I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. John 15:1-8 (NRSV)
Holy and righteous God, you are the author of life, and you adopt us to be your children. Fill us with your words of life, that we may live as witnesses to the resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
My snappy introduction (Dr. Watson would be so proud) involved the old-time radio program Fibber Mcgee and Molly, and ended with the joke: “As the fly said when he got stuck in the strawberry preserves, I’ve been in much worse jams than this.” Much pity laughter ensued.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus makes another one of his I am statements that He is so famous for in the Gospel of John. Earlier in the book he said, “I am the light” “I am the bread of life” “I am the door.” “I am Good shepherd.” In last week’s reading he said, “I am the way the truth and the life.” And, now, as he prepares his disciples for his imminent arrest, torture, death, and resurrection, He says, “I am the true vine, you are the branches…” further on, he states, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
Like the other I am statements, this one is a rich metaphor which gives us insight into Christ’s true character. We don’t have time to unpack all of the gems that this metaphor offers us, but I would like to focus on several aspects of one of the key words in the passage. I want to dwell on the word “abide.” In this passage Jesus uses the word “abide” over and over; 9 times in 8 verses. Clearly, he wants to emphasize to his disciples the importance of abiding, of remaining, of showing up and sticking around. But, it seems like a rather odd thing to say to them right after he finished telling them that where he is going they cannot follow, and right before leaving them in the hands of the people who wish to murder him. So what did Jesus mean when He said, “Abide in me as I abide in you?”
To understand this a little better I want to look at another passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus uses a related metaphor, and in which our word abide plays a prominent roll. In John chapter 6, starting in verse 51 Jesus says,
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
This bread of life passage together with the true vine passage sparks in us a powerful image of what it means to abide in Christ. Because we believe that mystically, mysteriously Christ is present in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, when we consume the bread and the wine we are in a way following Christ’s admonition in John 6 to eat his flesh and drink his blood. But this Eucharistic meal is not like any other meal. Yes, we consume it, we put it in our mouth, chew and swallow, but then it, or more exactly Christ which is present in it, consumes us. Through consuming we are consumed by the love and peace and presence of Christ. The Eucharist is a way that we are connected to Christ. It is a way to abide in Him, as He abides in us. In fact, when we use the word Communion in place of Eucharist, we can see the connection: To commune with someone means to abide with them. Through Communion we abide with Christ. But of course, there is another dimension of Communion that we also see in our Gospel reading. When we participate in Communion we are not only communing with God, but with each other. The disciples at the last supper were not just eating with Christ, they were eating with each other as well. We are not isolated from each, here on these altar rails when we receive the Eucharist. We are participants in the mystical body of Christ which unites all believers, all Christians everywhere and in all times.
Father Terrence Lee, a beloved former canon here at St. John’s, tells the story of the first time his grandfather set foot in the Episcopal church. It was in the South, during the height of segregation. When Fr. Terrence’s grandfather entered the church, he was surprised to find that there were both black and white members of the congregation present. When it was time to go down and take communion, he and his wife went down and knelt at the altar; on either side of them were two white men. When the common cup of wine came their way, the man next to Terrence’s grandfather drank, and then Terrence’s grandfather drank from the cup, and then his grandmother, and then the white man next to them drank, without hesitation or pause, and then on down the line. That was day Terrence’s grandfather became an Episcopalian. He was shocked he had been allowed to drink from the same cup as these white men. At the altar rail, he had not been treated differently because of his skin. In the midst of a culture of separation, of distrust and of hate, he found at Communion, a different reality of unity, trust, and love. That is what communion is about. That is what abiding is about. We cannot abide in Christ unless we also abide with each other. This is sort of a radical concept; as branches we cannot be rugged individuals trying to go it alone. Who ever heard of a vine with only one branch? If such a thing exists it certainly isn’t healthy.
Coming back to our Gospel passage, when Jesus says that those who abide in him will bear fruit, we see from the context of the passage that one of the things he specifically has in mind is love for one another. Just a couple verses later, in verse 12, he says, “this is my commandment: that you love one another”. And throughout Jesus’ farewell address in John 13, 14, and 15, He says it over and over, “Love one another.” This is echoed in our epistle reading from 1 Peter, “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” When we abide in Christ, this will invariably be the fruit, that we will also abide in love with each other.
We must not forget in all of this, that today is the sixth Sunday of Easter. The events described in our Gospel reading occur before the Resurrection, but they were written down afterward, and because we are a Resurrection people, we come to this reading with our Resurrection goggles on. If you leave out the Resurrection, our text is a rather confusing and disappointing one: Christ tells his disciples to abide in him and that he will abide in them, and then he goes off and dies, and his disciples abandon and deny him in the process. The end. But, fortunately for the disciples and for us, the story does not end there. Christ came back to life, and this One event changes everything, it marks the everything that we do and say and read and listen to.
Reading this passage through the lens of the Resurrection is not without precedent. Listen to a meditation on the image of the Vine as it relates to the Resurrection written in the fourth century by St. Cyril of Jerusalem:
“A garden was the place of His Burial and that which was planted there said, I am the vine! He was planted therefore in the earth in order that the curse which came because of Adam might be rooted out. The earth was condemned to thorns and thistles, but the true Vine sprang up out of the earth, that the saying might be fulfilled, Truth sprang up out of the earth, and righteousness looked down from heaven.”
I love this image. The true vine, chopped down by death and buried only to shoot forth out of the ground again with new life. This is our hope. This is reason we are here. The reason we are Christians. This is the reason we sign for this in the first place. In little while there will be a baptism here, and the Resurrection is what Baptism is all about. Baptism represents dying to the old life and being reborn anew in Christ. It is the sign of a new creation, a new Resurrection reality.
We are called as branches abiding in Christ to be participants in this new reality. When we abide in Him, we have no other choice; healthy branches make fruit; and that fruit is our witness of the new reality of Christ’s Resurrection, our witness to the all-powerful, death-defying, reconciling love of Christ for all the world. The world is a dark place, full of death, and hopelessness. The world needs our witness, our fruit born of Christ’s new reality. War, natural disaster, oppression, and sickness: the world could use the joy, and hope that the True Vine offers through us, his branches. As Barbara Johnson puts it, we as Christians are called to be Easter people in a Good Friday world. This is why Peter admonishes us to love one another and to live in unity of spirit, why we must not repay evil for evil, why we must keep our tongues away from deceit, turn away from evil, and pursue peace. These things, love, truth, unity and peace are the hallmarks of Christ’s new reality. These things are the fruit we are called to bear, and they just so happen to be the fruit the world so desperately needs. Not the grapes of wrath—we have the grapes of wrath—but the grapes of love and reconciliation.
But as Jesus says, we can do nothing, unless we abide in Him and He in us. The good news is that we don’t have to worry about Christ keeping His end of the bargain. We may choose NOT to abide. But Christ never chooses this. He has promised never to leave or forsake us. In a way we are stuck with Him and He is stuck with us. But, there are truly worse jams than this. [more pity laughter] I am reminded of the wonderful Easter hymn (youtube/oremus hymnal) that we have been singing, particularly the fourth verse which is based on Romans chapter 8, verses 38 and 39:
Jesus lives! our hearts know well/
nought from us his love shall sever;/
life, nor death, nor powers of hell/
tear us from his keeping, ever./
Through his resurrection Christ has conquered the disease of sin, and the drought of death, and has therefore enabled us, his branches, to abide in him, the True Vine, now and forever. Amen.