This has been a very difficult week. One of those weeks where the events of the past seven days cannot be ignored.
It began with the images that came out of Nepal as the people there began to look for survivors after a devastating earthquake and aftershock. Nearly 7,000 people lost their life in this tragedy, and it is expected that the number will grow.
As the week progressed, we were met with the images from the events in Baltimore. We watched as the city burned and people protested – many peacefully and some less so – the events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray.
The question that I keep thinking about after this week is: what sustains us? What keeps us going? We look at these events and it is easy to allow them to overwhelm us or even to lead us to the perspective of “is the world even worth it?” What keeps us focused on the main thing when we are overwhelmed by so much hurt, pain, and sadness in our world?
It is a question that I think about when we think about the news of our own lives. What sustains us when life gets overwhelming, or difficult, or challenging?
All of us know what it means to experience the difficulties of life. We have faced the loss of close friends and family members. We have experienced the break-up of friendships. We have experienced the pain of financial struggles and other difficulties. What keeps us going in these moments?
It’s not just what keeps us going in life, but what keeps us going in our faith. See, when life gets overwhelming, when the world is pressing against us, when life’s difficulties seem to be too much, what often happens is that our faith gets challenged. When our faith gets challenged, one of the things that sometimes happens is that we end up walking away and either leaving our faith or not being as committed to it.
So, what sustains our faith when the world seems overwhelming, when life gets too difficult, when our faith is challenged and we are tempted to walk away? What keeps us going? It is in these questions that our passage from John 15:1-8 brings us a word of hope in difficult times. Jesus looks at us, especially in difficult moments and times, and tells us to remain in him. Jesus calls us to stay in his presence and to be fully dependent upon him.
This word comes to us in the context of the Final Discourse that Jesus delivers to his disciples in the moments before his arrest. That gives us the time frame for this conversation, but there is a lot of imagery that is before us that will help us to understand this passage. Jesus uses the symbols of a vineyard to convey his message. It was an appropriate symbol and not just because vineyards were prevalent in Judea and Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. This image of vine and branches is appropriate because Israel saw themselves as a vine and, as a result, vine imagery was very prevalent in the architecture and coinage of the day.
Israel emphasized this image because they believed they were the true vine from God. It was an imagery that saw Israel as the source of hope for the world. Jesus takes this imagery, perhaps noticing some of the vines and vineyards around them, and uses it to teach the disciples something important about our relationship with the Lord. He says that he is the true grapevine.
What does Jesus mean by this? Jesus says that he is the true source of hope and love that springs forth from the Father. He takes a common metaphor of the time and uses it to describe his life and presence. As the grapevine, he has come to provide strength, support, and life for those who desire to live a fruitful life in the Father’s love. It is a strength and support that is found through Jesus’ words, his life, and his presence in the world and each of our lives.
Jesus is the grapevine, and he says that we are the branches. Why does Jesus use this imagery? A branch comes out of the grapevine as an outflow from the vine. A branch is strengthened by being on the vine. It needs the grapevine for strength, support, and its very existence. A branch cannot exist on its own. The branch needs to be on the vine in order to live.
If we want to be sustained through the difficult times in our world, the challenging moments of our life, or the moments when we want to walk away from our faith, then we need to see ourselves as a branch coming out of the vine of Christ. Our lives need to be strengthened by existing within the support offered by Christ. We need to have our very existence – everything about us – strengthened, encouraged, and supported by the life of Christ living within us and breathing in us.
Jesus uses this imagery of being the vine to call us to be like branches in the life Jesus desires for us. He wants us to have a fruitful life that is encouraged and strengthened by his very presence at work in our lives, and to be people who are completely defined and shaped by our hope in Christ, his love, and his joy in our work.
This can only happen when we have a deep and intimate relationship with the Lord. We cannot have the life Jesus desires for us if we try to live apart from his love. So often, we try to go our own way when it comes to going through struggles or difficult moments. We think we can make it on our own and that we do not need anyone else. The truth is that we all need Christ in our lives.
We cannot be sustained through the difficult moments of life if we try to live outside of Christ’s love and presence. When we go it our own, we are apart from a deep relationship with the Lord and cannot experience the strength, support, encouragement, and love that God offers. On our own, we cannot understand the world’s struggles, go through the pains of life, or deal with the difficult moments of our faith. On our own, we are just a shell of the people God desires us to be and wants us to be, even in the midst of life’s present struggles.
What Jesus wants for us is to remain in him as he remains in us. To have a deeply intimate and connected relationship with our Lord that sustains us in all seasons. If we want to truly have the life Jesus desires for us, if we want to be sustained through whatever life throws at us, then we will find ourselves deeply dependent upon the life of Christ and the presence of our Lord working in our very lives.
Jesus wants us to have an intimate relationship with him – a relationship of love – where everything about us is rooted, strengthened, and supported by his word, his care, and his deepest hopes for us. He wants us to find ourselves in his presence in all seasons of life, so that we may grow daily and be renewed by his presence. On our own, we can do nothing, but when we are connected to the vine of Christ, and when we become like a branch that is strengthened and has its very life dependent on Christ, then we can get through any struggle, any difficulty, and live for Christ in all things.
When we become a branch of the vine of Christ, then we are capable of being people who see fruit produced in our lives. This is fruit of hope, love, peace, and joy that we can share with others in difficult moments and challenging situations. It is only when we are found in Christ’s love that we can be people of hope, love, peace, and joy in every moment with whatever is thrown our way.
Jesus wants us to be a branch connected to his vine. Within each of us has been planted a seed of hope, a seed that is capable of turning into a branch that is established on the vine of Christ. Every one of us have the potential to be people of hope, love, peace, and joy in all seasons of life, because God has planted, through his word and love, those very things in our lives. We can be a branch today and be sustained by his very presence, because Jesus’ very presence is already at work in your life.
Today, we can truly live for Christ and be sustained by his very presence. That is one of the messages we share in communion. As we partake in this meal, we are reminded that our entire life is sustained through Christ’s saving grace and his continued presence in our lives in all seasons. This meal is a meal where we are called to live in a relationship with Jesus that sustains us and allows us to be strengthened by Christ in all things, so that we may be people of hope, love, peace, and joy.
Life can throw so many things at us. It can remind us of the pains in our world, and it can remind us of the difficulties in our lives. What will sustain us in these moments? Will it be our own desires to get by or will it be our desire to have our entire life strengthened by being a branch on the vine of Christ?
What sustains you?