Images taken from the world with which we are familiar can have a powerful influence in shaping our understanding of how we relate to God and how this should affect our actions. They are especially powerful when we do not need to have explained what they involve or what effect they should have. Such images work immediately to form what we think, feel and do.
Some years ago I came to study the work of a certain Hindu theologian whose central image for the relationship between God and the world is that of embodiment, the relationship between a soul and its body. As the body of God the world is supported in existence by God, controlled by God, existing to serve the purposes of God.
This theologian draws on Hindu sacred texts to justify his use of this image and argues for a particular understanding of what is meant by embodiment, but the image nonetheless has an immediate and powerful effect in forming our perspectives on who we are and how we should act.
We are familiar with bodies, especially our own bodies and with their dependence on their life giving souls. We can easily come to sense how close the relationship is between ourselves and God as his body, and that we should act to express this.
In the passage of John for this Sunday we have the different image of the vine and its branches to express the relationship between Christ and his disciples. The branches of a vine draw their life from the vine and come to bear fruit only if connected to the vine. The branches of a vine have an intimate relationship with the vine, depending on it at all times and forming one living organism with it.
And so it is with Christian discipleship. The disciple is dependent on the inner presence and activity of Christ for the regeneration of his or her own life into one of faith and love. The disciple can only be effective in the regeneration of the lives of others when this is the expression and abundance of that life-giving presence of Christ in his or her own life.
The image of the vine and its branches suggests an intimacy in the relationship between ourselves and Christ. This contrasts with images that distance Christ from us, such as the image of Christ seated in heaven and of us getting on with our lives on earth, with Christ far from us, even though he may act for or upon us.
Images of Christ as king and lord, as shepherd and judge, have their own importance in the enrichment of our perspective on how Christ relates to us. However, they need to be balanced by such images as the vine, which integrate the disciple into the life of Christ and of Christ into the life of the disciple in a unity and closeness which these other images cannot convey.
We may not be all that familiar with vines as such, but we still encounter trees and plants and do not need to have explained to us how parts of a living organism depend on it. The image of the vine can thus have a powerful effect on our imaginations and hearts, bringing us to an immediate awareness of how Christ is present and active within us.
The sense of the intimate and sustaining presence in all things of the creating and redeeming God has formed a major dynamic in the spiritual life of Christians. It has been said to be the unifying theme of the Western mystical tradition.
This presence becomes felt in silence and individual prayer, in time spent alone with God. Awareness of this presence is something which can come and go and be felt to a greater or lesser degree. The image of the vine and its branches calls us to take seriously the cultivation of awareness of this presence.
Yet it calls us also to see how the cultivation of this presence is not self-indulgence, not just for the delight of the individual Christian. The image of the vine enables us to realise that, just as the presence of Christ is in reality the source of a genuine Christian life for the benefit both of oneself and of others, so awareness of that presence impels the Christian to be active both in growing in one's own love of God and in manifesting that love towards others.