Jesus goes on for several chapters in John about his coming death and departure, saying goodbye and trying to comfort the obviously confused and saddened disciples. Please read these verses as comfort, not criticism. I’ve heard many sermons preached like, if you don’t stay connected to the vine you’ll wither and die. And you should do this and you need to do that….
But I think Jesus means to reassure his disciples that they indeed are connected on a deeper level. And that even though Jesus is gone and things are getting sad – that connection remains and will continue to strengthen them. He does not say, abide in me or else – He says Abide in me, as I abide in you. Most of Jesus’ words about branches and vine are descriptive – here’s how God works. Here’s how vines and branches work.
There are two commands however – imperative verbs. Abide and ask. To abide means to make a home with, to dwell with, and to remain with. But Branches tend to remain on the vine unless they wither and die or are pruned. They are automatically in a state of being connected to the vine, by virtue of what they are. They grow out of the vine – unless grafted there by a master gardener. As God’s beloved children, our connectedness is a given and by virtue of who we are as the body of Christ, we are connected and remain connected. God created us, loves us, and causes us to grow.
These verses are not about individuals though, all the you’s are plural you. Most other languages have a designated word for plural you – and fortunately we do too. Just read this passage and substitute yinz, or y’all, or even yous guys, depending on where you grew up.
If yinz are remaining in me. and my words would remain in yinz….
These verses are about the community’s life together, praying together, discerning together, not about one’s own desires and expectations and wishes. Branches don’t just do their own thing. Bearing fruit is the natural outcome of a healthy branch, but they are healthy and bear fruit because they are fed and nourished by the vine, and remain connected to the whole tree.
Following this metaphor, the church is not a self-made institution. We are only reliant on our connection to the vine, and the gardeners pruning and weeding skills to stay healthy. As Gale O’Day suggests in her commentary , “In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops and another branch starts. All run together as they grow out of the central vine.” There is an absence of hierarchy in this vision of the church as branches of a vine because they all belong to the same vine and are tended by the same vinegrower. Therefore, there is no status, everyone is equal, everyone is responsible for bearing fruit. The only condition is to love each other as Jesus loved us.” Our health and growth is only the result of God’s action, and our connectedness to Jesus and to each other. Apart from that there is nothing we can do (John 15:5). And whatever else we do, we may be doing it for the wrong reasons.
As I begin my ministry here, and find my place, in your ministry, I’m a branch, same as you. To that end, I’ll do my best to listen and learn and work right alongside you. I’m starting listening sessions for the whole church, so I can really get to know you and hear your stories. You can sign up after church today for a time slot, alone or with three or four others, and I’ll have both in-person and zoom options. My goal as I’ve said, is 60 people in 60 days, having conversations of mutual care and consolation.
The other thing we’ll begin again is bible study. Abiding in Jesus’ words keeps us connected to Jesus’ message and mission. To that end, my bible studies are simple and straightforward. We’ll just read the upcoming gospel reading – and talk about it. We’ll engage in the word and chew on it and see what comes up for us. We can do an in-person group and a zoom group for this too! Isn’t it wonderful how technology can manifest our connections in new ways!?
You are right in feeling like this season of life at Christ Lutheran in Millvale seems disconnected. During the pandemic we lost a bit of what has traditionally connected us to each other. The regular activities, the regular service opportunities, the meetings, and the conversations after the meetings. And most importantly worship and holy communion together in person. Those visible connections do a lot for us – and help us to realize our spiritual connections. As well as our dependence, both on God and on one another.
Despite the disconnect we may feel, the vine is still there. The church has never stopped being the body of Christ in the world. Live into that connectedness. Abide in it even. And risk loving each other, even when you feel disconnected. 1 John goes so far to say – “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.” Loving our siblings in Christ doesn’t mean that we have to like or love their actions or their words. Loving our siblings means that we realize that we are in this together, that my branch is necessarily connected to your branch. That your health and wellbeing affects mine, because Christianity has never been a solo sport. Loving each other is a risk, because sometimes people are well, awful. They act out of a place of hurt or anger, and even with the best of intentions, hurt others. They harm other branches, not wanting to admit or believe that we are all connected. Loving the other branches, even when they are getting in our way or blocking our light, means putting our connectedness first. But it does not mean forgiveness without reconciliation or ignoring harmful behavior.
I started putting in my garden this week. Clearing the beds of debris. Working the soil. Planting the seeds of peas, kale, and radishes. The things that will grow first even with a few cold May nights here in Pittsburgh. I’ve started tomato and pepper seeds inside, those seedlings aren near ready yet, but I’m keeping my eye on them. It’s my exercise in patience and care. Because I can be impatient. I want things to be green and growing and bearing fruit now. But branches take time to form and grow and produce fruit. Setbacks happen, growth is slow, there are global pandemics that destroy in one fell swoop all our plans and growth.
The winter darkness happens. It looks like the trees are dead and gone. But growth always comes in the spring. Resurrection promises are for sure, and there’s a reason why flowers and butterflies and baby animals have become visual symbols of this truth.
Jesus speaks to his disciples with great care in these chapters, knowing what is about to take place, and knowing the strain they will be put under. They will think it’s all over, that it’s all been for naught, that the vine is dead and the gardener doesn’t care. And in our worst times, our feelings may be similar. And Jesus’ words come back to us… Don’t abide in this – gestures around – abide in me. Because I’m abiding in yous guys. And spring is coming. Spring is here. Growth is happening. Give God the glory. Alleluia, amen.