Love and Death: Consumed, burned, or possessed?

Gospel: John 15:1-8

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed [The same Greek Word can be pruning or cleansing] by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become [or: be] my disciples. 

During my holidays I have been thinking through the relationship between love and death in the way I see the world. I drafted an essay which began with Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 13:13, "And now faith, hope, and love remain, these three; and the greatest of these is love." The word for remain is μένει, and it is the same word which, in John 15, is usually translated as abide. I have found much more than I expected in this word.

In the essay, I wanted to say that the Faith can be distilled down to love; God's love for us, and our love for others. I also wanted to say that when I could believe in nothing else, love still remained. In that sense, μένει involves persistence.  In the sense that it is used in John 15 and translated as abide, there is a strong sense of intimacy; in verse 14, Jesus will say, "You are my friends…" Paul's use of the word in 1 Corinthians 13 implies something underlying, or foundational about life and faith; when all is said and done, there is love. It remains. It is the foundation, the basis of life.

I wrote that Christian theology finds the meaning of agape in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever may be said about agape; that is, love and self-giving, and the universality of these, is measured against this man's life, death and resurrection. The way he lived and died— gave himself to dying— and, dare one say? — the way he is experienced beyond his death, is the measure of all love-agape. There is another measure of agape. That measure is our own dying. It is too easy to make love a shallow and pretty thing which is then no "last resort refuge" when the bushfires of life threaten to consume me. Agape which is not prepared to face death— its own death— is finally a pretence. I have come to regard my conscious of my own death as a profound gift, for our death places us naked and trembling before what is. Now we are ready to join the essay:

Death is a terrible gift. Indeed, for much of my life I have simply avoided thinking about death at all, sheltering behind busyness.  There were times when I stepped around my dying by saying, "There is resurrection." But never for long, for this seemed too easy, and too obviously a self-serving denial of the finality of death; my first training is in biology, after all. Mostly, I sought to understand resurrection as an acceptance that death was the end of all things for me, believing that such clarity enabled living a life less cluttered by the acquisitions of denial and self-deception, and a beginning to be free of the fear of death. I set out to live the best life I could.

 But while "living the best life I could" felt nobler than simple hedonism, 'under the table,' this approach still denied my own death, for it relieved me of the need to think about the issue; I could too easily say, "Why worry about what is inevitable?" By contrast, to open "living the best life I could" to the scornful gaze of my own death— to contemplate my own death, is life at another level. For my own death asks me why I bother with anything. It laughs at my protestations about love toward others when I reply to its questions about why I persist instead of ending it all— everyone dies, so what does love matter? My own death mocks me with my fear. My own death humiliates me.

You will have noticed that I keep referring to "my own death" rather than "death." Thinking about "death" [only in more general terms] allows me to live as though "it will not come near me." It allows me what may be a necessary distance for daily functioning, and a respite from the grief and absurdity of facing my own death. But I need also to live close to my own death. If I cannot do this, if I cannot overcome, or at least face, the grief and the terror of that, then I am still in a denial, still shielding myself from reality. …

Agape is only agape when it embraces my own death. Otherwise good works, works of love, are always suspect, always sliding into  making life bearable by pretending at some meaning by taking my mind off myself and my mortality. In the grief of bereavement we are tempted to bargain with what has happened. To find I had been using love to bargain over my mortality, would seem to me no better than to discover I have been postponing the pain of my dying by getting more things. 

There is something unbearable about all this. No wonder we hold our own death at a distance. No wonder it paralyses us. When [faith feels] empty, hope sometimes allows me to move. Hope that life could be more than an absurd and pointless savagery. I refuse to give up, just in case there is something I have not yet seen. And when hope fails, love remains.

Love is the strong man at his wife's funeral, so stricken he must be held half crumpled in the first pew by their daughter, all of ten. And in that love, despairing in his loss, knowing he has no future, he stumbles to the front of the church with her and, for her, and for his wife, helps bear out the coffin.

Sometimes it seems such love is energised only by the demands of ritual and duty. There is nothing noble about it. Yet taking food to someone who is hungry, despite depression and exhaustion; giving the self to another who must talk, despite my own misery; upholding and encouraging whilst I see only darkness, all these things, and the simpler routine acts of grace, seem to work a change.

