Commentary on John 15:1-8
In the promise of an “abiding” presence God’s Easter people find not some abstract speculation about a distant or imaginary Trinity, but an invitation to experience the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a saving and liberating presence in the midst of our day-to-day world.
Readers familiar with John’s gospel will recognize in the opening “I AM” of this lesson a linking of its imagery of the vine with other distinctive Johannine images of the identity and mission of Jesus in relation to that of his chosen community of followers (I AM bread of life, 6:35; I AM light of the world, 8:12; I AM the door of the sheep, 10:7; I AM the resurrection and the life, 11:25).
An “Abiding Presence
From a literary perspective this Sunday’s lesson belongs to Jesus’ familiar address to his disciples just prior to his passion (John 14-16). In these chapters the resurrected Lord comforts and encourages both the Johannine community and hearers today with the promise that we and they are not abandoned or left alone, but can be confident of the Lord’s continuing presence with us in the world. These words thus belong to and help shape a distinctive Johannine eschatology that understands life and salvation not as some distant or “heavenly” hope, but as the promise of an abundant life here and now constituted in the presence through the Spirit of the resurrected and living Lord (see John 3:16-18; 10:10).
Though clearly dependent on Old Testament images of God’s people as God’s vineyard (e.g. Psalm 80:8-16; Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-6; Ezekiel 15:1-6), that image is here developed in quite new directions by its association with the characteristic Johannine theme of “abiding” (when coupled with the occurrences in in 1 John, a total of some 64 times out of 118 occurrences in the whole New Testament). Such frequency and focus supports understanding the word “abide” as an alternative and mutually defining word for “believe” (which never occurs other than as a verb in John). Together “believing” and “abiding” point both to the reality of “life in Christ” and to the characterization of that life not in some hope of a future reunion in heaven, but to the promise of that abundant life in the here and now.
The promise of God’s abiding presence in Christ has been anticipated already in Jesus’ words in 14:1-6, a passage whose frequent use primarily at funerals often disguises its intent of giving assurance for life in the present. Jesus speaks of “dwelling places” (the Greek word mone is from the same root as meno, abide) in the Father’s house prepared for those who believe. But use of the same word in 14:23 together with Jesus’ promise to “come again” and “take you to myself” makes clear that this image is not primarily about our going to heaven, but rather confirms Jesus’ promise as resurrected Lord to come and be with his followers. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
In the imagery of the vine and branches of our lesson, this “dwelling place” or “home” is now developed in the beautiful imagery of the intimate relationship of the Father, Jesus, and Jesus’ followers. Just as the “you” in the passage is always plural, so the intimate relationship of “abiding” binds together Father, Son, and the community of believers in a way that challenges a culture that would often prefer to imagine or even to keep God at a distance. Far from being a cipher for proper ethics or a vision of some cosmic judge who exercises power as the preserver of morality, here a quite different role defines the Father. Because the Father has raised Jesus from the dead, this Word of God now become flesh among us has an abiding and lasting presence — now continues to dwell among us. In the imagery of the vine that presence is underscored as abiding, lasting, and permanent.
To hear this promise has the power to open us to new possibilities of life in the present. It redirects our concerns from questions about the past or from fears about a Jesus who is gone or distant. Perhaps those fears belong even to us, who like Thomas of a few Sundays ago have difficulty in getting beyond the desire to see and to touch as the basis for faith. At least when Jesus was in the tomb, his disciples knew where he was, and they could at least be sure that Jesus had actually lived among them. But it is unsettling when bodies don’t stay where they are buried. Unnerving when we wonder whether God can any longer be trusted.
But now the resurrected Lord addresses us. Twice he promises “I AM the vine.” And in that promise something happens. There is an event in which we “become” something new — we are transformed by a new reality in which we are empowered and commissioned as disciples. That new reality is signaled in several aspects of the Jesus’ promise.
I Am the “True” Vine
The word “true” or “truth” occurs some 35 times in John. It is a key aspect of the description of the vine. That Jesus is the true vine has to do with his relationship to the Father and what it reveals about the Father’s love. All that the Father is and does is now seen in this Jesus who is both the “Word become flesh” and the one whom God raised from the dead. Everything that the Father does, including his work of pruning and cleansing the branches, is tempered and understood through the “word” that Jesus is and has spoken to his disciples (3).
You Are the Branches
Just as Jesus is intimately related to the Father, so the branches can do nothing unless they abide in relationship with their resurrected Lord. In the assertion of the two-fold promise of Jesus — I AM the vine, you are the branches — it is clear that these words are intended not as a command or judgment, but as invitation, summons, and promise. The promise is likewise underscored in its two-fold repetition: apart from Jesus you can do nothing (4, 5).
The promise of “abiding” in Jesus is not for its own sake, nor an end in itself. Jesus imagines and promises a dynamic and changing life for the disciple community. Vines are pruned and cleansed. Branches that wither and die are removed. This points to a constantly changing community that is called to be up and doing. This is a relationship of purpose and power. As if to underscore the call to the exercise of discipleship in the world, six times in this brief lesson the image of “bearing fruit” is raised (2, 4, 5, 8)
Whatever You Wish
This call to “bear fruit” could seem risky or judgmental to our ears, but only if it is heard as the call of some distant or judgmental taskmaster. But here we hear the same promise as the one from Jesus who invites us to pray to a beloved Father — “Our Father…” Such a promise invites us into the abiding relationship in which vine and branches are held together by the one whose glory is seen in his being lifted up on the cross for us and in a Father who also is glorified when those who abide in that Son are revealed in the faithful bearing of fruit in service to the world.