Scripture readings: Acts 8:26-40; Ps. 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8 Sermon by Cathy Deddo (from John 15:1-11)
On Being Branches
What is the heart of the Christian life? That important question is answered in our Gospel reading today in John chapter 15, where Jesus is teaching his disciples concerning the vine and branches.
Having left the Last Supper in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane. As they walk and talk, Jesus is preparing his followers for his death, which will occur tomorrow, Good Friday. The disciples had come to know and love Jesus as they lived with him, listened to him and watched him work. But what would happen when Jesus was no longer with them bodily?
Earlier that evening in the Upper Room, Jesus had talked about leaving his disciples, reassuring them that his departure would result in them having a deeper, more intimate relationship with him through the Holy Spirit. Now Jesus tells them more about that relationship using the image of branches attached to a vine. Understanding that image was important for those disciples. It’s also important for us today.
Abiding: the essence of the Christian life
The image of the vine and branches points to the reality that the relationship that Jesus (the vine) has with his followers (the branches), and thus with the church, is of a particular kind. First, it’s not symmetrical. Jesus is its Source—he gives the relationship to us. Second, it’s not static—we don’t share in the relationship passively. It is a real, reciprocal giving and receiving. Third, the relationship is not automatic, which is why Jesus commands his disciples—he commands the church—to abide in him. As they do, they will grow in that relationship, coming to enjoy, trust and love Jesus at progressively deeper levels.
When I consider how strongly Jesus emphasizes the need for his disciples to abide in him, I realize that he is revealing the essence of the Christian life, which is our active, deliberate and continual participation in our union and communion with Jesus, by the Spirit. All that we think, say and do—all our programs, relationships and plans are to be rooted in and come out of that relationship. Our abiding in Jesus means living as the branches that he has made us. It means participating in Jesus’ life and love as we are addressed and transformed by the Spirit as he works actively within us, Jesus’ friends.
But what does abiding in Jesus look like on a day-to-day basis? How do we as members of the church, the body of Christ, live as branches in the true vine? Let’s look at three aspects of that abiding: 1) knowing, 2) trusting, and 3) obeying. Though we’ll look at each separately, remember they are interconnected aspects of one relationship.
1. We abide by knowing
To abide in Jesus means to continually seek to know him personally. It’s not the same as merely knowing things about him. Think of your spouse or another very close friend. Knowing them involves real, ongoing interaction: doing things together, being together in different situations, conversing, giving and receiving. It’s far more than merely knowing facts about them. It means spending time with them, which leads to even deeper knowing.
Many years ago, I was talking with a young man who found the Christian life rather boring. As I was thinking about how to proceed in our conversation, I felt inspired to ask, “What do you love about Jesus?” After a moment’s thought, he replied, “Well, he died for my sins…” I said, “Yes, but what about his person do you love? What about the way he deals with others, what he is passionate about, the words he says to you?” He had nothing else to say and I realized that it’s hard to love someone you really don’t know. It’s in a real, growing relationship of knowing that we come to love another person.
Knowing Jesus involves coming to see and perceive who he is and what he is up to—seeking to hear clearly what he is saying to us by his Spirit. Doing so takes effort, just as it takes effort to hear our friends clearly, instead of failing to listen, thinking we already know what they are about to say. Have you ever had that happen in an interaction with someone? You suddenly realize that you’re not getting their point because you haven’t been really listening? And when you finally do listen, you’re surprised at their actual point. Coming to really know someone tends to involve a certain type of repentance—setting aside our preconceived notions so we can listen more carefully to what is actually being said.
So how do we come to know Jesus? By learning about him, learning of his character and purposes, seeing who he is in relationship to his Father and the Spirit. We come to know him by meeting him and hearing from him in his written word and in prayer. It’s wonderful to know that God is a speaking God who blesses us with sustaining, life-giving, joy-filled relationship with him, and that we can actually grow in that relationship—knowing and loving him more deeply.
2. We abide by trusting
To be the branch is to have confidence in the vine—to trust that the vine really can nourish and sustain us so that we don’t need to be looking for other vines to plug into, or to try to be our own vine. Abiding in Jesus means actively trusting that he is good and for us all the way down. It means, as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12, trusting that his grace is sufficient, and his power is made perfect in our weakness. It means actively trusting that Jesus made me, knows me, and knows who I am becoming in him. It means trusting that he is my true Source of life, joy, love and identity and no one else is. There is no other place to put my trust for life.
The reality is that we are always living and acting on the basis of either trust or distrust. When we are not living from a place of confidence in Jesus’ presence and work in our lives, it’s likely we are trusting in something or someone else. We might be trusting our own skill or expertise, or our own programs or plans. Or we might be acting from a place of conviction that Jesus is not here, not paying attention, not remaining faithful to his work in us. In such times of distrust, we are living as if we are not the branches in the vine that Jesus has made us to be.
