Reading John 15.1-8
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
I was never very good at science when I was at school – especially chemistry and biology. I could never work out whether I wasn’t very good because I wasn’t interested – or I wasn’t interested because I wasn’t very good. Anyway, I did French instead.
But I’ve got a bit more interested in science over the years and my latest enthusiasm has been to find out more about the human brain, sometimes said to be the most complex object in the universe – as far as we know.
And, amazingly enough, we’ve all got one of these ultra-complex entities in our heads. That is pretty amazing when you think about it. And, of course, you can only think about it because you have a brain. You just can’t get away from the brain, however hard you try.
So now, after that preamble, down to business!
Apparently, there’s an operation that can be done to help people with certain forms of epilepsy.
The largest part of the brain is called the Cerebrum and, as you will all know, it’s divided into two hemispheres and the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres is called the Corpus Callosum.
And in this operation to help epileptics the Corpus Callosum is severed, which can have a very strange side effect called alien hand syndrome.
Normally the two hemispheres work in concert – with the right hemisphere controlling the left side of the body and the left hemisphere controlling the right side of the body. They co-operate.
So, for instance, zipping up a jacket is normally a straightforward process – assuming you have a zip that works, which isn’t always the case in my experience. The two hemispheres of the brain co-operate to perform the task. So far so good.
But with alien hand syndrome that co-operation ceases: one hand will begin to zip up the jacket and the other hand – the alien hand – will grab the zipper to pull it down.
When I read about this condition, it seemed to me to be a potent image of our need for connection if we are to function fully as human beings, if we are to fulfil our potential as human beings.
If the two hemispheres of our brain aren’t properly connected, we become dysfunctional.
On the most basic level we need to be connected to ourselves and that isn’t easy. We’re a collection of various impulses. Those impulses are probably based in different parts of our brains and they pull us in different directions. It’s no easy thing to be an integrated human being.
But connection doesn’t end with our internal wiring.
We need to be connected to other human beings. We are deeply social animals. So often we treat other people as though they are just a means to achieve our particular ends. We exploit them. Or, If they don’t serve our purposes, we ignore them.
To treat ourselves as if we matter and to treat other people as if they matter every bit as much as we do, that’s not easy either.
That seems to me to be the essence of what being connected to others is: to realise and then to know permanently that they matter infinitely.
Connection ultimately is a matter of love.
We also need to be connected to the world around us – to see its utterly miraculous nature, to see it as something to which we are inextricably bound, to which we owe our very being, without which we cannot exist.
We are not separate from the world, we are part of it – bound into it at every level of our being. That too is a matter of love in the last analysis.
And, finally, we need to be connected to the divine.
If all those connections aren’t in place – to other human beings, to the world and to the divine – we are more or less dysfunctional.
Somehow human beings have developed in such a way that dysfunctionality has become normal. It’s not that we’re completely dysfunctional. We can never completely sever our connection to God – God sees to that – but we are nowhere near as functional as we might be.
In our gospel reading Jesus says the following: 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.
If we are branches of the vine, then we are connected to the vine. Not only that, we become part of the vine. And if we are part of the vine, we see other people as God sees them and we see the world as God sees it.
We acquire a divine perspective. We acquire the divine will – which is love.
Only if we have that divine perspective are we properly and truly connected to others and to the world. That’s why being connected to Christ – to the divine – is so important.
Only then can we bear authentic fruit. We cannot bear that fruit by ourselves, by reliance purely on our own devices because our own devices of themselves are tainted with a lack of real connection.
Our natural selves are just too permeated by our natural egocentricity, our competitiveness, our lack of empathy, our indifference and consequent apathy.
Not that we are a complete dead loss – far from it. Human beings have amazing natural capacities. All of us here have such capacities in abundance.
Think of the human brain that I started off with – an utterly phenomenal endowment and gift from God.
Let me quote from someone who used his brain as creatively as anyone ever has, namely Shakespeare (I’m amending the quotation slightly, as those of you who know your Shakespeare will realise). In Hamlet the Prince says this:
What a piece of work is a human being, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!
Human beings are indeed remarkable – and yet riddled with a general falling short that reaches to the very core of our psyches.
Only if we abide in Christ, only if we abide in the divine life, can we begin to remedy that falling short and learn truly how to love.