Pain is one of few things that grow when shared.
For the first time in human history, technology has given us front-row seats to some of the greatest human tragedies—death, injustice, and outrage broadcast live through social media services, only to be replayed endlessly in our 24-hour news cycle. Police shootings. Outrage. Backlash. It’s as if the pain overflows from our screens and etches into our hearts like an acid bath.
How do we process such images, such emotions, such stories? What—if anything—do we tell our children? Where lies the responsibility of God’s people in all of this confusion?
None of these questions have easy answers. What I thought we might do this week is look at our scheduled passage in light of everything that’s happening in our nation.
THE TRUE VINE
John’s biography of Jesus splits into two basic parts. The first half provides an overview of Jesus’ ministry, a period lasting at least three years. But the second half focuses on the final week of Jesus’ life—from his arrival in Jerusalem to his death and resurrection. Time slows down. John offers us a glimpse of Jesus’ teachings in detail. At the famous “last supper,” Jesus offers his disciples an extended speech of what life will be like as they carry on his mission here on earth. It won’t be pretty, he seems to emphasize, but we can take comfort in claiming Christ as our source of strength. In John 15, the disciples rise from the table and proceed to go to the garden to pray, and it’s in this movement that Jesus offers one of his most enduring lessons:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11)
The Hebrew scriptures contained numerous comparisons between Israel and the “vine” and related imagery—not always positively. Jesus says here that he is the true Vine, the true source of life. And this life is experienced by “abiding” (some translations might say “remaining”) in him.
OUR “PEEK-A-BOO WORLD”
Our world is not one prone to “abide” in much of anything. No; our world is far more accustomed to what’s “trending” and what’s popular. More than twenty years ago, Neil Postman wrote a groundbreaking book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it he described the modern era as a “peek-a-boo world:”
“where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.”
We should find it all the more compelling that Postman wrote this years before the tyranny of the smart phone and the world of social media.
Perhaps we might feel Postman goes too far in describing this world as “entertaining,” but today’s digital age offers endless outlets for outrage but little room for lasting—and that’s the key word, here—lasting empathy. It’s like the U2 lyric: “it’s true we are immune, when fact is fiction and TV reality.”
BEING “INTO” JESUS
The poet Wendell Berry once wrote that “sometimes you sink into a place, and sometimes a place sinks into you.” A “peek-a-boo world” doesn’t offer much depth to sink into. Sink into shallowness, and you hit bottom rather quickly.
Jesus’ command is to “abide.” The Greek word meno most literally meant “to reside” or “to stay,” the way you might “abide” in your house. But the word also seems to have a deeper meaning—a spatial metaphor, for you academics out there. We do something similar in English, actually. When learning a foreign language, we might say that a person learns more when they are “immersed” in that culture. Or what about the way we talk about our hobbies, interests, or ideas? We might say: “I’m really into the Orioles” or ask “Are you into politics at all?” What do we mean by into? Obviously it’s not literal. It’s a powerful way of describing our close connection and identification.
To “abide” means being “into” Jesus, it means being immersed in his life and teachings. It sounds so trivial to say it that way, but perhaps it’s because we’re so used to a culture of “contacts” that we’ve lost the art of true connection.
We can “abide” in the stories and sentiments expressed on the nightly news or the conversations that swirl around the water cooler. If we sink into these conversations these ideas could very well sink into us. We could quickly find ourselves struggling with anger, despair, and further division.
Or we could abide in Jesus. We could stay close to Jesus. I don’t mean to suggest that there are not immediate solutions to the problems we face, but I am confident that our ultimate source of peace and justice is found only in Christ. The cross demonstrated Christ’s willingness to suffer and die next to broken sinners like you and me, and the empty tomb demonstrated God’s power over the most obstinate force in the universe—death itself.
Abide, Jesus says. Stay close.
When we hear about “breaking footage…” Stay close.
When we learn of another victim… Stay close.
When others’ opinions stir our anger… Stay close.
When our children are looking for answers, we tell them to stay close to The Answer, the Alpha, Omega, the One who promises that when his name is exalted, he draws all men to himself.