Like the good shepherd of last week’s text, this week’s image of the vine is another extended metaphor, which also borrows from and adapts Old Testament imagery for Israel.
Whereas the Synoptic parable of the vineyard is a story of violence and greed (Mark 12:1-12), this image of the vine is one of fruitfulness, intimacy, and love.
This text is actually the first half of a larger unit, the second half of which appears in the lectionary next week. And that larger passage is best read as part of an even larger section extending to John 16:4a, as becomes clearer after study of the love passage (John 15:9-17) next week.
This week’s text divides into two halves with the repetition of Jesus’ “I am” at John 15:5. Although the sound bite perhaps most associated with the passage is “I am the vine, you are the branches,” that actually introduces the second half of the passage. The text as a whole begins instead with the vine and the vine-grower God. The word for vine grower is translated tenant in the Synoptic parable, where the absentee landlord sends his son to the tenants after earlier emissaries are beaten and killed, and the son is finally killed as well. Here in John, the Father himself tends the Son-vine, pruning the branches for abundant fruitfulness. Grapevines do need pruning; grapes need sun but not too much. So in this image the Father does that precision tending for the perfect balance of light and shade.
The words for prune and remove in John 15:2 and clean in v. 3 (the phrase translated “You have already been cleansed” in the NRSV is literally “You are already clean”) involve two plays on words. First, prune has the same root verb as remove, with a prefix added to it. Then the adjective clean (translated cleansed) is a cognate of the verb used for prune/cleanse. That adjective, clean, also appears in John 13:10-11. The work of the gardener-God continues the Son’s cleansing work of love.
The overwhelming thrust of the passage is fruitfulness. The words bear fruit appear six times in these eight verses. Fruit-bearing is not something that the branches do by force of will. The fruit happens organically because the vine is true and the gardener good. But the branches of this passage do choose to abide.
The verb abide like the phrase bear fruit appears over and over — eight times in four verses here — and will be repeated in part two of the passage next week when we learn that abiding in Jesus means abiding in Jesus’ love.
Abiding is important in John, where love of God means mutual indwelling. The verb abide has a cognate; and this noun appears in one of John’s most famous verses, 14:2. The many mansions in the Father’s house (in the familiar KJV) are actually abiding places. As Jesus’ own have places prepared for them in God, so also the Son and Father will have abiding places in Jesus’ own (14:23). And the Holy Spirit will also abide in them (14:17). So the vine image is another way of talking about abiding places (places where one is deeply at home), and both the vine and the abiding places are ways of talking about love.
Abide is one of the two imperatives of the passage. The branches have to abide because without the vine, they are fruitless; they can do nothing. And if they do abide and Jesus’ words abide in them, then comes the imperative ask. (This invitation and promise will be repeated in John 15:16 next week.) There can be little doubt that what the branches will ask for will be shaped by the one who tends them; they will surely ask for the fruitfulness for which they have been pruned.
We also find in the passage two references to the fruitlessness of not abiding. It isn’t as if there are options. If you want the fruit of this vine, this is where you get it, by abiding here. But just as there is no fruitfulness in not abiding, so there is no real future in focusing on those fruitless branches. In the first place, we’re all just branches ourselves, not vines, and certainly not in charge of the vine. We don’t even make ourselves fruitful. We cannot possibly discern what is happening with the rest of the vine. For all we know, what looks like removal is actually pruning for abundant fruitfulness (the two verbs, we remember, are only separated by a prefix). But whatever is going on with the other branches is in any case the work of the vine grower. In John our sole responsibility to the rest of the branches is love.
It is perhaps also worth keeping in mind that branches don’t live off their own fruit. The fruit is for someone else, which feeds into our interpretation of love in the passage next week.
For now, this passage, which began with the vine tended by the vine-growing Father, comes to a close with the fruitful branches glorifying the one who has made them that way, and here we learn that another way to talk about this fruitfulness is discipleship, and so discipleship is also a gift.
A Presbyterian may be reminded of the best-known answer in the Westminster catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But anyone can see that it is finally a passage about grace.
We bear fruit not by squeezing it out of ourselves but because we are extensions of the vine, pruned by the gardener-God who wants us to be fruitful and to be drawn into the unity of the Father and Son. God’s love, presence, and pruning are gifts. But we do choose the abiding place of our soul. If we want to bear Jesus’ fruit, then we choose to abide in him, which we will learn in John 15:9 means to abide in his love.
Anne Lamott has famously said, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
While Psalm 22 cannot be reduced to these words, it does seem as though this contemporary perspective might be similar to the perspective of the Psalmist.
From Darkness to Dawn
Psalm 22 is a familiar Psalm of Lament that begins in the dark with one of Christ’s final statements on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” However, this Psalm was not intended to be prophetic, and its original form was not Christocentric, even though Christians today will inevitably read it as Christocentric, making the connection between this Psalm and the words of Christ just as early Christians might have done.
Psalm 22 is the lament of a conflicted individual, and this is evident in the tension established early in the Psalm. Accusatory statements like “I cry by day, but you do not answer” (v.2) and “I am a worm” (v. 6) are juxtaposed with declarative statements such as “You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (v.3) and “You took me from the womb; you kept me safe” (v. 9). Indeed, the first twenty-one verses of the Psalm display an individual in distress, full of contradictory statements about the human plight and the goodness of God.
It is not until the final verses of the Psalm that the Psalmist’s timbre changes. Though initially conflicted, the Psalmist has waited, watched, worked, and persevered. Verse 25 shows that dawn has arrived for the Psalmist, who summons the whole community to experience the transformation the Psalmist has experienced and offer thanks and praise to God.