It is a change about which I sometimes feel great ambivalence. I said that we can accept "our own death as a ruthless gift which strips away all our sentimentality, wistful thinking, and self-deception, and places us naked and trembling before what is." I am not quite able to put into words what has been happening to me, but I find that to stand "naked and trembling before what is," seems not to be standing before death, after all. Not in the way I expected.

I find instead, that I stand naked and trembling before life. I am finding that what frightens me most of all in my journey is not the dying, but the lack of dying. I want oblivion, but I can no longer imagine death as oblivion. Oblivion would be at least be a relief from the burden of living, and the cost of love, but it seems to have been taken off the table.

I feel as though I have been ambushed by resurrection. I have no desire to argue for "life after death." Coming from my background, it's an embarrassment. Yet I find a sense of something, beyond the current physically bound life that I know, which is intruding as an unbidden, and somewhat unwelcome, part of my reality. For a moment I can feel some momentary relief from the anxiety around dying, but then find the greater terror, which is that I have to live. To live is to give up the final refuge from life, which is the hope of oblivion.

Why is this so hard? How is it that I can look beyond the hills into glory, rejoice in the splendour of wheeling birds, feel the touch of God in the beauty of another person, and yet find life almost too much to bear? … Despite [my sick soul] I find those transcendent moments and days point to a reality greater than the horrors we witness.

So why is life so hard? I'm talking about feelings here, rather than the underlying facts. Feelings of sometimes crushing exhaustion, despair, and desperation, which occur in a life which is extraordinarily privileged. I'm talking about the sense of paralysis where the only prayer is, "Please let it end." The "healthy-minded church1" is terrified of such experience. Share these feelings and you are as likely to be told you need to get converted, or have it implied that there is something suspect about your faith, as treated with any sympathy. This is a real experience which goes beyond my own. It seems to fly in the face of what we find later in John 15: "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." (vv11)

The implication that something is suspect about a person's faith is often used to marginalise them, if not drive them out. They are told they are incompetent, lazy, or perhaps wounded and in need of more healing, along with a dollop of patronisation. Well, they're right about the need for more healing. It's difficult to overestimate the power of old conditioning and wounding to drive one into despair.

The problem which I find with such easy dismissals— despite the pieces of truth sometimes contained within them— is that life for me is better than it has ever been. I can actually enjoy it. There was a time I simply feared death; now I grieve what must it seems must be left behind at the time of death! I am more competent at life than I ever was. I am better at what I do. But I live with a deep contradiction which means things I once did without thinking, are now burdensome and overwhelming, even though I am often much better at them, and even though I am routinely and competently involved in other issues that once would have been beyond me.

Andrew Marr says John describes "God’s love as an abiding presence within us," and then flips the word abiding upon its head. What abiding

amounts to [is] being possessed by God. Is this just an added treat in life? We can quickly see that being possessed by God is much more important than that. Many cases of possession of a different sort were recorded in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus cast many demons out from people who were possessed by them.  Without necessarily ruling out a supernatural provenance for some of these possessions, it is helpful to remember that René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire shows us how we can become possessed by other people, especially in rivalrous situations. (See Human See, Human Want.) We only need to reflect on how strongly another person we are at odds with has taken over us to realize how much another person can possess us. Crowds of people easily become possessed as the story of the Gerasene demoniac and the Passion narratives suggest. If we put John’s teaching of God’s indwelling love together with demonic possession, we are confronted with the conclusion that we are going to be possessed by somebody. It is not possible to remain aloof from the intentions and desires of other people. They will possess us whether we like it or not. The question is: By whom are we possessed?

Marr sharpens this in the article to which he links:

We cannot avoid mimetic desire. We are tied into a sea of mimetic desire as soon as we are born. Mimetic desire connects us with other people whether we like it or not. So much for individualism. The question is whether we will be connected through expansive sharing or connected through constrictive conflict. Most important, we are born into God’s mimetic desire for us and for all other people. We are constantly faced with the choice of which direction we are willing to go with the mimetic desire we share with all others. Do we make war or do we make peace?

Or, to add to James Alison's words,

We always learn to see through the eyes of another. The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen [or not seen]. (On Being Liked pp1)

Using the old language of the church does justice to the pain some of us feel: there is a battle for our soul. We are being torn between two ways of being. Anthropomorphising or not, if we choose to follow the Christ, the world which has possessed us until now, seeks to tear us back. Or condemns us.

