May 2, 2021, Cambial Contact: Viniculture 101, John 15:1-17 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
“I am the Vine; you are the Branches. Abide in me, as I abide in you.”
Oddly enough, I want to begin today with a little lesson in horticulture, or, actually, viniculture, I guess. Specifically, I want to briefly explain the process of grafting, which is joining a branch, or a scion, of one species of grape vine, on to the strong root system, the root stock, of another species, which is how a vine grower propagates the best grapes for his vineyard. The key to the whole thing is what is called “cambial contact.” The cambium is a layer of cells just underneath the bark of the grape vine. The bark has to be cut away from both the scion and the rootstock just right, so that as much cambial area as possible is touching, because it’s that contact between the living cells that allows the scion to grow together with the root so that they become one vine.
I wanted to describe that process because it is exactly that process of grafting that Jesus has in mind when he tells us to abide in him, as he abides in us. He isn’t just talking about going to church and having a daily devotion and being good people, not that those aren’t important. But he means something more: something much more intimate, much more continuous, much more life-changing. He’s talking about something that involves cutting away whatever is getting in the way of our connection with him. And amazingly enough, it also involves his cutting away what separates him from us as well – what Paul is talking about when he says that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,” putting off his glory and even his immortality, to become truly human. And then, he’s talking about living together in continual, close communion like a grafted vine, so that the life of the branch becomes one with the life of the root; our life becomes one with the life of Jesus. And all that growing together, all that abiding, that he describes – is love. Love is our abiding. Love is our cambial contact.
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about something in human beings that we sometimes call a “God-shaped hole”. Ever since the Fall, when our relationship to God was broken by our sin, Pascal wrote, every person is born into the world with an infinite emptiness. He wrote:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?
This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
Because of who we are, created to live in fellowship with him, every one of us has that infinite abyss within ourselves that can only be satisfied by an infinite love – in fact, only by God himself. As St. Augustine prayed, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
Every child is born with a need for love. In homes where children are not cared for, or perhaps where their physical needs are cared for but where they are never hugged, never spoken to, where there is an absence of love, they don’t thrive, not just emotionally, but often they also fail to grow and develop physically. Love is an essential need, the essential need of human beings. We know that instinctively from the time we are born.
We need, and we expect love from our human parents. And as parents, if we are reasonably good parents, we try to fill that need for our children. We try to love them, unconditionally, sacrificially, abundantly. But as parents we do fail our children. We fail them all the time, because we are human beings and we make mistakes and we sin. But the truth is, we can’t help but fall short in our love, because we are trying to fill an emptiness that only God can fill, and there comes a time when we – and our children – need to realize that our human love is only a preview for our children of what God’s love is. That is the only thing that will really satisfy what they really need.
As we get older, a lot of people try to fill that infinite empty place with other things, with other human loves, with our work, with beauty, with food, with success or money, sometimes with alcohol or drugs. But we just keep getting more muddled, more frustrated, and further from knowing what we really need. No matter what we try, it always, always fails, because only God’s love can fill that place.
John wrote, “See what kind of love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God. And so we are.” God’s love names us as his children; it is the only thing fills that God-shaped hole completely. His love gives us the life we need to grow up to be what we were created to be. And his love flowing through us produces the fruit of love in us. Abiding in his love grows us up to be people that love. That is the truth.
But then, what does it mean when we fail to love one another, as we do pretty much every day? Does John really mean that if we say we love God, but don’t love our brother, we’re liars? Is it really true that if we don’t love our brother we’re failing to love God? Yes, and yes. Absolutely. We fail all the time. We claim to love Jesus, we do love Jesus, and then we find ourselves failing spectacularly to love our next-door neighbor whose dog poops on our lawn, or our son-in-law who won’t get a job, or the person sitting on the other end of our pew who just gets on our nerves. That’s why we confess together each week “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.” We all fail to love God with the love with which he has loved us. But the good news is that he never fails to love us. No matter how weak or sickly we might be as scions grafted on to the vine, the rootstock is unfailingly perfect. In his infinite love, he forgives our every failure and he patiently continues the process of transforming us, of renewing us day by day so that more and more we can see the fruit of love growing in us. It’s a long process, but it works. Because the Vinedresser knows what he is doing, and his work never fails.
“I am the true Vine,” Jesus told us, “and my Father is the Vinedresser.” God, our Father, is at work cultivating love in us. The work is always begun by God. John says over and over that God’s love comes first. “We love because he first loved us.” “God so loved the world.” Jesus emptied himself of all but love, as the hymn goes, so that he could have that cambial connection with us, so that he could know us in all our humanity, intimately, truly becoming one of us. And by that contact, his love flows into us, it quickens our hearts, it gives us his love so that we can love our brothers and sisters. As we abide in him, as our life is hid with Christ in God, we are becoming more and more the people we were created to be. We are growing more and more to be like our heavenly Father who is Love.
But the wonderful thing about the image that Jesus gave us, of the vine and the branches, is this: grafting is the process of uniting living organisms. We aren’t robots; we’re not products being constructed out of some lifeless material. The Vinedresser plants and cultivates and grafts; the Vine grows and pours its strength into the branches. But we, the branches, we are living creatures, with minds and wills and creativity and personality, and we have our own part to play as well. The branches, the scions, we have the job of staying close, of maintaining our contact, of keeping our life united with the life of the vine. Of abiding.
There is a quote that I love, I’ve kept it on my desk in my office for years, from Bp. Fanuel Magangani, of the Diocese of Northern Malawi. It’s very simple, and it’s all about abiding. Bp. Fanuel wrote: “If our faith is to be strong, if our vision is to be clear, if we are to work only for what is good and just and true, then we must stay very close to the Good Shepherd himself. We must stay close to Jesus.” Staying close means practicing his Presence every day, whatever we are doing, listening for the still, small voice of his Spirit to guide us. Staying close means being constant in prayer. Staying close means being faithful in reading his Word so that it becomes, more and more, a part of how we think and act – and how we re-act. Staying close means seeking all our joy and all our peace and all our meaning in Jesus and in nothing else. Staying close means working and worshiping in the community of his people. Above everything else, staying close means abiding in his love. And as we abide in his love, we will surely see the fruit of his love growing in our lives.