Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; First John 4:7-21; John 15:1-11
We might well ask how one brief passage of Scripture consisting entirely of the words of Jesus can seem at once clear and yet mysterious, at once inclusive and yet exclusive, at once to be loved and yet, by some, to be loathed. I rather doubt that Jesus thought He was being obscure in any way. He was using an agricultural analogy that was completely familiar to His hearers, one to which He could have pointed on almost any day of His wanderings throughout Galilee and Judea with His disciples. Apart from the totally desolate desert areas, grape vines were plentiful at the time.
We can start out with the parts that are clear, inclusive and beloved: the warm-fuzzy aspects of this teaching that, in many moments of our lives, are reassuring and comforting. Jesus is emphasizing our connection with Him as our Savior, Redeemer and Friend, as the One Who sustains us in our walk with Him as His disciples, His life-long learners, as those who have a special and direct connection with Him. Last week we saw Him as our Good Shepherd. Today we see Him as the True Vine. These are two of the most precious self-identifications of Jesus in John’s Gospel, two of the seven times He says “I AM” and adds vividly picturesque predicate nouns. The other statements include “I am” the Bread of Life; the Light of the World; the Door of the Sheepfold; the Resurrection and the Life; and the Way, the Truth and the Life. Each in its own way addresses a special connection between us and our Savior.
“Bread of Life” of course has its Eucharistic context, reminding us of our daily request in the prayer that our Savior Christ has taught us: “Give us this day our daily Bread,” or, better, “Give us this day the miraculous Bread that nourishes and sustains us,” the Bread that is the True Body of our Lord, the imperishable bread of heaven. But “True Vine” is a close second to “Bread of Life” in terms of our direct connection to Jesus, a connection that He emphasizes in these words when He connects the image of our life as branches of the “True Vine” to the concept of “abiding” in Him.
Perhaps I should take a step back and remind you of the context in which Jesus is speaking these words. It’s Holy Week, as we now call it, and Jesus already has been in the Upper Room alone with His disciples. He has shared the Passover Supper with them, giving to it the heightened meaning that it has as our Eucharistic meal. He has informed them of His impending betrayal by Judas and of Peter’s denial; and in the clearest possible language He has told them of His imminent departure from them. In fact, His words that immediately precede today’s Gospel are these: “Let not your heart be troubled nor let it be afraid. You heard that I said to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. Now I have told you before it happens, so that when it happens, you may believe” (John 14:27-29).
With that backdrop, one that certainly threw the disciples into a serious emotional tailspin, Jesus begins to speak these warmly assuring words about abiding in Him. Now we, who never had the incomparable privilege of being with Jesus during His earthly ministry, hear these words with a similar sense of being warmed and reassured. As He will do again soon in the Intercessory or High Priestly Prayer, here Jesus connects our abiding in Him as branches of the True Vine with our relationship to the Father, something that was altogether new for His Jewish disciples who would never have dreamed of addressing God as “Father” other than through an extended corporate formula. Now Jesus can add to these words about “abiding” by saying, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love” (vs. 9).
Those are the parts of these words of Jesus that we love most. Despite an element of mystery in this intertwined love relationship between Jesus as the True Vine and God the Father as the vinedresser and ourselves as the branches, we can sense the special closeness that these images imply. But then come the tough things that are inextricably included in the “abiding” concept. We may be able to access this a bit better if we bring it down to purely human terms. We all know how challenging interpersonal relationships can be. Sometimes the least little issue seems to threaten, disrupt or even destroy an otherwise healthy relationship. We find it difficult to be corrected by others, especially those who are best at holding up mirrors to our faces, thereby laying bare our deepest and best-hidden flaws.
If that’s the way we react when someone close to us has the temerity to do this, even with the best of intentions, how will we react when God the Father does His pruning of us as unhealthy branches that are not bearing fruit? What about the many times when we think we’re doing just fine at fruit-bearing and God still comes to do His pruning? Isn’t it a bit harsh when Jesus says, “Apart from Me you can do nothing?” Aren’t we inclined much of the time to think that we’re doing perfectly acceptably on our own?
But then the mirror pops up and we discover that God is quite right: we’re sailing along very well until what we’re doing is measured against the standard of bearing fruit. Even then we spring into our accustomed posture of self-defense and say, “Look at all the good I’m doing!” Then we step back and take another look at verse 4: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” And we also look ahead at verse 8: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” I suspect this may be a higher standard than the one to which we hold ourselves, and we may think that God has progressed too quickly from prodding to pruning to meddling.
