Living in the Vine
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We talked not long ago about the questions that the Bible asks of us. The question that I want us to consider today is “Where are we living?” We all make our home somewhere, and when I’m talking about home, I’m talking about it as figuratively as Jesus is talking about a vinegrower, a vine, branches, and fruit.
So where are we living? The life of being a disciple of Christ is multifaceted and it’s described in various ways in the Gospel of John. It’s described as believing. It’s described as following. Here we have Jesus speaking of abiding. It’s not a word we use much anymore outside of verses like this and hymns like “Abide With Me” – most famous probably for being among the last songs that the orchestra played upon the doomed Titanic.
Abide in me as I abide in you. Stay in me as I stay in you. Live in me as I live in you. Of all the Gospels, John is the one I would describe as most mystic – and by mystic, I mean inspiring a sense of mystery. Something that defies explanation. Ineffable. What we are talking about this morning is most definitely within this realm. Us living in Christ. Christ living in us. It’s a concept that is easy enough for a child to understand. I remember thinking of Christ living in me – Christ living in my heart – as a child and imagining Christ with a candle pulling up a three-legged stool (I always had a vivid imagination), sitting down, and settling into my heart.
It's a concept that we could never fully get our minds around, at least not in this age. Mutual indwelling is what the theologians call it. Dwelling is another word that we don’t use very often, and so I’m saying live or remain or rest.
Rest in me as I rest in you. What a welcome invitation!
Isn’t it one that we need? This is the last of Jesus’ seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John. I am the bread of life; the light of the world; the door of the sheep; the resurrection and the life; the good shepherd; the way, the truth, and the life. This is the last one and last words are important. This is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John. What he wants to tell his disciples, what he prays before his arrest. These are some of the words that Jesus wants to leave his disciples with as they are about to face change and an uncertain future.
So may they resonate with us today. They’re not words of condemnation. They’re words of invitation. They’re words that speak of something deeper even than an intimate relationship. They speak of an organic connection. They speak of an interdependence. They speak of something that is alive. They speak of life.
Jesus is talking about life and where to make our life – where to live. We all live somewhere. It’s a subject that has been around since the beginning of this story. Someone has written of how the Psalms describe God as home like this – “The Lord is my house. The Lord is my hiding place. The Lord is my awning. The Lord is my refuge. The Lord is my tent. The Lord is my temple. The Lord is my dwelling place. The Lord is my home. The Lord is the place where I want to dwell all the days of my life.” “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord God almighty. My soul longs and even yearns for you.” At one time I thought that this was simply a song about the temple and the Psalmist’s longing to go and worship at the temple, the same way we might speak or sing of longing to worship together in God’s house. The more I am in this abiding, the more I am coming to see this longing as a longing to be living in God’s house all the time.
This image has been around from the beginning of the Gospel of John. In John 1 we read of Jesus calling the first disciples. Two of them are standing with John the Baptist and they start following Jesus (literally walking behind him). When Jesus turns and sees them, he asks them what they are looking for. Do you know what they say? “Where are you staying?” Jesus answers “Come and see.” Come and see where I’m staying and what it’s like to live in me.
The more I’m in this abiding life the more I am longing to live in God’s house all the time. As God lives in me. All of this starts with God and with God’s initiative. Jesus refers to himself 26 times in this chapter. “I am the true vine and my Father is the vinegrower.” Vines, figs, and olives were the most numerous crops of Jesus’ day. Resistant to drought. We’re not so much used to vine crops in this part of the world unless you have neighbours from a wine-growing region like Italy who grow grapes in their backyards (which is a fortunate thing!). “Rise, let us be on our way” is what Jesus says right before this passage. Jesus and his followers had been gathered for supper. Now they are on the move and maybe they’ve passed by or have stopped at near some grapevines. Once again we have a part of God’s creation reminding us of a deep truth. The vine is the source of life.
Jesus is the source of life. It is up to us as followers of Jesus to be receptive to this life. It’s ongoing. It requires perseverance, steadfastness, holding fast, faithfulness. This idea of being receptive to Christ is not something that we are called to do or called to be once, like the first time we ever prayed “Come into my heart Lord Jesus.” It’s a posture that we are called to ever be taking. It is a posture that is meant to characterize the entirety of our lives. We are called into a relationship with God, Father, Son, and Spirit, that is one of reliance, dependence, and mutuality. To abide in – remain in, live in, rest in – the vine is to take part in the life of love and mutual delight that we hear about when Jesus comes up out of the water of the river Jordan and a voice is heard saying, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
Who is my delight. The vine is God’s delight. The branches are God’s delight. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” Jesus says. Is it possible that we might delight God – that we might be well-pleasing to God?
