Neither Heaven nor Hell

When you turn a television's color contrast up to an extreme, the resulting picture is lurid, garishly distorted into unnatural hues and forms. Whatever was originally there to view and to enjoy disappears into a horror show of color and obscurity. Any reading of scripture is liable to a dramatic turn of its color contrast, a liability that is made more dangerous when such distorted readings are presented as episodes that have been recorded in pristine high-definition fidelity. Rendered in extreme tones, Jesus' parable of the vine and the branches can be read as filled with the threat and malice of eternal punishment. Seen without distortion it is a beautiful illustration of what a faithful life can be patterned after.

The temptation to speculate on the reward or punishment received upon death is a deeply human question. But, honestly, it is a nearly thoroughly unhelpful pursuit: speculative, unknown and hence, fertile ground for mendacity and fearfulness. Even still, a religion that draws its deepest hopes from the resurrection of the dead can't take a pass on issues of death and the afterlife. More certain than that: a religion that dares to believe that the Author of all life would become a singular and vulnerable human person absolutely must train its focus to rest on the flourishing of human life. The temptation to view the body and its physical environment merely as unpleasant prelude to the real show that begins after death is an old one, as we shall see. Yet in that history and, particularly, in today's Gospel lesson, there are ample means to dismantle the temptation, to restore the color contrast so that neither heaven nor hell distort the contours of a faithful life.

Writing in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Venerable Bede is considered one of the great scholars and perhaps the most influential historian of the Church. Notable for his work on the "Ecclesiastical History of the English People," he has bequeathed to successive generations of Christians a body of work that gives us a glimpse into Christian thought's evolving concerns.

One such piece that has survived the ravages of time and the plundering of monasteries is known as "Drychthelm's Vision." This brief narrative records (I am using that verb loosely) the journey of a man who "returns from the dead, and tells of the many dreadful and many desirable things that he saw." The dead man Drychthelm is led by a spiritual guide through "a very broad and deep valley of infinite length." The valley was marked off by burning flames on one side and "raging hail and bitter snow blowing in all directions." Trapped in either of these hellish margins were the souls who were being buffeted back and forth between these miserable extremes. Just as Drychthelm and the reader begin to wonder if this is the landscape of damnation, the guide speaks: "Do not think this; for this is not Hell as you imagine."

Drychthelm's journey continues and the country through which he and his guide are passing grows more mild, eventually arriving at a place lightened with a light that "seemed greater than the brightness of daylight or of the sun's rays at noon." Enjoying the pleasant warmth of this meadow "were innumerable companies of [people] in white robes, and many parties of happy people sitting together." So lovely is this vision that Drychthelm wonders to his reader if these sights belong to the Kingdom of Heaven. As before, the guide speaks: "No, this is not the Kingdom of Heaven as you imagine."

Drychthelm and his guide retrace their steps, eventually arriving back at the point from which they began their travels through the realm of the dead. Here, Drychthelm receives this explanation from his guide: "You must now return to your body and live among [people] once more; but if you will weigh your actions with greater care and study to keep your words and ways virtuous and simple, then when you die you too will win a home among these happy spirits that you see."

I want to lift out two accents that are audible in this admonition. First: the accent of the guide's comments falls consistently on the unknowability of life-after-death. Second: this unknowability is coupled with the significance of life lived in the body.

In this quasi-historical narrative one can see how a parable of a vine can be read with mislaid emphasis. Pruned away and subsequently burned away branches are correlated with some excluded group whose embodied difference and impurity manifests the hellish destiny they will meet after death. Likewise, the healthy, fertile branches are also correlated with a particular group--usually the group to which we belong. The destiny this favored group will meet often looks like an amplified version of current circumstances. In other words, for the favored--for the smugly elect--there is no ethical imperative or motivation to work for change here among the living.

Like Drychthelm we would each do well to return to our body, to live among people, to weigh our actions with greater care and to keep our ways and words virtuous and simple. Or hear it as Jesus says it: "Abide 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. 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."

With the color contrast turned down on this passage, we begin to see the ethical edge of the Incarnation. We can see that Jesus, the perfect image of God the Father, is our assurance that human life has its origin in the eternally creative activity of God. At the same time, in Jesus we discover that eternal purposes are knowable in the gestures, relationships and commitments of a human life. Embodying this connection in one's own life is the fruit that Jesus speaks of in this parable. The fruit is not so much the reward for faithful discipleship as it is the proof of it.

A vine and its fruit succeeds in pointing to the giftedness of discipleship while also indicating the substance that will sustain new branches and abundant fruit. If we were to continue reading beyond this passage from John's Gospel, we would see that the relationship between vine and branches, the connection between source and fruit, lies in the love between the Father and Jesus, between Jesus and disciple. In its simplest form this imitative exchange can be stated this way: we are to love one another as Jesus has loved us. In this, joy is made complete and the vine adorned with life-giving fruit.

When read as a meditation on discipleship and not a program manual for judgment and exclusion, the parable of the vine provides an image and a pattern. The image is of a flourishing human community disclosed as a healthy, fruit-bearing vine. The pattern is the love between Jesus and his Father, the love that draws together heaven and earth and draws these into a greater shared resemblance.

The beauty of this parable lies in what it points to, which is the loveliness of our humanity and the perfection into which it is being drawn. This claim finds rather eloquent expression in the novel Gilead. Here as the story's main character and narrator approaches the end of his life, the beauty suffusing creation becomes manifestly apparent. As he learns to apprehend materiality's luminous beauty, he learns to live with a patient but expectant detachment to the world around him. He says,

"I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.  Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try."1

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life, grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life.  Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.  Amen.

1 Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (Picador, 2004), p. 57.