Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
When it comes to God, many people imagine God as an old man in the heavens. This is hardly surprising, given that most artistic depictions of God feature a wise paternal figure overlooking creation. This is true both in illustrations in children’s books as well as in the great works of art, such as Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. God, a white-bearded paternal figure surrounded by angels, reaches out from the heavens and touches Adam’s finger.
I once had the great fortune of being in the Sistine Chapel very early in the morning before the crowds of tourists arrived. I spent close to an hour just gazing upon that image and the countless others that cover the ceiling and walls of the chapel. The grandeur of the scene was magnified by the sheer and utter silence of the chapel. I felt as if the hand of God was about to touch my own.
As powerful as that image is, I know it is not the only image of God. Well before I ever studied the scriptures, I thought God was in the wind that blew through the trees of the wood behind my parent’s house. As a young boy I climbed to the top of the hill behind our home so as to get closer to God and to feel the winds against my body. I wanted to be near God. Later, while studying theology, it came as no surprise for me to hear of the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the disciples as a roaring rush of wind. (Acts 2:2) Not to mention that even the name of the Spirit in Hebrew, ruach, means breath, as well as with the Greek word pneuma. In fact, despite popular imagination that our word “spirit” conveys a sense of the Spirit as a ghost, the word spirit comes from the Latin word for breath, spiritus.
As I spent more time with the scriptures, I encountered numerous other images of God. The prophet Isaiah speaks of God like a mother tenderly caring for her child: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13) In Deuteronomy God compares God’s self to be like an eagle that “stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions.” (Deuteronomy 32:11) Jesus, lamenting over the city of Jerusalem, speaks of God as a mother hen caring for her young: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Mat. 23:37b)
Although we are inclined to think of God in paternal terms, we ought not forget that the scriptures and the spiritual writings of the Jewish-Christian Tradition use numerous analogies and metaphors when speaking of God. This is simply good theology. As St. Anselm of Canterbury reminds us, God is more than anything you and I can imagine or conceive. (Proslogium) God reveals God’s self to us in a variety ways, often in ways that help us relate to God more deeply.
Today, as with last week, Jesus broadens our imagination of God by speaking of himself as the vine and ourselves as the branches. In John’s Gospel, it is always important to pay close attention to the way John has Jesus identify himself. Whenever Jesus is about to describe himself, he begins with two simple words: I am. These two words are not merely standard forms of introduction. Rather, Jesus’ use of the phrase “I am…” would’ve immediately evoked the story of God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush. You might recall the story; Moses encounters the burning bush and is overwhelmed not only by the sight, but also by a voice he hears, the voice of God. He presses God to reveal God’s name to him, and God simply responds with “Yahweh.” (Exodus 3:14) Or, as what some rabbis suggest, “I am who I am” or “I am whatever I will be.” To you and I this may not seem like a big deal, but for the Jews of Jesus’ day, for Jesus to begin saying “I am the vine,” would’ve been blasphemous, because he is identifying himself with the God who revealed God’s self to Moses. In other words, Jesus’ metaphors of “I am the Good Shepherd” and “I am the vine” are disclosing to us some aspect of the nature of God.
What Jesus reveals about himself and God matters. Not only does he reveal the different faces of God, the various names of God also tell us about our relationship to God and how we are to live. What one says about God will say a lot about what one thinks about the human person and how we are to live in relation to God and each other. Remember, we are formed in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1:27)
Throughout his ministry, Jesus consistently challenged people’s conception of God. When it comes to God, we humans have a tendency to want to keep God in a box. The scriptures are clear about this. Throughout the Old Testament, the people like to imagine they have God figured out, only to discover that God is well beyond their imagination. A good example of this is the story of Job. His friends all think they have God figured out, only for God to reprimand them and remind them that his love is much more expansive than what any human can ever express or conceive. Jesus, too, expands the people’s understanding of God. When they are quick to judge and condemn in God’s name, Jesus stands between the accuser and the accused and asks those who are about to judge whether or not they are free from sin. The danger inherent to the Jewish-Christian tradition is idolatry, making God into our image, not us into God’s image. Jesus pushes against that inclination and invites us to a much more expansive and all-embracing vision of God.
Let us then return to Jesus’ revelation that he is the vine and we the branches. Once again, Jesus uses an image to broaden and expand our vision of God and God’s love for us. The metaphor of vine is replete with meaning. The most obvious of which is that Jesus, the Living God, is the source and foundation of lives and ministry. Our entire identity and sense of purpose is rooted in Jesus. We are to not only be like Jesus, we are to live as Jesus in the world. Furthermore, the image of the vine helps us to imagine how expansive the gospel is and how it can extend and speak meaningfully in the harshest and most difficult places. Moreover, the vine and brach imagery reminds us that we share in the ministry of Jesus and that we are expected to be fruitful in our proclamation of his Good News for the life of the world. Finally, the metaphor speaks to the inclusiveness of God: all of us, no matter how diverse we may be, are an extension of God’s presence in the world.
Over the next couple of weeks I intend to reflect more upon the expansiveness of God and how our language reflects that. While I know this parish has given considerable thought to this, I think now is a good time to renew this conversation, particularly when many in our society are so intent on marginalizing others. As disciples of Jesus, we are to witness to God’s all encompassing love through our actions and words. What we say has great impact on how we live. Amen.