Last Wednesday, while our youth group was on a mission trip in Tulsa, we volunteered at a food pantry called Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma. The client-choice model food pantry invites guests into a space that looks and feels like a grocery store where they are welcome to choose a certain number of items on each aisle based on the number of people in their household. In over six hours of serving at Catholic Charities, our group and a handful of regular volunteers would help provide food and even diapers, formula, and floral arrangements for 194 families.
Before the doors opened to our neighbors in need, the volunteers gathered for instructions and a meditation on Scripture. John 15:1-8 was read aloud, where Jesus, in what’s known as his Farewell Discourse, invites his disciples to abide in him, and to thereby allow his words—all the he has taught them by example—to abide in them. With the metaphor of the vine, Jesus explains how God is the vinegrower, he (Jesus) is the vine, and the branches are those faithful followers who abide in the vine and grow from it. John 15:4b was an especially potent reminder of our need to draw from a well not of our own willpower given the challenging work ahead of us that morning: “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” It was a fulfilling day of service, but we needed the vine to do the work.
That night, our group reflected again on John 15:1-8. With the hindsight experience of serving alongside one another—both our group and the local volunteers we just met that morning—and interacting with strangers, who tore down pejorative stereotypes of poor people seeking so-called handouts with every neighborly conversation we shared, the image of those branches growing from the vine became clearer. True to the United Church of Christ’s mantra that God is still speaking, Jesus’ vine metaphor reached beyond his words recorded in John’s gospel to reveal how those branches grow. They do not shoot straight out into their own individual direction; rather, the branches bend and curl toward one another, growing together in an overlapping tapestry of thriving life. That’s how it works when we abide in Jesus: we don’t grow apart; we naturally grow together in blessed and beloved community that gets stronger and stronger with every shared act of serving and loving one another as the true vine loves us.
A week after that day of service on the mission trip and back home for the moment, I’m sitting alone and enjoying the rejuvenation that solitude brings. But while this good and necessary alone time recharges my batteries, my soul quietly, consistently hungers for community. In solitary meditation, I remember that I am made in the image of God who Christians refer to as triune: Creator, Christ, Holy Spirit. I am crafted in the image of that great Three In One who identifies by relationship and the community that springs from it. And as I reflect on the words of Jesus, I am reminded of why it is important to abide in him, of why it is crucial to be rooted in the exemplary teachings of Christ, so that my growth from that vine would be a revelation of the nature of God. As the gospel musician and artist Hezekiah Walker sings, I need you to survive; yes, and all of us, made in the image of a Creator who craves community, need to grow together to thrive. As Jesus says in John 15:8, God is glorified by this.