I am the vine; you are the branches.
Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit,
because apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5
In a Denver-area congregation I served some years ago, there was a family who had come to Denver from Lebanon a decade before. They operated a Lebanese restaurant. It was a highlight for the whole congregation every time a newborn in the family was baptized, because they always brought huge plates of baklava to celebrate the baptism. This was a large extended family with lots of babies, so it seemed like we were having baklava every other month.
The only time they didn’t bring baklava for a family baptism was one of the most memorable baptisms I’ve been part of.
When Maria was born, the doctors told the family that she probably wouldn’t survive. She was hospitalized for a week, then two, then a month. In one of those grueling litanies of modern life, the family took shifts being with Maria, never leaving her alone, never giving up hope, yet slowly coming to terms with the reality they were facing.
Finally, after ten months of this agony, the doctors told the family that Maria was stable enough to go home—if not to get better, at least to live her last few weeks outside the cold hospital confines. It was then that the family asked about baptism.
Could Maria be baptized? Of course she could, we replied. We could come to the hospital and do it there, or we could do it once she got home. No, they said, we want her baptized at church. Theologically, for our tradition, they had it just right. It’s always to be done in church, in a regular worship service, with everyone in church surrounding the person being baptized. Our tradition also allows for extraordinary circumstances, which clearly this was. But the family didn’t want an exception—they wanted Maria to be baptized in church.
The problems were legion. Risk of infection was great; they had to be careful. She was in a modified wheelchair with so many machines hooked up that it was hard to move her.
As it finally worked out, Maria was discharged from Children’s Hospital in Denver on Easter morning at 7:00 a.m. The ambulance that was taking her home made a detour, stopping at our church, before Easter services were poised to commence. Assembled there were all the elders on our church board, in masks and gowns. They had gathered to welcome Maria on behalf of the congregation.
Surrounding her in a circle of love and faith and hope, we baptized Maria in the name of our Creator, and our Redeemer, and in the name of the One who sustains us in all times and in all places.
Anyone observing this baptism could be forgiven for thinking that this event was a form of closure at the end a long journey. “At least they were able to have Maria baptized.” But all these years later, what is most vivid in my memory is feeling the grief of the moment and the presence and promises of God wrapped up together. When we are connected to God in the hardest times of our life, I think, this merging of grief and hope is often what we experience. It confounds wisdom. It is decidedly counter-cultural. It is sober and clear-eyed about the tragic weight of loss. And, we are held by God in God’s presence and love.
We had just been able to name Maria as God’s beloved. All who had gathered saw her identity so clearly as God’s own. Hard as the journey was for them, in that moment, Jesus was present, and the enduring promises of God were so thick you could taste them.
In the Gospel of John, when Jesus declared, “I am the vine; you are the branches.
Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing,” He was not offering guidance to regional wine growers. He was speaking to everyone seeking meaning in their life, and He was offering words that Christ’s church could rely on for centuries to come.
Those words confront any moment where we think we can chart our own path. That we can – on our own – “rally to the cause.” As individuals or groups (or church), all our attempts to gather to “imagine a way forward” will end up in the dust unless we are connected to, guided by, and reliant upon the one without whom “we can do nothing.”
What a relief! What a gift! What holy freedom!
Just as baptism is about our identity and God’s promises, so too is this declaration: “I am the vine, you are the branches…apart from me you can do nothing.” It is a summary of how we are to live and how the church is to function. It is a holy reminder of:
Who God is.
Who we are.
How we move God’s work forward in this world.
There are no agendas apart from God’s vison.
There are no communities that can be formed apart from God’s gracious presence.
There can be no decisions we make apart from God’s loving intentions.
And there is no way to form and nurture faith apart from how God feeds and directs us.
When I think of the circle of family and elders that gathered around the baptismal font all those years ago, I am struck at what a miracle happened there. No one in that circle – and certainly not me – could have thought that moment up. It happened, not because of creative brainstorming or careful planning, but because a family who knew how they were sustained by God in hardest times joined with a group of believers who were intent on living faithfully in ways that kept them connected to the God of grace and hope.
Those moments happen, not because of our good intentions, but truly because Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and apart from him, we can do nothing.