According to the words of Jesus in verse 6, God clearly is in the business of holding our feet to the fire, quite literally: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” That’s a frightening prospect, an extreme one that apparently was meant to provide a bit of negative motivation for us to work harder at abiding in Jesus. In our feel-good society we often are told that negative motivation is a bad thing. Perhaps that’s true in some contexts, but Jesus certainly did not shrink from negative motivation when He felt it was for our instruction and remediation.
Before we decide to abandon this teaching as divine overreaching, let’s look at a few more things Jesus is saying in this passage. First of all, the context is not primarily about fire and judgment but about love and joy. Look again at verses 10 and 11: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and your joy may be made full.”
What’s Jesus saying here? He’s affirming that abiding in Him, keeping His commandments and bearing much fruit is not intended to be some onerous process from which any reasonable person would shrink. Rather He’s saying that our end goal is to experience the love of Jesus in the same way that Jesus experiences the Father’s love; and whenever that happens, the product will be inexpressible joy, a joy that Jesus describes as “full,” “complete,” “overflowing.”
Is this what we used to hear about at Christian summer camp, what we called the “mountain-top experience?” Probably not. Think about Who’s speaking here and what was about to happen to Him that very evening and the next day: arrest, trial and crucifixion. At the end of the next chapter in John, Jesus tells the disciples, “Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me” (16:32).
This may give us a deeper understanding of what Jesus really meant when, from the Cross, He quoted the first verse of Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” What we’re to learn from this is that even in the very darkest hour of His life, Jesus was completely assured of the Father’s presence that brought both love and fullness of joy. And He promises us that when we abide in Him and obey His commandments, we, too, will experience the incomparable love of God and the fullest possible joy, even on those occasions when the mountain-top experience is short-lived.
One more thing Jesus promises in these verses: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (verse 7). Later in the same conversation He says, “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you” (verse 16).
Does that sound preposterously naïve and contrary to our experience? Perhaps sometimes it is, but only from our greatly limited human perspective. And yes, there are contingencies to be met: in verse 7, it’s a matter of whether we actually are “abiding in Him.” How do we know? Because He says that when we are, we will be bearing much fruit. Grab that mirror! How are we really doing at fruit-bearing? Jesus says that fruit-bearing is the measuring stick for abiding in Him.
The second contingency is in verse 10. It’s obedience, because Jesus follows up His words about the Father giving us whatever we ask with these words: “This is My commandment, that you love one another just as I have loved you” (verse 12). He repeats these same words in verse 17 immediately after His second promise that the Father will gave us whatever we ask of Him.
Jesus makes no effort to hide this second contingency or to make it ambiguous. It’s all about proving our love for Him by following His commandment to love others. We know from our weekly repetitions that this is the second commandment in Jesus’ summary of the law. And we also know from our daily experiences that this commandment is more easily recited than performed.
John himself, living another 60 years after hearing these words from Jesus, must have learned their meaning rather well in his own personal experiences. In today’s epistle reading, John writes, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God Whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also” (I John 4:18-21).
What are the most important words here? They are simply, “We love, because He first loved us.” Among the several reasons why the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was necessary for us and for our salvation is the simple fact that never in human history has there been such a demonstration of love for others as in the death of the Son of God for each one of us. There’s no other system of religion that has a parallel. Mohammed did not die to save Muslims. Buddha did not die to save Buddhists. No Hindu god died to save Hindus.
Every religion teaches self-sacrifice. But only in Christianity does God show us what sacrifice means and why it’s necessary for our salvation. Jesus paid the ultimate price to do something for our sin. And He asks so little of us in response. He asks us to repent of our sin, to have faith in Him and to love others as He loves us. Can we do that? If we cannot, then John suggests we should do a spiritual check-up to see whether we are actually children of God.
John’s criteria, while not easy, are the ones he learned directly from Jesus. Here’s a snapshot of what John writes in his first letter:
“Abide in (Jesus) so that when He appears we may have confidence and not shrink from Him in shame” (2:28). “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called ‘children of God;’ and so we are” (3:1). “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (3:10, 11). “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (3:14). “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (3:16 18).
“And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight. This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him” (3:22-24). “By this the love of God was manifested among us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. (And) if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (4:9, 11). “We love, because He first loved us” (4:19).
Clearly John learned well from his Master, as these words from his letter say exactly the same things that Jesus said in today’s Gospel. The message is simple. Practicing it is not. And that’s the point both Jesus and John are making: it’s much easier, much more “natural,” for us to practice sin than to practice love and thereby to live out our faith in the imitation of God’s love for us in His Son Jesus Christ.
That’s our challenge today and every day. When we meet that challenge, John says that we “will assure our heart before God” (3:19). And, as Jesus Himself said, “By this will all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). May that very love become and remain our defining characteristic, to the honor and glory of God the Father and of His Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.