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April 28, 2024

The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Easter 5B/2024

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8



As it did last Sunday, the gospel this Sunday begins with the one of Jesus’ seven “I am” statements; from “I am the Good Shepherd” last week to “I am the True Vine” today. On this 5th Sunday of Easter, we find ourselves at the Last Supper  listening to Jesus’ tender and instructive goodbye to his disciples or his Farewell Discourse (John 14-17), of which we hear only a portion of its far-reaching four chapters, as we will for the next two Sundays. 

Knowing that the hour of his passion is upon him and that soon he will no longer be physically present, Jesus pours himself into the hearts of his disciples and reveals many things: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I am the True Vine. I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. My own peace I give to you, a peace the world cannot give. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. Remain in my love. Abide in my love. 

The verb abide appears over and over, eight times in eight verses. In our text from 1 John abide is repeated some six times, and the word love (agape) twenty-six times. Abiding in Jesus is abiding in God’s love, that our souls may flourish and bear fruit, a phrase that is also reiterated numerous times in our gospel passage. To abide, to love, and to bear fruit is an imperative or command, as well as a promise and invitation from Jesus. 

But why these images of vines, vine-growers, and branches here and now, at the Last Supper? For starters, the disciples would have been familiar with these agrarian images, and it gives them a picture of how they can go on without Jesus and continue to live out his gospel of abiding love among themselves, with God and others. But this word-picture, albeit a familiar one, might well have also seemed counterintuitive to them, as it does to us now; in that the metaphor of the vine and branches is not one of independent muscle and competitive might but of intimacy, surrender, dependency, relationship and reliance, even of mystical union. 

It’s true that we can produce fruit entirely under our own steam and of our own choosing, but what kind of fruit will it be? Will it serve a greater good? Will it be loving? Will it be lasting or abiding? Jesus speaks to the eventual fruitlessness of not abiding, saying: Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

He is also clear that pruning will come, and has himself as the vine been pruned by the vine-grower. Perhaps a branch will be cut away entirely or cut back to some degree. I think it’s important to understand that a branch refers as much to a singular entity or person as it does to our shared life in Christ. We can’t fully understand the fruit-bearing potential of our own branch let alone other branches or even of the vine itself. But God knows what is needed and prunes, trims, cuts back, lops off, shears and shapes each branch and its life-giving resources that they/we are transformed in the fire of divine love to then be grafted into the unity of the vine and vine-grower, the Father and the Son. 

Abiding in love and bearing fruit mean also to bear and be with our humanity in all of its complexity, predicament and consequence. As one commentary put it: Jesus offers to his disciples of every time and place the comfort of situating our suffering within the abiding, life-giving, life-sustaining presence of God. 

I marvel at the many vineyards and orchards of the Hudson Valley, at their beauty, there fruit bearing possibility, and also at their size—what a lot to tend to, work, and maintain! I myself am not a gardener, though I’m very much an inner gardener. I know well the seasons of harvest and abundance, and of pestilence and drought, as I do the planting and pruning hand of the Father, the vine-grower who tends to my branch with sometimes razor like clarity and precision that the cleansing work of love continues to bear the fruit of deeper relationship, greater intimacy and trust, and yes, dependency and vulnerability to God’s transfiguring action. Jesus says: I am the vine and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 

As I said earlier, the symbology and language of vines and vineyards was familiar to the disciples and of course to Jesus as well. In the Old Testament, Israel is  depicted as the vineyard and God as the gardener who plants and prunes—see Isaiah 5:1, Jeremiah 2:21, Hosea 10:1; Ezekiel 15:1-8, 17:3-10, 19:10-14, Psalm 80: 8-18; yet they all differ from John 15 in one important aspect, which is that God is not the vine itself but the planter or gardener of it, whereas in the New Testament and Gospel, Christ himself is the vine. 

So eager is Jesus to give to us this truth that he once again yields his will and says to the disciples: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. Ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you indeed sounds quite personal or singular in petition, though perhaps it more so speaks to the community of branches and all of our need for love, truth, and unity, as it does to the glory of the Father.  It’s not that we shouldn’t pray for our own personal needs and desires, but that we should ask for more—God wants to give us everything—which means we need to learn a great deal about Jesus and the enormity of  God’s love. When we pray in Jesus’ name, it is ultimately for the sake of love; that we know God’s love for us, and that we love one another as Jesus loves us. 

Jesus doesn’t say “emulate my love” but abide in me. Abide in my love; rest, return, and renew yourself in me; for I am your source and sustenance. I am the vine and you are the branches.

This imperative, command, promise, and invitation to abide in Jesus is for the sake of deep new life; for ourselves and for others. This is Christ’s joy, which is our own, to abide and begin again in God’s love. This is the Resurrection Life that Jesus calls his disciples to live in every age. 

As I read in my studies this week, the verb abide is closely related to a noun that appears in one of the most beloved verses in the gospel of John: In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.The many “mansions” in the Father’s house are “abiding places”, everlasting abodes prepared for each of us. To abide in Christ is to be deeply at home in God’s love, now and forever more. 

Jesus said to his disciples: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. Abide in me as I abide in you.