Commentary on John 15:1-8
John’s Gospel for this Sunday moves into an agrarian mode by focusing on vines and the vine grower.
The image, of course, has an Old Testament history with the vine used as a metaphor for the people of Israel, in both positive and negative ways.
One entry into this passage could be some history and information on oenology! For parishioners who have visited the Napa Valley in California or some of the well-known Italian or French wineries, they will appreciate the rich history of wine-making that depends so completely on the welfare of the grapevines and the arts and expertise of the vine grower.
Just as circuitous and complex as a vine and its branches, so too are these brief verses. What are some of the key and inter-related themes for this Easter season text?
The most obvious is the identification of relationships: God as the Vine Grower; Jesus as the Vine and we as the branches. Jesus’ role as the vine is twice identified, in verse 1 as “the true vine” and in verse 5 as “the vine.” This is the life source of the branches.
It is God who tends to the flourishing of the branches, and likewise will “remove[s] every branch” (John 15:2) that gives no yield. What is the key for this work of the vineyard? It is abiding. With almost mantra-like force the word “abide” is repeated eight times.
Perhaps the sole exposure to the word “abide” has been in the very self-focused hymn: “Abide with Me.”1 The hymn’s mood tends more towards the realities of ceasing activity than increasing it. This passage from John, however, takes the activity of abiding into the briskness of daylight and opportunity.
What is the meaning of abiding in Jesus, the Risen One during this post-Resurrection season?
First, the relationship of abiding means that we cannot “go it alone” in our spiritual lives, what Parker Palmer once described as a “free floating spirituality.” Jesus notes the impossible cannot happen: “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).
It is no secret that one can be deeply engaged in “things of the Church” in publicly meaningful ways, and yet the activities may not be truly connected to Christ. In that case, the vine grower eventually gets around to pruning such branches.
The possibilities of going it alone in American society are widespread and inviting. Carried over into the spiritual life, this fact can have devastating results. Dependency and inter-relatedness are rarely valued to the extent that individualism is. This passage flies in the face of such attitudes with a very different type of invitation to reliance on God.
Is the process of reliance on the vine an easy one? Hardly. The Vine Grower will deal with the branches in a manner that will alter their very being and formation. And to those who think abiding is a free ride, Jesus reminds them that “every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” (John 15:2b).
If you have clipped your shrubs way back, you may experience the sense of reluctance in having to strip down once luxuriant branches for a greater and unseen future good. But what are the alternatives?
Removal of self or the removal of entire congregations from the reality of abiding in the Vine prompts Jesus to warn that “you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The string of verbs says such branches will be “gathered, thrown and burned” (John 15:6). In selecting between submission to or departure from the Vine, it is truly an all-or-nothing proposal.
Second, beyond the fact of reliance, abiding in Christ the Vine means change! John 15:5 notes that abiding means the opportunity to “bear much fruit.” What does that mean? This passage does not define ‘bearing fruit!”
As with any lively metaphor, it invites the listeners and preachers to expand on its possibilities in their own lives. We are free to make much of metaphors and this one is no exception. It means plenty, abundance, life-giving and pleasing. But what might that be?
The preacher is invited to contextually explore the possibilities of this question with any given group of listeners. Would bearing fruit mean? A renewal of hope for a dying congregation? A recommitment and new unity of purpose in a congregation ripped by conflict? A congregation beginning to see and respond to the poor, the hungry and the imprisoned in their community in a way they had not before?
Abiding in Christ establishes a communication element that does not exist outside of the divine-human relationship. Jesus invites those who are intent on abiding in him to “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). What an amazing directive!
The asking can only be done in Christ as part of the abiding, since that involves “my words” as well. Jesus’ invitation is to pray in the spirit of abiding and to do so with full awareness of the surrounding environment of his word of life to all people.
There is something unnerving about Jesus’ words. What if entire congregations wholeheartedly prayed this way? Then what? When was the last time any of us who preached invited a congregation to pray in this deliberate and specific fashion?
Jesus’ words show a readiness to respond to requests from the abiding ones for two reasons. The giving of good things to God’s abiders glorifies God in the presence of those who may doubt God, thus serving as confirmation of God’s activity.
Furthermore, as a result of the human asking and the divine giving, Jesus says “you become my disciples” (John 15:8). The asking proves and is part of the process of discipling, both to those who wish to abide and to those who witness the lives and actions of the abiders.
1“Abide With Me” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #629.