Last week, the winners of a food photography award were announced, and the overall winner was a stunning picture by a Chinese photographer called Li Huaifeng. It shows a mother and father with their daughter making dumplings in a vaulted front room, the sunlight pouring in smoky shafts through old and patched windows and the ill-fitting front door. The camera angle shows the family from above; the father on the left cooking over a very hot wok, heated from below with a simple wood stove; the mother seated on the rights folding dumplings which are being neatly arranged in their dozens on large trays. Her daughter looks at her with a smile of complete delight, lit by one of those sunrays. It is an arresting picture and its appeal lies in the combination of a location that is fascinating in its particularity and unfamiliarity to us, and the complete familiarity of a universal image of food preparation, with its promise of nourishment, taste, togetherness and sharing.
Food is always both universal and particular, global and local. Something as Scottish as haggis is also a staple food in Serbia and elsewhere, and what use would it be without a decent amount of pepper, a spice so familiar that we forget its distant origins and its need for the kind of sun we just don’t see here. And I think there is something of that universal and particular nature of food when St John the Theologian takes the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine, of grain and grape, and meditates on them in passages like the one we’ve just heard. Vines, of course, are famously responsive to their particular place, their terroir, as you’ll know if you’ve ever had a tour of a French vineyard and endured the long chat that separates you from the tasting session. But their fruit has a long reach, and the symbolism that St John employs also hints at the rich complex of meanings evoked by wine as a festive and ritual drink, the stuff of weddings and libations, of weekly shabbat and annual Pesach, of gladdened hearts and warmed faces.
But the universal dimension is also concerned with the very matter of the vine itself, root and fruit, branch and trunk, and here St John gives us one of his most enduring metaphors, which is that of abiding. I am glad that the NRSV retained this rich word, which is the same word asked by Jesus’s first disciples in chapter one when they ask him where he is staying, where he is abiding. In the light of the way the word is used in this passage, they might as well have been asking, ‘where are you rooted?’ or ‘what is your sphere of operation?’. It’s an existential question which is not restricted to a question of geographical origins – a first century equivalent of the deadly Edinburgh question, ‘what school did you go to’ – but is much more concerned with where we find our true centre of gravity, the place we are rooted and at home, secure and nourished, most freely and fully ourselves without the superficialities of status, achievement, wealth or exterior characteristics.
Where do you abide? Abiding is also, I think, a perfect word to describe contemplative prayer. I don’t mean the stuff we say to God, but the sense of being still in one place, of squarely facing reality with open eyes and hearts, of commitment to the discipline of remaining close to the source of our life, the True Vine, in silence and in trust. How do we abide in Christ? By choosing to remain in his presence, again and again, without expectations or theories, programmes or techniques, simply conscious of the miracle of being alive.
But I think there is also a particularity about this abiding, which mirrors the commitment to regular contemplative prayer, and that has to do with choosing to dwell fruitfully in our particular place. The story goes that a pilgrim asked an old monk, ‘what do you do?’. His reply was ‘I live here.’ In a time of ecological crisis, it has never been more vital to understand what it means to live here. And for a church community like ours, that means not only the locality where we live, but also the part of God’s creation where we choose to gather to celebrate the mysteries of our new life in Christ. This church, this holy temple, is a meeting place with the divine, a portal between earth and heaven, but it is also in one particular place. And our calling to abide here has specific implications. What is our impact on this part of God’s earth? What are we emitting into the atmosphere here? How do our lives touch those of the people who live in, work in and visit this part of our city? What are our most pressing concerns as a church community? Are they to do with our own needs and convenience, or those whose lives are rooted in this place?
As the sharp impacts of this pandemic begin to retreat for us, it may be time for us to take up this question with ever greater focus. And our experience of this last year has offered us insights into the many dimensions of our own abiding as a church community. As so many aspects of our church life have been constrained, we have been led to seek once more the place of our own deepest abiding. And as this cruel disease has shown us so much about our global connections and about our local inequalities, we have also been led to seek once more the practical implications of the life we choose to live in this place.
Jesus said, ‘My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’ We are always becoming, always learning more fully how to abide in Christ, so we need not fear the scale of the challenge. We seek nothing more and nothing less than to live here, to be alive in this place, to be life for others, to become disciples, grafted onto the True Vine who is the source of all our strength and inspiration.