Commentary on John 15:1-8
The imagery of the vine and the relationship of the branches, appendages to the main source of nourishment, has long been used to describe the church.
Gail R. O’Day posits two questions in her “Reflections” on the text of John 15:1-17 that I think have great significance as one considers the great divide in church and society. They also relate to a more challenging issue with respect to how areas of the church have recently been in such great conformance to society, even when there is clear evidence that these societal norms are contrary to the teaching of Jesus. O’Day asks: “What does it mean for the church to live as the branches of Christ, the vine? What would “church” look like if it embraced this model for its corporate life?”1
These questions transcend the challenge of being “church” virtually because of the strictures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It speaks of the interrelationship wrought by and required for true community. It speaks also of mutuality, evidenced in love of neighbor, expressed to those outside of our immediate and normal circles. The imagery speaks of interdependence rather than the independence and self-dependence so highly valued in these United States.
This text follows in a straight trajectory from that of the previous Sunday’s gospel text. If the preacher has begun the work of helping the congregation to recognize the fully inclusive nature of the fold that belongs to the Good Shepherd, of which they are a part (although in this text John uses a different analogy), the message is the same. As the sheep follow and are cared for by the Good Shepherd, so too the branches cling to and are nourished by the vine. However, there is an additional feature to this human/divine connection. There is a word of warning for those who will choose to be part of the vine. There is the possibility of being pruned, cut off, if one does not use the nourishment received from the vine to good purpose. Nancy Blakely considers this “a word of judgment.”2 Instead, I would prefer to see this as a word of guidance for preachers and for the people.
Too often individuals of significant financial worth speak of themselves as “self-made,” denying the many who contributed to their position. In the United States, the role of enslaved Black Americans in building the nation at all levels—including the building of the nation’s Capitol that was recently overtaken by insurrectionists—has often been denied or dismissed. The role of persons considered “immigrants”—ignoring the fact that all families except Native Americans began as immigrants—is also often dismissed or devalued by society and unfortunately too often by the church. And yet, John offers from the lips of Jesus a different image for those who are members of the Body of Christ.
The image of the sturdy vine that continues to thrive beyond all challenges that come against it can be a helpful one for the church. The branches, the people individually, congregations, or even denominations, cannot continue to grow and to thrive within the Body of Christ unless they hold closely to the teachings of Christ. If that were the case, what the church would look like in its corporate life is a representation of all people with all their differences and a true image of diversity. The guiding principle by which all would be transformed into the image of Christ is boundless love of God and neighbor. In addition, because of that love, each person would seek to bring others into the beloved community to become fully a part of the Body of Christ.
In my childhood, I was caught by the notion of “a star in my crown”3 from a favorite hymn at revival services. I learned then that as Christians we were required to go out and win souls for Christ and that each time someone responded to our evangelization and gave their life to Christ, we earned a star. I don’t hear that song sung anymore, and my unsophisticated faith has matured since those days, yet the idea that we are called to do more than sit on our laurels (if they even exist) once we ourselves have received Christ, is set at naught by this text. Jesus’ words say just the opposite. Each of us is called to receive Christ as Lord and once we have made that initial declaration, we are adjured to take our leading and our sustenance from Christ who is the vine. But our responsibility does not stop there.
Bearing fruit means engaging for ourselves as individuals and as the church in those activities and tasks that recognize and invest in the goodness of God’s love by spreading that love to the neighbor whom we are called to love. The specifics of bearing fruit are left to the community as a whole and to each individual who receives the nurture that both Christ and the community provide. Each and all must come to the realization that we are not self-made. Yes we are individuals, but as Christians the individualism so admired by the world must take a back seat to the reality that all that we are and have are as a result of the abiding grace of God.
All are evidence of God’s love and that love must be spread abroad, thereby bearing fruit. It is not about judgment; it is about growth. Because as the dead branches are removed, those that remain adhered to the vine become stronger and contribute to the health of the vine. That is a message that in this time carries much urgency for the contemporary church in all its divisions for the sake of the diversity that is the true Body of Christ.
- Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9 (Luke-John), (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 760.
- Nancy R. Blakely, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B, Volume 2, Lent-Eastertide), (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 472.
- E. Hewitt & John R. Sweney, “Will there be Any Stars in My Crown?” 1897.