Jesus said, “Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me. I am the vine, and you are the branches.” (John 15: 4 & 5)
One of the incredibly powerful lies of modern society is that we are individuals.
I’ve written that in a deliberately provocative way, to get you thinking. What I mean of course, is that there is a belief in our society that we can exist as individuals in isolation from everyone else. I challenge you to notice it in advertising. Here are a few slogans from advertisements to make my point: “My Life, My Super” (Superannuation), “Because I’m worth it” (Loreal), “Because you’re worth it” (Loreal), “It’s about you” (Nike & Lance Armstrong).
But it’s all false, because we don’t exist as individuals. I mean, we literally don’t exist as individuals: our bodies, for a start, are an incredibly complex web of organisms and life. Red blood cells, which take oxygen to our muscles, are complemented by and work alongside white blood cells, which fight infection. What’s even more fascinating is that there are good bacteria, which live inside us, and play an important role in digestion and all sorts of other things. My wife Alison has now convinced me to put natural yoghurt on my cereal, because it contains probiotics, which are basically good bacteria, which encourage the health of your digestive system. One of our Year 8 teachers was telling me, that there are actually more bacteria in our bodies than there are cells.
Then there is the simple truth that we don’t actually exist by ourselves anyway. One of the great joys I have as the School Chaplain is to marry couples in the School Chapel. Weddings are a wonderful celebration of a couple, in the company of their family and friends, saying, “We don’t wish to live as individuals – we wish to spend our lives with another person.”
We live also in communities. We live with other people and in nature and with all sorts of other creatures all around us. Some of them are friendly, such as our pets. Some of them are not so friendly, such as the foxes that live in urban areas across the country! But we don’t live in isolation.
When we try and cut ourselves off from God or from other people, when we try and live as isolated individuals, it actually doesn’t work very well; it has disastrous consequences.
The teaching from Jesus, “I am the vine, you are the branches” is this idea that we can’t actually live complete lives apart from God. It’s part of his teaching at the Last Supper. It’s amongst the last things Jesus said to the disciples. We know it’s important, not just because it occurs at the Last Supper, Jesus’ last chance to teach his disciples before his crucifixion, but also because John thought it was important enough to write down and include in his Gospel. Just ponder that for a moment: Jesus’ earthly ministry in ancient Palestine lasted about three years. He must have said a lot over that time. We presumably don’t have everything he said, which means that the bits we do have were considered by his disciples important to record. This idea of being part of the vine, meaning connected to Jesus, connected to God, was considered important by John.
Let me finish with asking you to recall an image from the recent news. As you may know, North and South Korea are technically still at war. There has been a lot of animosity, including the odd violent encounter, over the years, but very recently the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un and the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, held hands as they crossed the demilitarised zone together. North Korea has existed as a rogue state, cut off from the vine effectively. People are starving and Kim Jong-un has spent every last cent (just about!) building a nuclear arsenal. But where there’s life, there’s hope. I hope, I pray, and I dream that this symbolic act of them walking hand-in-hand is a picture of a different future, one in which North Korea is not cut off. I like to imagine an open trading border between North and South, so that when my friend David, who lives in Sydney but who is married a South Korean woman, visits South Korea, he will be able to cross the border and visit the North. We are all part of the vine; we are all connected. This is our prayer for the world.
The Rev’d Dr Theo McCall, School Chaplain