The ‘Man Upstairs?’
Someone, who once thought they were making some sort of connection to a well-known pastor once said to them, “I don’t care much for churches and such, but I do believe in the ‘man upstairs’, and isn’t that what religion is about after all?”
The pastor who received this comment recalls, in his own words, “I was too polite to say, ‘No! At least that’s not what the Christian religion is all about. We don’t believe in some vague, aloof, man-upstairs of a God. The only reason you hope that God IS the man upstairs – is so that you can jolly well go your own way and live as you please. We believe that Jesus Christ was God, so that the man upstairs, came downstairs, so to speak.” (“Abiding in Jesus”, William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, p 30, 2009)
I am the vine, and you are the branches
That last statement is the truth we hear from our gospel today (John 15:1-8). In Jesus Christ, God is no longer far off. Jesus says to us: “I am the vine, and you are branches”. God in Jesus is now determined to abide with us no matter what. And because Jesus is the vine, we know God, not as an abstract reality living somewhere up in the clouds. God in Jesus is now the source of our lives — the source of unconditional love that we hope to reveal to others.
“We don’t use the word ‘abide’ much in our everyday language, but Jesus says we are to abide in him. To abide means to remain, stay, dwell, last, endure, continue. To abide is different from having a one-night stay (or even a one-night stand). Jesus Christ calls us to have a very real relationship – an abiding, lasting relationship – with him. Abiding in the vine means there is a sense of stability, of rootedness. We become rooted in Christ. And then, attached to him, we are tended to by God, the vine grower, who shapes us in the best way possible to bear fruit.
Jesus said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” When Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, it was shortly before his death. He was trying to prepare his followers for his bodily absence. And the early Christian church that John writes to in his gospel – also needed to continue to know that connection to Jesus in order to survive during a difficult time in their history.
Uprooted and Dislocated
As Christian individuals, and as the church, we’ve just been through a time in our history that has sought to uproot us. The upheaval of the huge stresses from this past year, and the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, have put more pressure upon most of us than we’ve ever known. It’s a pressure that has worked hard to try to sever us from the vine. That experience affects us now and it will affect us for some time to come.
Pastor Dara had the chance to attend a virtual continuing education event this past week where one of the speakers was Dr. Diana Butler Bass. Dr. Bass is an American historian of Christianity. In an article Pr. Dara shared from Dr Bass with we fellow pastors, a part of that article deeply resonated within me – so I’d like to share a few insights here with you.
In this article, Dr. Bass described the effects of the pandemic on us emotionally and spiritually by using the word “dislocated”. She says we’ve all become mislaid, out of place, dislocated to some extent.
Dr. Bass went on to categorize some of our dislocations. She stated that one category of our experience is temporal dislocation. That means our sense of time is out of order. You had some of those moments in the last year, didn’t you? Like when you found yourself asking what day was? Or what time was? – when you usually aren’t one of those people who loses track of such things.
Another dislocation we’ve experienced is historical dislocation. Our history has been disrupted – by lockdown, by conspiracy theories, by the intensity of social media. We’ve been uprooted from our stories of the past. And some of those stories have now failed us in the present. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?
A 3rd dislocation Dr. Bass names is physical dislocation. Most of us have moved much of our lives into cyber-space. We are online for work, for school, for family gatherings, for entertainment. There’s now a bit of a disconnect between our physical bodies – and other people and places.
And a 4th category Dr. Bass names is relational dislocation. This has eased a bit but we’re still lacking in the routine of daily interacting with other people. That leaves us worrying about how it will be to be with friends again. Or anxiously wondering what in-person work will be like. Or being concerned about what it will it feel like to be in large crowds again.
Dr. Bass suggests that for the church, perhaps our next greatest work – can be in helping people with relocation. As we move out of this pandemic time, we, as the body of Christ, have this great opportunity to assist each other and others in relocating and reconnecting. We are uniquely situated, as the church, to help re-connect and re-ground people – in their own lives, in community life, and in faith community. (“Religion After Pandemic”, Dr Diana Butler Bass, Dianabutlerbass.substack.com) I find that idea fascinating!!
To me a big part of relocation happens first in our own lives as we ponder our connection as branches to the vine of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is to have an enduring impact on our lives (and the life of the world), we have to be rooted in regular encounters with him. We need to re-determine, re-examine, re-experience our practices and postures that help us connect with God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Our spiritual nourishment – our sustenance and staying power – our very lives depend on this.
Our Lord Jesus himself gave us the examples of cultivating these re-connecting practices. Many times, we see Jesus throughout his life engaging in prayer, retreat, times set apart for contemplation, for scripture reading, for worship.
So, as we begin to ease out of this dislocating time, – I encourage all of us to increase or re-engage in some of these re-connection practices for ourselves. Perhaps you have re-connected in manners of faith already during this difficult year. If so, don’t slow down now a we ease out of some of this difficulty. But perhaps you lost all structure for your spiritual life during the pandemic. Then now is the tie to take steps to re-connect. Pray regularly. Find daily time to read a bit of the Bible. Find quiet moments for self-reflection or to empty your mind and settle yourself. Get outside and experience God’s handiwork. Worship regularly – online or in person. Begin, or continue to, deepen those daily rituals that solidify your connection to Christ, the vine.
Because Jesus promises that those who root themselves deeply in ‘the vine’ will ‘bear much fruit’. When we are personally nourished in our faith in Christ, we do become able to be effective incarnations of Christ in the world.
And the world needs Christians of the church right now more than ever, to draw from our own personal connection to God in order show others what creating, and sustaining, spiritual channels of renewal look like. Because we are tapped into an unending source, we’re also to show others what boundless love, forgiveness, and hope look like when these qualities pour out from us.
Later this morning, one of the children of our congregation will receive her first taste of Holy Communion. In the next two weeks, dozens of children of our congregation will receive this sacrament for their first time. Isn’t that wonderful?! In that meal, each child, just like the rest of us — will experience what it’s like to be physically fed with the spiritual taste of the Lord’s presence.
That meal is our sustenance. We know it will become theirs. They will taste and see that the Lord is good. The Lord brings them love, forgiveness, and strength every time they receive this meal. This especially is one central practice where God shows us that we are not self-sufficient. We depend on the vine for our nourishment. And the results are visible in those who abide. Those who abide, bear fruit. The fruit is for someone else.
But fruit can only be produced from a healthy plant. May Christ’s healing life force flow into us, that we may be strengthened to produce the re-connecting, re-locating care that the world needs now, most of all!
Thanks be to God! Amen.