Need catharsis after a crazy year? A little Marvin Gaye can help with that...
If you are familiar with what is called the "church calendar," we have recently entered the season of what is called "Pentecost." Pentecost is like Advent or Lent or Easter - and it signifies a time when Christians worldwide acknowledge and celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit and the birth of what we know as the Church.
Maybe you’ve heard of Pentecost Sunday, and maybe you haven’t. But either way, what do you know about where it comes from and how it originated? Or the strange word choice that Jesus included while teaching his disciples and preparing them for this day?
Pentecost is a weird name for a holy day, but the term is Greek in its origins. That may give away the meaning for you… you’re familiar with the Pentagon, I’m sure - that 5 (Penta) sided building in Washington, D.C., that houses the U.S. Department of Defense. Likewise, “Pentecost” as a word is nothing fancy - it simply means “fiftieth.”
As an observance, it originated with the people of Israel. For them, it meant the 50th day after Passover, which was usually around the first harvest, and therefore celebrated that thankful occasion. In Christianity, it signifies the day, roughly 50 days after Easter, that Jesus gave the presence of the Holy Spirit to his disciples. (I'm not really sure, but I imagine this is the reason why the Spirit is often associated in the New Testament with fruit - as in being the "first fruits" of what is to come in Romans 8:23 or as in producing the "fruits of the Spirit" in Galatians 5).
Nevertheless... this is where I want to zero in. Because now that we are on the other side of the first Pentecost, we take for granted the words Jesus chooses to use when he first speaks of it to his disciples. The power, and puzzling nature of them, are lost on us today, so let's attempt to step into the shoes of a first-century follower of Jesus and see if that can help us get a grasp on precisely what Jesus is saying.
In 1968 a popular song debuted about a guy who found out through the gossip mill that his girlfriend was planning to dump him for another man. The song was "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," and it was the first of three songs that would top the Billboard Hot 100 for Marvin Gaye in his long, distinguished music career.
There’s a passage in the Bible book known as John, in chapter 15, that similarly refers to a grapevine and serves as another "hit," so to speak. In John 15:1, Jesus’ words "I am the true vine" are the last of what are called the 7 "I am" statements that Jesus makes in the book of John. These "I am" statements are references to who Jesus truly is, clues that help us see him as not just a man but also God in the flesh.
The passage reads:
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.
When Jesus shares these words with his disciples, it is not only his last night on earth - it’s his last few hours. These are, quite literally, his parting words. This is why it is a little weird when Jesus says what he says here - “Remain.”
It’s a request by Jesus for his disciples to stay connected to him - but he is about to leave, he *knows* he is about to leave, and he just told them earlier in this conversation, recorded one chapter prior in John 14, that he is leaving and where he is going, they cannot come. (But more on that in a moment).
Let's grasp how odd this request may sound to the disciples. Imagine a friend you spent every day with came up to you in the Spring of 2020 just before the worldwide lockdowns and stay at home orders due to Covid. And imagine that friend looked you in the eye and calmly but firmly urged you to not lose touch with him. You see him every day - you would have thought this was a little bizzare. As the weeks went by, you would have realized that your friend knew exactly what was coming. But if that's true... then they would have known that you would have not had the ability to be in his physical presence. Not losing touch with your friend would then have required another way for you to remain in contact.
All of this begs us to ask the question - what is Jesus getting at here?
When Marvin Gaye said in 1968, “I heard it through the grapevine,” people at the time knew what he was referencing. Today, we may know that this is an allusion to the gossip mill, but we may not know *why.*
Hearing something “through the grapevine” became an expression widely used in the mid-1800s, around the advent of the telegraph. Back in those days, people didn’t have text messages. But as we do, they found the need and desire to send (relatively) quick and brief correspondence. For a very long time, people used methods such as carrier pigeons, drum beats, and smoke signals. But with this new technology known as the telegraph, you could visit an office and pay to send a message (called a telegram) to someone in a much more reliable manner than any method previously known. The office would then send your message over electrical wires to the city of the person whom you wanted to receive your message. The office at which your message arrived would then deliver it to your intended recipient.
This process required huge poles across the nation with lines running from the top of them - much like how we have telephone poles or power lines today. For a country at the time that was still primarily made up of farmers and land workers, and immigrants from wine countries like France and Germany, there was an unmistakable resemblance of this network of interconnected poles and wires to the similar ones required to grow grapes in a vineyard. Thus, people began to refer to this telegraph network as “the grapevine."
