay connected to God, I have a strong vine to help me grow and become more fully who God intends for me to be, and that includes bearing fruit.
Untangling the connections takes hard work, persistence, a lot of prayer, a lot of love, and the trust that the True Vine is there giving us life and direction for growth. Thanks be to God who gives us our home in Christ. Amen.