Abiding, being possessed by God, means being pruned. Even Jesus is pruned: He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit! (15:2) Pruning is the way of life, and bearing fruit results in more pruning!!

In my draft essay I said

I think I am being offered the opportunity to live rather than be distracted and entertained. I have spent a lifetime in a world, and, too often, in a church, which promises me life as quick gratification. Quick gratification not only with food, wine, and gadgets, but with the quick grace of easy meaning, glib answers, fulfilment in things, and therefore, distraction from death.  And despite my cynicism and rejection of all the quick fixes, I have been far more formed by them than I ever imagined. I have been possessed by them!!

As a person still too much formed by a culture of quick fixes and gratifications, the last thing I expect is that fruitfulness means more pruning. I am inclined to read John 15:3 as though the issue is done with: You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. But the word for cleansing is the word for pruning! And only the dead vines are not pruned; to abide is to be pruned. To abide in Christ is at every turn to abandon the way we have been formed.

Alison takes his statement that "the desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen," to show how following Jesus, abiding in the vine, and ceasing to follow the culture, changes what we can see and perceive. I console myself that some of what I currently experience as pain and despair is part of my healing which I cannot yet see, and which, currently, I can only apprehend with fear. Certainly, I now see a number of past experiences which felt appalling at the time as periods of enormous healing and growth.

Which brings me to the question of fire and burning. Much of what has been pruned from me is already ash. I cannot fathom why some things enthralled me and consumed my interest. This can also be expressed as: I cannot fathom why some things possessed me! They are now like eating ash; dry, choking, and of no substance. They stand as a proof of the reality of conversion.

In preaching the text, it is noteworthy that Jesus does not say God burns what is pruned, but merely that "such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." (15:6) We are the ones who condemn and who burn.  

We may have the habit of assuming God, but the text doesn’t say that. … This is the kind of fire Jesus is talking about. It is the hell on earth that we make for ourselves and for others when we aren’t connected with God’s love through Jesus the Lamb.

In the sermon this text comes from, Paul Nuechterlein goes on to say

Pruning, then, when applied to our lives is the necessary task of setting priorities. We need to prune away the things in our lives that impede our bearing the fruit of love. I’ve talked today about the flammability of resentment. The cares of the things of this world generally [lead] to resentment. The so-called ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ leads to envy and the resentment that we don’t have what we think we deserve. It is this kind of everyday resentment, stoked by the billows of our consumerist culture, which can easily lead to the kind of combustibility we see all around us today. Our news shows and politics fan the flames of fear and resentment so that we might be ripe for following a leader into the next conflagration. (Here and here.)

Peter warmed himself at the fire whilst denying he even knew Jesus. I think the glittering fires of consumption and privilege have a gravitational pull far greater than I have imagined. They warp my perceptions so that am able only to see some aspects of God's love as cold, and darkness, and pain.

Where will we live? Close to the rootstock, or withered and possessed by the spirit which burns? Will we brave the pain of being possessed by the Christ, or risk being consumed by the fires of human judgement and condemnation? Paul asked, "Who is to condemn?" and replied, "It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us." Christ intercedes for us, so "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" (Romans 8) No, only we will separate ourselves from the love of God, by refusing to abide close to the rootstock, too much in love with the things of this world.

Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

  1. A note on healthy-mindedness and sick souls:

For all that I wish I could be relentlessly cheerful and optimistic like some of my friends, I come to Christianity as what William James called a "sick soul." James suggested that the "healthy-minded" believer was "inclined to settle [their] scores with the more evil aspects of the universe by systematically declining to lay them to heart or make much of them by ignoring them in [their] reflective calculations, or even, on occasion, by denying outright that they exist."  Sick souls "cannot so swiftly throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil, but are congenitally fated to suffer from its presence." (The Varieties of Religious Experience pp126)

Also on One Man's Web
John 15:1-8 - Do not flag in your abiding (2015)
John 15:1-8 - Pruning (2012)
John 15:1-8 - Living in the Garden(2012)
John 15:1-8 - Vine Dressing, Vine Blessing (2009)


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