As I mentioned earlier, this became the fastest and most reliable way to communicate during this period. But, it was also hard for those in traditional information dispensing industries to keep up. Because of that, people used telegrams to… you guessed it, spread misinformation. (Are you surprised?) So if someone heard an item of shocking news, it could be advocated - or dismissed - as something that was “heard through the grapevine” or via this network of poles and wires that connected everyone across the nation.
Hearing something through the grapevine, then, came to be slang for something that was a rumor - maybe unreliable or, maybe worse, related to gossip. And though by 1968 telegrams were replaced by even faster and more reliable forms of communication such as telephones, radio, and television, this method of communication - and the slang associated with it - still lived in the collective memory of people in Marvin Gaye’s day.
Likewise, when Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” as he does in John 15:5, people at the time knew the reference. Palestine, the region in and around where they were, was rich in vineyards that stretched extensively around the area (it was, after all, the Fertile Crescent). It’s reasonable then to conclude that Jesus’ disciples and the earliest hearers of this account would have had a pretty thorough knowledge of what is entailed when he mentions vines, branches, and pruning.
Unfortunately, time and technological advancement have made us more unfamiliar than the original audience with what Marvin Gaye was referencing. And similarly, we don’t have a robust knowledge of what Jesus was talking about, either.
I have to confess to you; I’m terrible at owning cell phones. I drop my phones all the time, which results in cracked and shattered screens. One time, I had a phone that I dropped so much that something inside it broke, and it simply stopped connecting to the cell towers. I could still use it if I were on WiFi, but it wasn’t good for much if I wasn't - not for calling, texting, and streaming music. (I would have to text my wife when I was leaving work to let her know to expect me in 15 minutes and that if I were not home by then, she wouldn’t be able to call me to see where I was. And then I would drive home without being able to stream music or be inundated with a call or text. It was like the olden days!)
This idea of connection ties in with the word Jesus uses, “Remain.” You may be familiar with it in other Bible translations as the word “Abide.” It is most often translated from the original written language into English as the words “Remain or abide,” “Stay,” and “live.”
To be told to remain, or stay, is comparable to us today telling someone to “stand firm,” or asking, "are you in or out?"
As I said earlier, it seems odd that Jesus would essentially say, “Stay with me,” when he has also told them that where he is going, they cannot come... and when he knows what is coming in just a few moments. The disciples are about to experience a whirlwind of change in their lives - 12 hours from this moment, Jesus will be on the cross. Twelve hours after that, he will be in a grave. And 12 weeks later, he will have resurrected and defeated death, yes, but then ascended to heaven to be physically removed from his disciples for the rest of their time on earth.
So how are the disciples to “stay with” Jesus? He gives the solution to this in John Chapter 14 - telling them that he will send the Holy Spirit to them - a foreshadowing of that first Pentecost Sunday. This gift is one way the disciples will maintain their connection - or “remain” with - Jesus.
But, what does that mean for you and me?
We don’t live in an age of telegrams with wires running on top of poles across the countryside, and we don’t live in the age of vineyards and grapevines dotting our landscape. But we do live in an age of cell phone towers that do dot our landscape, and they work much the same way. In fact, the term “cellular phone” comes from the world of horticulture - as in “cellular biology.”
They named it this way because when engineers mapped out the coverage provided by cell towers, it resembled a biological cell.
Cell phones are great… when the purpose for which they are intended works. The one I had that wouldn’t connect to towers was okay - I could still take pictures with it, and as long as I didn’t need to stream anything, I could still play music or use apps. But I couldn’t use the phone for its intended purposes.
In some sense, this is what Jesus means when he says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Of course, you can do things - many people have done many great things and not been followers of Jesus, just as I could still do some stuff with my broken phone. But without that cell tower connection, my phone couldn’t perform the functions for which it was intended. And I can’t meet the purposes that God created me for without Jesus. That’s the first thing to keep in mind.
The second is this: Phones only work for their intended purposes when connected to a tower, yes. And they are only good if there is a connection to someone else through that tower, as well.
Another thing we celebrate around the time of Pentecost is graduations. Do you remember when you graduated from high school, and everyone said, “Stay in touch”? Maybe some of you were able to do that with your best friends from high school - but for many of us, that became harder and harder as we went our separate ways. However, advancements in technology like cell phones and the internet have made it easier and easier for each new class of graduates. On my phone, I have multiple text threads with multiple friends from different walks of life - friends whom I haven’t seen in years. And yet, I remain connected to them because I text with them every day. Because I connect to the cell tower… and not only do I but so do they.
