The vine and the onion

This is the Sunday when the gospel reading is the passage from John, where Jesus paints a beautiful picture, saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” The vine and its branches offers a lush and fertile image of our life in Christ, an image that blooms and brings forth much fruit in our imagining, thinking, and doing. It encourages us to linger and behold; it teaches us to become open and attentive to its rich possibilities. Little wonder, then, that every year during the season of Easter, I find myself drawn to that image with joyful expectation, ready to find new dimensions of resurrection life.

But not so this year. When it was time to select the two readings for our worship on the fifth Sunday of Easter, the angel of the epistle whispered in my ear, “Look, what beauty and truth is written in these lines of First John. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There’s not a person in the world who doesn’t need to hear that!”

I don’t argue with angels, but I wish they would stay around long enough or come back to whisper in the preacher’s ear when he stares at the passage wondering what to make of a text that is so repetitive, almost relentless in its drumbeat of love, love, love. Fifteen short verses, and love is mentioned twenty-five times! The angel didn’t whisper; instead I heard John, Paul, George, and Ringo singing, All you need is love! and Tina Turner responding, What’s love got to do with it? What’s love but a second-hand emotion? and then Joan Baez, bless her heart, chimed in singing, Love is just a four-letter word.

I don’t know what songs start playing in your head when you hear love repeated again and again, but I suspect they are songs of romance and joy, songs of hope and fulfillment, songs of heart-break and the courage to love again.

One of the commentaries I consulted asked, “How does one approach a subject so shopworn and trivialized as love?”[1] Shopworn and trivialized. I don’t know. At first the phrase resonated with me; words do wear thin from overuse. It is very difficult to speak of God’s enduring relationship with creation, when the same words are used in a MacDonald’s tagline. And only you know what first comes to mind when you hear the words, “I’m lovin’ it.” There’s a website for everything these days, from (the official website of the American Dairy Association) to (a Christian web hosting service).

Is love shopworn and trivialized? Yes it is. But this overuse also speaks of our desire to see all things infused with love. And even the cheesiest love song also sings of this feeling deep down in our souls, this happy suspicion that love indeed ties all things together; that love indeed is life’s beginning and fulfillment.

For the writer of 1 John, love is not one thing among many God does. Everything that God does is loving, because God as revealed in the story of Jesus is love. The philosophers had thought about the character of the divine for generations, and for Aristotle it seemed clear that God must be pure reason. Plato added that God may also be named The Good beyond Being. And the writer of 1 John didn’t write a long dissertation on the nature of the Divine, but a rather short meditation on what the story of Jesus reveals about who God is, and he became the first one to declare, God is love.

Jesus is sent because God loves the world. Jesus embodies and proclaims the love of God in all he says and does. Jesus teaches his followers that in love he abides in the Father and the Father in him, and that through love we participate in the eternal life they share. Jesus lays down his life for his friends, and no one has greater love than this. This is my commandment, Jesus says, that you love one another as I have loved you. Love, love, love, love. There’s no room for fear, for apathy or hatred, because love’s desire is to be all in all.

Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down;
fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown;
Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation, enter every trembling heart.

Charles Wesley sings with exuberance that God is love. Martin Luther points to the cross and says, God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love.[2] Bill Coffin picks up the thread and declares, God’s love is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet; God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value. Our value is a gift, not an achievement.[3]

Love pours from the First Letter of John as from an overflowing cup because in the story of Jesus all things are transfigured and shine with the glory of God. The glory of God, the fullness of God’s very being, is love, overflowing into creation and bringing forth life in abundance. But do not think of this flow as aimless spillage or random bursts. God’s love is intentional and God’s desire is for love to be fulfilled in the blessed conviviality of life, the sabbath communion of loving creator and beloved creation. Love flows forth and life emerges in manifold beauty – from the soil and the sea, from rivers and ponds – and what happens to the flow when it reaches us? Does it then stop, having bestowed the gift and fulfilled its purpose? No, for we were created to be and act like God, to let the movement of God’s life-giving, life-redeeming, and life-fulfilling love continue. It flows into us and then flows on from us in words and deeds of mercy.

This means that our loving, our giving of ourselves to one another is both our doing and not our doing, for we are participating in the movement of God’s love in Christ. The gift of God is both, Christ dwelling in us and working through us, creating a sabbath community of peace.

All this, of course, is very much about the vine and the branches. Christ is the vine, we are the branches. We abide in him and he in us, and we bear much fruit. But I want to close with a story about a much humbler plant. It’s a story told by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. Grushenka says to Alyosha,

It’s only a story, but it’s a nice story. I used to hear it when I was a child from Matryona, my cook, who is still with me. It’s like this. Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

What’s love got to do with it? The angel weeps because love is so strong and yet so weak. One onion, one humble, ordinary onion, received as a gift, pulled up from the garden, and given to another, is the very path to paradise. There’s no doubt in my heart that the humble onion is strong enough to pull us all out. Even the smallest act of kindness for a little sister or a little brother has the power to change everything, because it embodies the love of Christ. But love is weak and inevitably breaks when we want to keep it for ourselves.

We do belong together, all of us, and it is love that makes us one. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” says Jesus. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”


[1] NIB, p. 432

[2] WA 36, p. 425

[3] Credo, p. 6