The I AM and WE ARE of Love

John 15:1, 5; I John 4:7-8, 11-13, 18

Image result for vine and branches
Imagery of the natural world—metaphors that are living things—often speak to us in powerful ways. I think you’ll agree that being compared to a tree is much more agreeable and full of possibilities than being compared to another person or a material thing like a car. In most spiritual traditions, nature metaphors are prevalent and even essential in terms of presenting a view of the world and all of us who live in it.

The image/metaphor of the vine is a famous example. Imagine, if you will, a Creator who grows vines. This Creator plants the vines and knows where to do so—considering the type of earth, the climate, how much sun the land will get, etc. So the vine is planted with great care and with attention to the details. And so imagine that this vine planted so carefully and purposely that it does indeed grow. Branches form. The vine grows sideways and up and down, and every which way. The branches of the vine start to bear fruit. Grapes. And as long as those branches are connected to that vine, they keep bearing grapes, keep winding farther around, keep growing.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth is given I AM statements, seven of them–as metaphors for Jesus’ place in the world, and our place with God. In this case, obviously God is the vine grower, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches bearing fruit.

It’s simple, but it’s also complicated.

Because this metaphor is about interconnectedness and relationship and community. And it forces us to ask the question: what is the fruit that we as branches actually bear? In some Christian circles, the fruit may be defined as moral decisions and behaviors, or sometimes even stretched to be political and social decisions and viewpoints. You see, we can even distort a beautiful image like a vine and branches just so we can make it fit into our view of the world and each other.

But it’s not meant to be that way. This vine and the branches are supposed to reflect what Jesus considered a relationship with God to be—a connected, fluid expression of love. It is for this reason that the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth equated God with the abstract concept of love, and because Jesus was intimately connected to this God, then Jesus was an expression of this love, and so the branches [you and I] are bearing the fruit of this love. In fact, this early followers of Jesus also believed the flip side of the metaphor—those who didn’t love, didn’t know God, were not connected to God, nor to Jesus. The “test” to know if God was real was love expressed by people. If people loved each other, God existed. And so, this God, this vinegrower, was the opposite of fear, the opposite of punishment. The Vinegrower is love, plants love, Jesus is connected to this love, we are connected to this love, we bear this love; we are this love.

Now let’s bring this metaphor one step further, as it can be expressed in community. I’ve mentioned communities of practice before. Allow me a moment to remind ourselves what a COP is:

A Community of Practice is a group of people that shares a Domain [shared interest], a Practice [body of knowledge, experiences, and techniques] and a Community [a select group of individuals who care enough about something to participate regularly together].[1]

So, to continue with the vine and branches metaphor, a Community of Practice that reflects the vine and branches metaphor would be people who share a passion for loving others, know how to love others and have had experience in loving others/being loved, and have formally started and continue to maintain a community that regularly gathers in order to love and be loved.

This is not abstract, as metaphors and even the term “love” can be. This idea of vine and branches community is intentional and practical. It is a focus. It is reflected in how we communicate with each other, how we make decisions, etc. Our conversations are restorative, meaning that when we talk to each other in meetings or gatherings, we are imagining possibilities, and are being creative and are open to learning from each other. We are less focused on solving problems but instead on growing and bearing the fruit of love as our community practice.

In doing so, we seek to invite transformative change rather than forcing it. We don’t own things but share them. Our thinking is diverse and even dissent voices are embraced. People make commitments based on passions and gifts and not pressure, obligation, or bartering. The gifts of each person, each branch, are acknowledged and valued.

Are you discovering these types of communities? Are you part of one? If so, please share a story about it in the comments section.

In the meantime, stay connected to the Love that planted us all and wishes us to bear this fruit for all.

[1] https://www.scaledagileframework.com/communities-of-practice/

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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