These are the ideas that Jesus is getting at - remain… stay connected, even while physically separated from him. Stay connected to the source - the vine or, in our day, cell tower - through the Spirit but remember, the connection is only good if there are others connected, too. So, through that connection, we all stay connected, as well.
But there is one other idea that Jesus is implanting in his disciples’ minds with his vine imagery, mere hours from his death and weeks from his departure from them altogether. Jesus says, “Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit.”
The word that describes this removal or pruning process is the Greek word katharos. And it’s where we get our English word “cathartic,” which we most often use to describe the psychological and emotional relief that comes from releasing whatever has us feeling like we are on edge.
For most of us in North America, we've emerged this summer out of a full year of COVID lockdowns and masks, we’re a few months removed from a heated political season, and we've been awakened to scandals involving race and misogyny in some of our most trusted institutions - from educational institutions to the media to the medical community to… churches.
I’m willing to be that the past year has either been cathartic for you, or you are looking for the light at the end of the tunnel because you *need* catharsis.
But here is what I love about what Jesus shares here - for a grapevine, pruning - katharos - produces growth. And the reason Jesus is using this, as an illustration, is that for us, catharsis promotes growth.
It’s not a pretty process, and it can be painful. The word practically guarantees that you will be cut. But ultimately, when done right and healthily, it makes for a more robust and more fruitful grapevine and a stronger and more fruitful me... and you.
So if a grapevine produces grapes through pruning, what does Jesus, in partnership with the Holy Spirit, create in us through this process of catharsis?
When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!
Did you catch that? This process is so that we will remain in his love, and our joy would be made complete. Love and joy. Two vital components of what it means to stay with Jesus.
This idea gets drawn out more in the church’s earliest days through the Holy Spirit’s work with the earliest believers in Jesus. It becomes fully developed and known as “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5 - which are love and joy yes, but also peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
From the very beginning, Jesus’ followers understood the context of the church to be the best place for developing this. A grapevine doesn’t have just one grape on it, nor one cluster of grapes - it eventually has too many to number. And a Christian is connected to Jesus alongside other Christians through similar clusters - or what is called the church.
And whatever the church is, it’s more than a building, it’s more than a Sunday morning program on TV or the internet, and it's more than a podcast or YouTube video that you catch sometimes during the week.
The meaning of the word “church” is assembly, gathering, or collection. Whatever that looks like for you, the Scriptures tell us that it is a part of your spiritual growth and development. It is a part of you working the way you were built to work - just like a cell phone. Maybe that means as life begins to open back up, you look to plug into the life of a local church. Or perhaps it means you invite people into your life and your home, and you connect with a local church as an extension of their ministry. You make a community out of watching their online programming - a house church for the 21st century, out of the shadow that Covid, controversy, and deconstruction have cast over us all. Whichever way you prefer - the point is there are no solo grapes on the vine. It requires other people. The church is the connection God gives us to remain and to be pruned, but it is about gathering with others and connecting to this vine (or, this cell tower). It's not the building you might go to or the program you might watch.
Now, it's also important to note - churches can overreach sometimes. They can be the source of a lot of hurt and pain, and people can utilize the church to wield their destruction. And maybe this is where you fall. The people who have most hurt me have been members of churches, and that shouldn't be easily dismissed by any of us. We’ve all certainly seen churches that have done or enabled harmful, immoral, and even illegal things. Those cannot be overlooked or quickly forgotten. If a church community has hurt you, I would encourage you to seek professional help from a credentialed counseling organization in your community.
But whatever “church” means… it means “gathering,” and we were meant for it. It means that you cannot do this alone; God didn’t build you to fly solo. Not individually, not contained to your family unit.
And this is for your good. It is why therapy is effective, why groups like AA are effective, and why the church, at its best, is effective and beneficial and fruitful for you.
The last thing Jesus wanted his followers to know before the societal structures around him put him to death was that Pentecost was coming. So, “remain,” he said - stay connected to him and each other. This process would provide catharsis - it would prune them, it would sometimes be painful, but it would ultimately lead to their love and joy being made more complete.
How can you grow in love when you remain alone? How do you experience joy without the risk of pain? How do you grow in patience and kindness without doing your best to love people who drive you absolutely bananas?
You keep your connection to the vine, or... to that cell tower, and through it your relationship to Jesus and to the others that are connected as well. And with that, you’ll find catharsis in your life - healing, growth, and the blossoming and completeness of love, joy, and every other purpose God intended for you.
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Cover photo by Ana Gabriel on Unsplash.