Dear Working Preacher,
Okay, I’ll just come out and say it: I don’t where to go with this passage. To be honest, on the whole I find the farewell discourses among the most difficult to preach, and this one especially. I don’t know if it’s that I didn’t grow up tending vines (or even spent much time in a garden), or whether it’s the way the Johannine discourses seem so simultaneously concrete (vines) and abstract (abiding) at the same time, but I find this passage just plain difficult.
That being said, a few things occur to me. First, some of the language here is kind of fierce — cutting, pruning, being thrown into the fire, etc. To be honest, though, I think this is less intended as a threat about what happens if you don’t abide in Jesus but more a metaphorical description of what actually happens when you are not connected to the source of life. You end up cut off, withered, useless, like the branches and scraps we clean up from our yard and haul away or burn. Plus, if you’ve ever seen pruned bushes, you know it’s not a pretty picture. Sometimes, in fact, a pruned bush looks so ravaged that it’s hard to believe it will ever bear fruit or flower again. But cutting away the dead growth — whether of a single plant or from the whole garden — is the only way for new life to take place. And being a disciple apparently doesn’t spare you that. The question isn’t, finally, whether you’ll experience some difficulty, some cutting, the question is whether that will be toward new growth or will be just the beginning of more withering. And the answer seems to be tied to the larger issue of abiding.
And that’s the second thing that stands out to me. This passage is all about abiding, remaining, with Jesus. That’s where the horticultural analogy works — easier, of course, for those who grew up in rural areas or are gardeners — branches don’t last long apart from the larger tree or vine or plant to which they’re attached. It always amazes me, actually, how long cut flowers hold their bloom, but whether it’s a day or week, eventually they wither. So Jesus, in this portion of the narrative — and it’s probably important to explain to our hearers that the lectionary has brought us back to essentially what is the evening of Maundy Thursday in John’s account — Jesus is urging his disciples to remain in him and with him. He knows he is about to go, to leave them behind, first in the event of the cross but even after the resurrection through his ascension. And he wants them to be prepared, to remain in fellowship with each other and to abide in his teaching and example.
The question, I think, is how we get this across to our people. Do we see our life in the church as helping us abide in Christ? Do we even know or think about what abiding in Christ would look like? Do we feel connected like branches to a vine to Jesus, our congregation or, for that matter, to anything at all?
And maybe that’s the place to start — to what do we feel connected? Or maybe it’s more than connected. I mean, one of the challenges of our modern life is that we’re more connected than ever, yet also feel increasingly isolated. We have more and more friends on Facebook, but fewer friends that we actually see and talk with in person. We are “linked in” all over the place, yet rates of reported loneliness and depression are skyrocketing. We are connected to more sources of news and information and entertainment and even to each other via email and social media, yet seem to be almost drowning in information while simultaneously starved for actual experience, particularly the experience of being in real relationship.
And maybe that’s the place to start — with the difference between mere connection and actual relationship. I think that’s what Jesus offers his disciples here. Not simply connection — that’s not enough to nourish life — but relationship, community, life in its abundance. But let’s not kid ourselves — being in genuine relationship and real community isn’t easy. We tend to romanticize these things, especially when we’re feeling lonely. But relationships have ups and downs, give and take. We have to be vulnerable in relationships, which means that we can never completely protect ourselves from being hurt.
Same with community. Communities, we tend to forget, are made up of real people, some nicer, some not, but all of us have our days and tend to act like jerks from time to time. And being in community means dealing with that, sometimes running into someone who’s being a jerk and at other times recognizing when we’re the ones being the jerk. And then working it out. No, relationships and community aren’t easy.
But they are real. I think one of the difficulties of living in our age is that we’re offered a lot of things as substitutes for honest-to-goodness relationships, and while they may be pretty good at what they were designed for, they’re finally not actual relationships. I know this is a little hard to explain or talk about, but I’ll give it a try. And maybe you’ll know what I’m talking about or be able to say it better in the comments here or in your sermon.
Take email and social media, for instance: they can be very helpful at facilitating relationship, but they’re not actual relationships,
and sometime we end up thinking that “liking” someone on Facebook is the same as bearing with them through a difficult time. Or, to go another direction, money is pretty good at helping us engage in commerce, but it’s a means to an end, not an end in itself, yet somehow we often think if we have enough money we’ll be happy, feel connected and accepted and whole. But all those things come only from relationships. Or take all the stuff we buy with our money — shoes or laptops or books or cars or whatever. All of it may be good things in and of themselves, they can’t bear the weight of meaning we put on them or substitute for actually being in relationship with each other.
I think this is part of what this passage may be about. (Or, whether it was actually about this originally, it may at least help us talk about it.) I think that part of what Jesus is saying is that by being connected to him we are also able — even free — to be connected with each other. Because finally what Jesus invites us to do is to be real, to be honest about who and what we are, even if that means admitting our penchant to flee the light and hide in the darkness because we are afraid (remember John 3?). Jesus invites us to be honest, to be real, and having confessed our hopes and fears, our dreams and disappointments, our accomplishments and failures, our blessing and our sin, to know what we are accepted, loved, and forgiven. Jesus reveals, after all, the God who loves the whole world enough to send the Son.
In light of God’s acceptance of us, we can then turn and try to accept each other, living with the imperfections of even our best relationships and communities because we know ourselves to be imperfect and flawed and yet also loved.
So can we be communities and congregations that become places where we admit who we are and allow others to do the same? Can we be places, that is, where the hurts and hardships of life — because they are borne together — is more like pruning for future growth rather than the cutting, binding and burning that we are all too familiar with?
Like I said, Working Preacher, I find this passage pretty challenging, but also important, and I’m grateful for your willingness to wrestle with these issues and this passage so that we might help each other abide in the true vine, Jesus the Christ.
Blessings on your week and proclamation.
PS: As referenced above, his week I posted an article on social media, connectedness, and loneliness that touches on the recent cover article of The Atlantic and a great TED Talk by Sherry Turkle. Click here if you’re interested.