What a marvellous mystery, as the song goes.
This is a call to perseverance. Jesus sounds a warning here. and as harsh as it may be to our ears, we can’t ignore it. There always exists the danger of drifting, or in the case of this metaphor, of being removed, withering, thrown into the fire, burned. There is always the danger of becoming an unfruitful branch. To rebel against the way of love of mutual indwelling and mutual delight is to endanger the health of other branches, as someone has said. Even the branches that bear fruit he prunes to make them bear more fruit. To follow Christ is to be cleansed and at the same time to be in need of cleansing. “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet…” is how Jesus put it earlier when he tied a towel around himself knelt as this followers’ feet with a basin of water.
We need to hear this invitation, don’t we? I find myself in need of hearing this invitation of Jesus to abide in him as he abides in me. I need to hear this reminder that apart from him I can do nothing. Note here that the words of Jesus are not “bear fruit.” It’s like God is saying “I’ll take care of the fruit – your part is to abide/rest/remain/live in me.” Leslie Newbigin was a British missionary and theologian. He put it like this - “The fruit is not an artifact of the disciples; it is the fruit of the vine. It is the life of Jesus himself reproduced in the lives of the disciples in the midst of the life of the world. The presence of fruit is the visible evidence of the fact that the branch is part of the vine.”
In the midst of the life of the world, how much do we need to hear this? The disciples are about to face a lot of uncertainty and a lot of change. Everything is about to change for these disciples. You’ve heard that the only constant in life is change, but sometimes we know it a little more acutely. In such times how vital is it that we return to the foundations of faith in Christ? You can tell it’s foundational through how many times Jesus repeats himself here – “Abide in me as I abide in you…Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit… As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love…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.” In such times how welcome is this invitation from Jesus to dwell in him and his Father and his Spirit on an ongoing basis. To hear that we have been chosen, that we belong in this vine. That we are loved by the vine in the same way and with the same love that the vine is loved by the vinegrower. That we belong not only to the vine and the vinegrower but that we belong with and to one another.
So let us ask ourselves and one another “How’s your abiding?” Where are you living? How’s your living? What does living in a posture of openness and receptivity to God look like in your life? Do you need help with it? There’s nothing wrong with that at all, needing help. We’re all branches attached to the same vine remember. We’re not meant to be lone branches. Let us have those conversations. They’re meaningful. They beat small talk. Let’s engage in big talk. I was reading an article recently talking about how the pandemic has made small talk much harder. How do we answer questions like “How are you?” or “How have you been?” with bland platitudes when the truth is far from bland and very many people are not and have not been doing very well. Of course, I know that we can sincerely ask and want to know someone is in a “How are you?” way. Here are a couple of lines from the article – “Early in the pandemic, it became almost taboo to ask, “How are you?” There was no point; no one was fine. It was no longer appropriate to address emails with the usual platitudes because no, emails did not “find me well.”” I really need to stop that “I hope this finds you well” thing! Let us engage in big talk. Tell me about your abiding. Get in touch with me to tell me. Feeling as disconnected from so many as I do, I would welcome that.
Love is still the message. “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. I’m reminded of the story told about John in his last days:
The blessed John the Evangelist lived in Ephesus until extreme old age. His disciples could barely carry him to church and he could not muster the voice to speak many words. During individual gatherings, he usually said nothing but, 'Little children, love one another.' The disciples and brothers in attendance, annoyed because they always heard the same words, finally said, 'Teacher, why do you always say this?' He replied with a line worthy of John: 'Because it is the Lord's commandment and if it alone is kept, it is sufficient.'
And because we still need to hear it. We’ve not come to an end when it comes to loving. We have not yet been made complete. In the meantime, joy is still the message. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” No matter our circumstances, to be loved is joy. To love is joy.
May it be our prayer together though that we are ever more being made complete, bearing fruit as we follow this command to abide in the true vine. Let us ask in the love of and for the vine – in the love of one another – that we may be helped to understand in our hearts that Christ is the heart of the matter; that we may be helped to be branches that bear much fruit and able to bear pruning; that we may be helped to accept the invitation to make our home in Jesus; that we may be helped to stay with him – to abide in him as he abides in us. May these be the prayers of us as we respond to God’s word. Amen