Easter 5B May 2, 2021 John 15:1-8
So much of what Jesus has to say in our gospel reading for today sounds like a threat. “Abide in me,” he says, “or else.” “Abide in me, and if you don’t you will be cut off, and you will wither, and be thrown into the fire, and die.” In a lot of ways this all sounds like the voice of a bully threatening people to stay loyal and faithful.
Upon closer reading, however, Jesus doesn’t just say, “Abide in me, or else.” Instead, what he really says is, “Abide in me, as I abide in you.” And that last part, the “as I abide in you” part, changes everything. Those words make the statements about pruning and withering, and all the rest, statements of fact rather than threats of intimidation. They describe what happens to us when we don’t abide in Jesus, when we are separated from his love, when we run away from his unconditional acceptance, when we hide from his forgiveness and grace and think that we can do it all on our own. Ultimately, branches don’t do very well when they are separated from the vine. At best, like cut flowers, you will get a burst of color and bloom and then they will quickly fade and wither. And yet, being cut off when we don’t abide in Jesus doesn’t alter the other fact in these words; the fact that Jesus will always and forever abide in us no matter what.
But first, a little context can help us understand this image of vine and branches much better. When Jesus speaks these words he is in the upper room with his disciples for their last supper. It is a time he uses to prepare them for his gruesome and bloody suffering and death. The next few days are going to be hard and his closest friends are going to get scared and do thing they never believed they could do … things like betrayal, like denial, like running away and hiding in fear. And, understanding all of this, Jesus wants to assure them with these words of his presence. That even when life gets hard, he will be with them. When fear seizes them by the throat and seems to be choking the life right out of them, he will be there abiding in them.
Of course, when John recalls these words of Jesus and writes them down for the community of faith some fifty years after Jesus was crucified, they have likely had some experiences with being cut off as well. Being a follower of the way wasn’t easy in those days. Often people were thrown out of their families because of their newfound faith. They were rejected by old friends who didn’t understand this new community they had joined. They were persecuted by both religious and political systems and made the scapegoat for all of their problems. This was their reality; feeling pretty much alone and orphaned … cut off.
They, too, will run and hide. They will betray their beliefs and deny their faith when the pressure gets to them. And John, through his retelling of Jesus’ words of farewell and comfort, is offering a different frame of reference by wich to reinterpret their experience. It’s not about how well or how poorly they abide in Jesus as it is about this promise Jesus makes to them. This promise that no matter what, Jesus will abide in them … he will make his home in them … he will live in them and he will not let them go.
I have been thinking about this vine and branch image a lot this week and it occurred to me that the branch has virtually nothing to say about the life force running through it that gives it the power to produce fruit. The vine, pulling the nutrients of life from its roots, really does all of the work sending what it needs to where it needs to go to produce the fruit that is meant to come on the branch. And, of course, if Jesus is the vine, the life force he streams through our lives as branches, is the love Jesus has for the world and the forgiveness and grace and healing that marked his days among us. And, if you think about it, that life force knows no boundaries. That life force of love flows in all of us regardless of our religious convictions or the depth of our piety or even the mastery of our spiritual disciplines. It is not of our own making. We play no part in its presence. It all comes from God and blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others.