From Individual to Community
The first twenty-four verses of this Psalm remain in the first person voice, and they are an explicit dialogue with God. But, verse 25 becomes a testimony of sorts that answers the disruption presented in the litany of complaints and questions in the earliest verses of the Psalm. Verse 25 alters the tone of the litany and sets the individual, and even the whole community, towards a “right and creative relationship” with YHWH. Truly, “the individual’s experience should correspond to that of the community and should deepen its faith.”1
From verse 25 onward, the Psalmist establishes the strong implication that what YHWH has accomplished for the individual, YHWH will accomplish for the whole world. From the weak, the poor, and those of the lowest status in the community who must seek help from YHWH (v. 26) to the ends of the earth and all nations (v. 28-29), those who remember the Lord, turn to the Lord, and worship the Lord (v. 27) will find a generative faith (v. 30-31) that will eventually confirm and testify to the past, present, and future deeds of God.
Implications for Preaching
John Goldingay uses this Psalm to offer a counter argument to a common mode of Christian comfort: assuring those in suffering that God is present with them in their suffering. Psalm 22 shows us a contrast Goldingay says that “God was not present with this suppliant and does not expect us to pretend that this is so when it is not.” Rather, Psalm 22 invites those of us who experience suffering to find ways to remind God and us of God’s faithfulness, to remind God and us of God’s involvement in the world, to plea with God to change, and to believe strongly enough in our argument that God will, in fact, respond.2
To give this Psalm an explicitly Christocentric focus on the fifth Sunday of Easter might be to trace the dark days of Christ suffering on the cross to the promise that came with the dawn of the resurrection. Verses 25-31, when viewed from the dark days of Good Friday and Holy Saturday to the dawn of the resurrection, promise that all those who are weak and call upon the name of God in their weakness will eat and be satisfied. In biblical times, this might have been the Psalmist (Old Testament) or Christ or Christ’s disciples (New Testament), but its implications are ever contemporary. Yes, even we when faced with suffering — whether we find ourselves among the weak or the powerful — will move from darkness to dawn and proclaim the deliverance that comes from God to God’s people. This is the Psalmist’s story. This is Christ’s story. This is our story. And, this is the story for generations to come. Thanks be to God.
1 John Goldingay, “Psalm 22,” in Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 337.
2 Goldingay, 341.
It all begins with God’s love. In case we ever forget this basic, essential fact of our faith, 1 John makes it crystal clear.
God is the source and the definition of love. God is love. God loves as the sun shines: love expresses who God is.
1 John emphasizes that God’s love is not some abstract concept. It is passion expressed in action. God made love real and present by sending Jesus to live among us and to die for us. God continues to show us love through Jesus’ life-giving presence among us. If ever we should question whether God truly does love us, the gift and witness of the Holy Spirit confirmed it once more: we are God’s beloved. God’s love is a truth more basic and reliable than the ground we walk on and the air we breathe.
God’s love does not depend on our initiative or on our worthiness. We don’t have to reach out to God or even believe in God in order to be loved. We don’t have to clean up our act before God can love us. We don’t have to measure up to some standard in order to be lovable. No, God showers love on us whether we deserve it or not. And honestly, who could ever deserve such amazing, immeasurable love?
1 John insists that the more fully and completely we know God, the more the immense reality of God’s love dawns on us. When we open ourselves to the warmth and light of God’s presence, we find that even our deepest, darkest secrets and the ugliest parts of ourselves are not beyond God’s reach. Nothing in us is so broken or so filthy that God is unwilling or unable to touch it. God embraces us as we are, loves us as we are, and works in us to make us clean and whole and new. Upheld, surrounded, enfolded by such love, who could be afraid?
Such life-giving love is too wonderful to keep to ourselves. To know God’s love is to overflow with God’s love. How can we possibly love God while we hate God’s beloved? Seeing ourselves as God’s beloved means seeing our sisters and brothers as God’s loved ones too. If we have come to know God’s love, we have seen for ourselves that it is unearned, undeserved, utterly free. Although God’s love is without conditions, it is not without consequences: God commands us to love one another as God has loved us.
In case we haven’t understood the seriousness of this command, 1 John expresses it in a way that leaves no room for doubt: “just as God is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17 b). In context, it’s clear that 1 John is not saying that Christians are omnipotent or omniscient or morally pure. No, 1 John is saying that because God lives in us, we embody God’s love for the world. We are not gods, but we are God’s. God’s love is incarnate in us.
The author of 1 John calls us to love one another, that is, to love our sisters and brothers. The first-century Christians for whom 1 John was originally written were in conflict about the boundaries of their community, about theology, and about false teaching. In this context 1 John focuses on love for others who belong to the community of faith. Does this mean that we are called only to love those who belong to our group and believe as we do?
The whole foundation of 1 John’s argument suggests otherwise. If we love others as God has loved us, there can be no boundaries. God’s love, made visible and present in Jesus, is the source for the love we share with others. Jesus ignored the limits that religious communities imposed. He ate and talked with people whom the religious leaders had rejected as heretics, as sinful, as filthy and despicable. He touched people who were considered untouchable and welcomed people whom everyone else had kicked out. His harshest words were reserved not for the impure, but for unloving, self-righteous people who saw some of God’s children as beneath their attention and certainly as unworthy of their love. If Jesus shows us what God’s love is like, then there can be no doubt how far our love for others must extend: to every single human being.
Such love can never originate with us. It is not our own, weak, limited love that we share with God’s beloved. No, we are called to open ourselves to God’s love so that God can love others through us. When we love one another, we re-present God to the world. By allowing the love that God has showered on us to overflow onto our sisters and brothers, we make divine love real and visible in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. God invites us to let Jesus live in us, so that through us Jesus can continue to welcome outcasts and touch untouchables and heal the broken. When God’s unimaginable, limitless love comes alive in us, we become the real presence of God in the world. All we can possibly say to such love is thank you, and may it indeed be so.