How can we live in greater trust in Jesus? By coming to know him better. Trust in Jesus is a response to who we find him to be. This dynamic is true in our other relationships as well. My trust in my husband is shaped by who I am coming to know he is. As I know him better, I respond in greater trust that he will be and act according to who he is. I trust my husband Gary (who is a theologian) to help me work through understanding God better, but I don’t ask him to be my surgeon! I know what he is able to do, and what he is not able to do. Though he is able, Jesus does not do all things. We can trust him to help us grow spiritually, but we don’t expect him to wash the dishes for us!
One more thing about abiding by trusting. In uniting himself to us, Jesus shares with us his trust in God the Father—a trust grounded in his intimate knowing of the Father. Jesus shares with us his trust in his Father so that we may grow in the joyous conviction of his good Lordship over all—his faithfulness to bring to completion his good purposes for our lives.
3. We abide by obeying
As we grow in trusting Jesus, we want to act on that trust—to live as if he is the Lord of our lives that he truly is. Note in John 15 how Jesus connects loving him with obeying him:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. 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, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full. (John 15:9-11)
Jesus is saying that he has loved his disciples with the very love and in the very way he is loved of the Father. This is a further description of what he means by his being the vine and his followers being branches. As the branches, we are drawn into the triune God’s own loving, living communion. We are to abide (meaning to remain or to continue) in that loving relationship. But how do we do that?
Jesus tells us we do so by actively living in and receiving his love by keeping his commandments. In John 14 he spoke of loving him by keeping his word. Jesus’ commandments are his words to us—they are the shape of his loving purposes for our lives. These commands aren’t arbitrary tests of our loyalty, and they aren’t obligations we must meet to get Jesus to love us. They are the very shape of his love. We obey Jesus’ words to us because he is so wonderful, so good—why would we choose to live contrary to them?
We remain in communion with Jesus by obeying his commands to us, just as he remains in communion with his Father by obeying the Father’s commands to him. Unfortunately, however, we tend to view obedience as dull, even joy-denying. But look at Jesus’ next statement—he tells his disciples that he is giving them this instruction to keep his commands, “so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Jesus has great joy in obeying the commands of his Father, who he knows, loves and trusts. And he wants us to share in this intense and intimate joy with him—to the full!
Abiding involves repentance
Obeying Jesus isn’t always easy. We may see obedience as getting in the way of our desires, hopes and plans. Also, we may see our past experiences and current expectations and struggles as reasons not to be obedient. This takes us back to the point already made that obeying Jesus is connected to our knowing and trusting him. The Holy Spirit is at work to help us see more and more clearly how much better Jesus is than all our own ways of giving ourselves life and value. He is at work to enable us to more deeply live in the freedom of trusting Jesus with all that we have and are.
This process of growth involves repentance—active turning away from whatever is in the way of obeying Jesus out of trust in him and his work. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity,
[To trust Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.
Obedience flows from trusting Jesus and that obedience then feeds our trust in him. As challenging as it often is, obeying Jesus’ commands helps us see even more that he is the object of our deepest longings—the source of true joy. In an article entitled “God’s message on ‘Ash Valentine’s Day’: True Love Dies,” Tish Harrison Warren speaks of this fruit of obedience in the lives of her Christian friends who are single:
I have a number of very close friends who are [single and] celibate, which inevitably entails some degree of loneliness, grief and suffering. They have chosen to forestall some happiness, in the short-term at least. The false promise of Valentine’s Day—that life begins and ends with finding your romantic “soulmate” —is radically rejected by my friends’ decision to embrace celibacy. And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom and solitary sadness for them, because their choice is born of love and conviction, and though there are days of very real sorrow and pain, they also experience profound joy. Through both suffering and joy, my friends witness to the wonder and glory of friendship with God and also to the friendship and love of a community.
Though we might be tempted to think that the center of the Christian life involves our efforts to preach the gospel, to have an ideal church, family, marriage, or life, Jesus’ words here in John 15 about the vine and branches help us realize that the center of the Christian life—the center of our life as a follower of Jesus—is our relationship with our Lord, which involves obeying his command to abide in him.
Note that Jesus’ command to us is not to bear fruit. Jesus says that when we obey his command to abide in him, fruit will result. The fruit that will come will be his fruit borne in us as we abide in him. By trusting in, staying in living communion with Jesus, remaining in his word, following his lead, and obeying out of that relationship in trust and love, fruit will result.
What wonderful news—Jesus has made us his own! We are and are becoming his beloved, holy children of our Father. He has made it so we can respond and receive—so that we can have communion with him, which is our sharing in the communion he has with the Father in the Spirit. Through that sharing we enjoy, again and again, the growing freedom of being the children of God that we are. Amen.