The Sixth Sunday of Easter: Rogation Sunday (A)
May 17, 2020
O God, who hast prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding: Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee in all things and above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 3:8-18
In any other year, today’s Mass would have been followed by our Rogation procession down to Riverside Park. This is, clearly, not any other year. The Rogation Procession is a tradition I introduced to the parish after I came in 2007. I did not propose that we beat the bounds and walk round the borders of our parish and risk confrontation with our neighbours from All Angels, Saint Michael’s, or Saint Matthew & Saint Timothy’s. Rather, I chose a less anachronistic aspect of Rogationtide and asked us to focus on the other historic meaning of the day and go down to the park and give thanks for all God’s gifts to us in creation. The Rogation Days—named from the Latin verb “rogo,” I ask/pray/petition—are, after all the Church’s Earth Day, predating the secular celebration by many centuries. It is a worthy and noble intention for our prayers and thanksgivings, especially as Scripture makes it clear that we are the stewards of creation, given to care for that which God made and declared “very good” (Gen 1:31).
The parable of the vine, then, is an ideal text for Rogationtide. It is an image taken from the natural world that helps us understand our relationship with God in Christ. John, as he always does, however, is thinking in terms of the Platonic ideal. Jesus is the model of all creation, the perfect form that exists for all time. He is not like Living Water, Bread, Light, the Shepherd, and yes, the Vine. Those things are all like Jesus. The power of those things that bring life, nourish us, keep us safe and warm, guide us, derive from the Christ. The Word made Flesh is the source of everything in creation, “without him was not anything made that was made.” The nature of God, therefore, teaches us about creation.
Let’s put it this way. In Matthew and Mark, our understanding of how the world goes helps us understand what Jesus and the Kingdom of God are like. So if we understand about sowing seeds or casting a fishing net, then we have a anchor point that will help us understand about God. In John’s gospel it works in the opposite direction. The vine, the parallel chosen from nature, does not help us understand Jesus, rather Jesus helps us understand vines. It’s just the way John thinks, but it also is a powerful expression of the connection between creator and creation. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and so is creation. Living water is powerful and life altering because that is what God is like. Shepherds do their work in emulation of Jesus. Light shows us the way, makes things plain and clear, because that is what God does for us. Roots send up branches and branches produce vines and vines produce fruit and all work together, the different parts making up a collective unit, interconnected and productive because that is what God’s relationship with creation is like.
OK. Before you start yelling at your screens, I know John’s description is not really botanically correct, with branches abiding in vines producing fruit. It doesn’t make complete sense. Nevertheless, what John seems to be describing is what I think is called the Shoot System: that above ground part of certain kinds of plants that grows up from the roots, leafs out, and produces fruit. It is a system of procession and interrelationship where all the parts together work in progression, ultimately producing fruit and seed, ensuring the survival of the plant.
Before we get too far, that business about being the vine dresser, that’s allegory; that’s a different mode of thought. For today, I’m really interested in exploring this idea that in God, in Jesus’ relationship with the Father, we find the model, the ideal, for all relationship, which is, in fact, the central feature of life itself.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is continuing with his last supper farewell speech. He has already washed his friends’ feet, told them to love one another as he has loved them, and to follow in the Way that he leads. Expanding on this idea of following him, doing to each other (and for the rest of the world) what he has done for them, he tells them, “Abide in me, and I in you.” This, then, is the key to following in the Way, remaining in relationship with him. They have been told that he will not always be with them in the flesh, not able to sit down at table with them, wash their feet, tell them what’s what. Nevertheless, they can still abide in him, stay with him, be close to him, in relationship. In short they will have faith in and with him, a faith that will bind us all together in relationship, irrevocably.
Relationship, Jesus tells them is, in fact, the only way for anything to survive: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” We are bound to each other and to God in Christ; and our lives (our greater lives) depend upon it. Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” It is like the image of the Body of Christ. There are different parts, different members, each with its own place in the organic whole, each contributing to the life and expression of the whole, and each essential to the health of the whole.
It would be easy to easy to critique this model as outcome oriented or focus (for better or worse) upon productivity, results, the fruit; but I don’t think either is the real point. The fruit we bear is not a commodity to be sold or marketed. It is not quantifiable on a balance sheet. The fruit we bear is love. It is enhanced and deeper interrelationship. It is the spreading of the Gospel, the good news of God in Christ, the spreading of the works of love that are at the heart of the Paschal Mystery, the spreading, the seeding of the Kingdom of God in which all will be reconciled in all with love. This is what Jesus means when he says, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” The bringing forth into creation of love, like fruit from a vine, is part of Christ’s nature and an essential element of the Kingdom of God.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth,” John tells us, “and we have beheld his glory ... and from his fulness have we all received grace upon grace” (John 1:14ab, 16). This event, this monumental in-breaking of God into time and space accorded us grace and bound us for ever with that God who shares our humanity and in whose image and likeness we are made. Abiding in Christ, intertwined with him and God the Father, we are able to do extraordinary things, perform amazing feats, not of brute strength or of magic, but of love. The love we generate is the fruit that shows the world what it is to be a follower of Jesus, a follower in the Way of eternal life. It is an inspiration to those who see it. It draws others to us, creates the desire to participate in such works, to do likewise. We do what Jesus did for us: “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
The natural world is like God: bound together in mutual knowledge, in mutual relationship. Our relationship with God is like that of Jesus with the Father and that extends to our relationships with each other and with all creation. The movements and actions of one part affect all the others. We are to work together, bound as we are in this web of interconnection that is dynamic, moving, purposeful, leading us into the Kingdom of God, the realm unlike any human realm, where love is the priority.
There are consequences, however, for working in opposition to this, the fundamental nature of existence. We are bound with each other, all creation, and with God whether we like it or not. That’s how the world goes. We can resist, we can pretend that we are not interconnected, that we don’t rely on each other and on God, the source, for our lives, but by doing so we separate ourselves from our neighbours, from creation, from God. God has acted first. We have that relationship already. It is ours to throw away. When Jesus says, “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned,” he is saying that we can cut ourselves off from the love that sits at the heart of it all, but that our existence will be meaningless, fruitless. This is not, however, God’s desire for us. We are called to live deeply into the bonds that intertwine us with our fellow humans, all creation, and with God. We are called to the fullness of life, to “have life and have it abundantly.”
The symbol of the vine shows us that the natural order works just like God. That we can not survive, let alone, bear the fruits of love, without recognising we are part of a whole, working in cooperation with the other parts, in an organic system, to be ministers of the Gospel of Love. This is no less true in the midst of a pandemic than it is when things are going well.
We have to remember that illness and disease, plague and pestilence, were a regular part of life until, well, as recently as the 1950s, when polio and other infectious diseases for which there are now vaccines still ravaged communities. For the most part, we have not had to contend with the kinds fears that were normal until the last few decades. The Gospels were written in an age of war, disease, hunger, and poverty unlike anything we see today. Nevertheless, the Gospels still proclaim the supremacy of God, of love, still claim that the natural world is good and made in the image and likeness of God, just like us. If the community of John’s Gospel, living on the edge of the Roman empire, trying to sort out who exactly they were and what their place in the world was like, if they can say that we can trust in God, abide in God, then we can, too. This is no escapist fantasy. It is the way the world goes. Our only and best hope is to trust that we are united with God, connected with each other; that we need God and need each other, that we must work together and bear fruit, bear the fruits of love, incarnate love into the present moment. It is the Way of which Jesus spoke last week and walking in the way aligns our lives with the greater life of God.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Easter Feria, 18 May 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume