4/29/18: Abiding and Pruning, John 15:1-8
Abiding and Pruning
Fourth in the series, Resurrection by Candlelight
First Lesson: 1 John 4
Second Lesson: John 15:1-8
It’s the Thursday of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, and the last night he will spend with the disciples.
Now, you’ll remember that John tells the story of that last night together differently than the other Gospels. There’s no breaking of bread or lifting of cup in John. Instead we’re told how Jesus washes his disciples feet. And where in the other gospels the meal is the focus and little else is described, in John this supper lasts several chapters, recording in detail Jesus’ parting words to his disciples.
It’s a long and winding conversation, which is really more like a monologue. Scholars call it his “Farewell Discourse,” which gives it a kind of official air, but the words themselves reveal something much more intimate. Earlier in this last supper we’re told Jesus is in anguish sitting there among them. “Now my soul is troubled,” he says as he tells them what is about to happen to him. And then again, we’re told “He was very troubled in spirit” when he says to them, “One of you will betray me.”
Jesus has a lot on his mind that final night. His words to the disciples are at times beautiful, at times rambling, but underneath all of them is a deep tenderness that we don’t often appreciate. It’s there at that last supper that he calls them, for the first time, his friends. It’s there at that last supper that he tells them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Not so different from the dying wishes of any number of loved ones.
In John’s Gospel, more than any of the others, the love of God revealed in Christ is intimately relational.
It’s relational between God and Christ—I am inthe Father and the Father is inme, he tells them.
It’s relational between Christ and the Spirit that will follow him, which he calls the Advocate, or better, the Comforter—the Greek word is Paraclete, which literally means, “one who walks beside.” Jesus is leaving but he’s sending them someone to walk along beside them.
And it’s relational between Jesus and his disciples, his friends; him and you, and us with each other. Abide in me, he tells them, as I abide in you. In John we get the first taste of the Trinity, this radical and mysterious Christian idea that God is defined as much by with-ness as by one-ness;that God, in God’s very self, is relational, and the whole divine project from creation to redemption is to gather us in, to bring all people into the fold of God’s love—for us to abide in the love of God.
So it’s in this spirit of intimacy that he tells them here in the 15th chapter, right in the middle of that final night together, “I am the vine, my Father is the vinegrower, and you are the branches.”
Like the images of the Good Shepherd last week, Jesus is once again showing he knows his Bible. Vineyards and vines are common images in Scripture for the Kingdom of God and the people of God. And here, on the eve of his death, his soul troubled with grief, Jesus looks at his disciples who have become his friends, and says to them, “I may be going away from you, but a part of me will stay with you.” He’ll remain connected to them and they to him, intimately and organically, like branches on a vine.This is an intimate closeness Jesus is describing. Vines and branches are distinct parts of a plant, but they share what we might call “a common life."
Many of you have been to our house, an old 100+ year old bungalow over off Vineville. We love our house and our neighborhood because of how old they are—most of the time we love how old they are. Our house has old heart pine flooring, and high ceilings, and is about as energy efficient as a cardboard box. In fact, for a while that was the only insulation we had in our old chimney. And our neighborhood has mature trees with thick undergrowth. We have beautiful oak trees in our yard; a couple of pin oaks in the front and then some big, luscious live oaks in the back, the biggest of which is actually rooted in the yard of our neighbors, Doug and Danielle Barnes, who are also members here and are in our Sunday school class. And the tree must be 100 years old and has these branches that curl out over both of our yards. And until recently, there was, growing up the trunk of this old tree, a thick vine. Its leaves practically covered the trunk and had made their way up into the branches. Now, in some ways this was a beautiful vine and added even more greenery to the tree, but it’s also not good for trees to have vines growing on them, and so last fall, Doug cut the vine at its base. And over the winter we watched as the vine died and turned brown. But when all the leaves had fallen off you could finally see the intricate weavings of it’s branches. From this one vine, all these hundreds of branches had grown and wrapped around this tree and each other, so close, so interwoven, that it was impossible to tell where one ended and one began. There was just wild, untamed growth everywhere.
This is what Jesus tells them it will be like when he is gone. In other words, what’s coming in Christ’s death and resurrection—as I saw it put this week—is not distance, but unexpected, intimate closeness.
What a beautiful image for the church: this wild, green overflowing plant, rich with life, with branches interweaving in such a way that you can’t tell where one ends and one begins, they’re just growing together—it’s a beautiful vision, and in some ways a radical one. It cuts against some of the dominant values of the world around us.
Gail O’Day, the dean of the Wake Forest School of Divinity, makes this point in her wonderful commentary on John.She notes there’s little room for individualism in this image for life in Christ—all the branches blend into each and become one. Nor is their hierarchy—there’s no preferential place or status, all the branches are defined solely by their connection to the vine. In fact, she says, it’s also pretty anonymous. No distinct gifts or roles in the community are defined, as in the other celebrated New Testament vision of the church, when Paul imagines the church as a body with different members, each with different abilities. She says for Jesus here in the gospel of John, “The mark of the faithful community is howit loves, not whoare its members.” “There is only one gift,” she writes, “to bear fruit, and any branch can do that if it remains in Jesus.”
What a radical vision of the church in a world of competition and achievement, one-upmanship. Jesus here in John offers a vision of the church as being perhaps the one place in the world where the only criteria by which one is judged is their ability to love. That’s it. Years later, someone else would say something similar, about “content of character.”
And I think we get there here at the church, from time to time. Like when a certain member of our custodial staff who also works in our kitchen will pause during the Wednesday evening craziness to grind up the food for one of our senior adults and bring it out to her.
Or when a few folks decide to rent a motel room for a couple of weeks in the dead of winter for the homeless gentlemen who spends time on our campus because he knows its a safe, welcoming place for him.
Or when I walk through the preschool hallway at the same time as big Joe Seymour and and hear the 4 year olds yell out to him through the doorway: Seymour!!
Or the group of 6 or 8 mostly senior adults who call themselves our TLC ministry, who write simple cards and notes to folks in the hospital, or who in need of a word to let them know their church knows them and loves them.
Or our congregational care servant team, led by Kerri Thompson, who coordinate to provide a meal down in the fellowship hall for grieving families.
There’s only one gift, church: to bear fruit. And anyone can do that.
Of course, lest we think is some hippy-dippy, up in the air, “all you need is love” kind of vision of the church, Jesus pushes this vineyard metaphor a little further and gets to the uncomfortable topic of pruning.
God the vinegrower, he tells them, removes the branches within us that bear no fruit, and “prunes” the branches that bear fruit to help them bear more fruit. This is a process he tells them that has already started—they’ve already been “cleansed” by being in Jesus presence—there’s a pun there; the Greek words for prune and cleanse share the same root and sound almost identical. The disciples have been pruned already, and this will continue to happen so long as they stay in Christ.
This is not an “easy” community Jesus describes. There’s some snipping involved! Some out with old parts of us and in with the new. Some clearing out, some tiding up. Part of abiding in God’s love means being open to God’s cleansing work within us. To be honest about our shortcomings. To be attentive to the ways we’re failing to bear the kind of fruit we’re called to bear—the fruit of God’s abiding love. And this is important to remember in all of this: pruning sounds like punishment, but ask any gardener and she’ll tell you pruning is really about the health of the plant. It’s about getting rid of the waste, the fluff, the unnecessary to clear more space for the good stuff—for all the fruit the plant has the potential to bear. And remember the fruit we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the fruits of love. There is only one gift and it is to bear the fruits of love, remember. This pruning, this critical eye we’re asked to take has to do with one question and one question only: How might we love more?
How might we love more, church? I wonder how it would shift things if this was the question we asked ourselves at the beginning of every stewardship season? Every committee meeting? Every worship service? We took a step in this direction two years ago in our visioning process when we distilled our core values down into four words: nurture, love, serve, all. And we said we would keep these things before us as we carried out our common life together. And I think we have, by and large. But asking how can we love more—which is the question of discipleship—is not something we ever answer completely. We’re never finished.
We’ve made great strides to live into this call to love in our relationships and our welcome over the past couple of years, but we’ve got more work to do. I’ve been thinking about facilities in particular lately. How might we attend to our facilities to make sure they show our love for all people—especially people with mobility limitations or other disabilities? You may have noticed this old church is not as accessible as we might like. What would it require of us to make it more so?
Maybe some pruning back of some of our pews to make room for wheelchairs and walkers. Maybe large print hymnals and bulletins More hearing devices. Maybe adding better signage from the parking lot down into the sanctuary.
Maybe opening up the elevator area so it’s not such a serpentine path. Maybe asking what can be done to make our children’s center accessible at all. Our newly christened “accessibility servant team” is already talking and will be getting together with the properties committee to ask these questions, which are really just different ways of asking the save question—different branches of the same vine—which is: how can we bear the fruits of love more?
To truly abide in love is to open ourselves to the cleansing, pruning work of God’s love among us. To ask ourselves again and again how we can love more in the way that Christ loves us? How we can bear more of these fruits? How can we draw closer to each other, how can we close the distance between ourselves and others? And when we do, the promise, the mystery of our faith, is that we’ll discover the ways we were already connected; how we were already branches of the same vine. Amen.
I was introduced to this word “withness” by Rob Bell in his book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.
The SALT lectionary commentary was immensely helpful in teasing this out. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5
Gail O’Day makes this point beautifully in her commentary on John in the New Interpreter’s series, p. 760.
Gail O’Day again, 760-761