God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
We hear again from John’s Gospel and from the author of the 1st Epistle of John that we are to abide in God, to abide in Jesus the true vine. The word abide holds within it meanings like stay with me, or dwell with me, or be rooted and grounded. We first came across this idea in the prologue to John’s Gospel. The Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). The word dwelt with us it abided with us.
Let’s take a step back. It is confusing perhaps to have John’s Gospel and letters written by John and the Book of Revelation written by John. John is and was and maybe always will be a strong name used commonly. It is possible that we have at least three different authors all bearing the same name. Alternatively, it is possible that the community that was closely connected to the disciple John the son of Zebedee continued to write under his name. Biblical scholars would discourage us from assuming that the same author wrote all of these passages. And generally they would discourage us from assuming the author was John the son of Zebedee.
Never-the-less there are strong connections and the word or idea to abide is one of those connections. So, let’s start with the notion of abiding in the Gospel. The image of the vine is a familiar image for the people of Israel. In the Old Testament we hear of the Vine being uprooted from Egypt and then planted in Israel. The vine is the people of Israel who have been brought out of slavery and have settled in the promised land, the land of Canaan, the land we know as Israel. But even there the vine produces sour grapes. The prophets use the image to speak of God’s wrath and his desire to tear down the walls of the vineyard so that the wild animals can come in and devour the fruit of the vine.
So here in John’s Gospel Jesus is telling his followers that he is the true vine and his followers are the branch. So this is partly a critic of the people of Israel. The community of Christians that John was writing the Gospel for needed to hear that they had a special place in relation to Jesus and to God. They felt ostracised from the Jewish community. But both Christians and their brother and sister Jews felt disenfranchised by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Both groups were to some extend in Exile as a result of the destruction in Jerusalem. Jesus as the true vine is not planted in a particular place. Remember the conversation with the Samaritan woman at the Jacob’s well. It doesn’t matter if you worship in Samaria or in Jerusalem. What matters is that that you worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus’ disciples can abide in him even if they live on the other side of the earth.
Jesus sees his father as the vinedresser who will continue to tend to the vine, which includes pruning so that an abundance of good fruit will be produced. As 21st century people we are temped to read the Scriptures from a very individualistic perspective. Am I abiding in Jesus, will I be pruned and thrown into the fire? But perhaps we need to read this more as a community. Is the Anglican Church in Australia one of the branches that is bearing sour fruit, or not bearing any fruit?
My friend recently preaching at the Cathedral used an illustration from the Lord of the Rings. Two characters traveling through darkness wondered if the story they were in ended with them being successful and becoming heroes, or with them dying and being forgotten. Geoff then asked the question of the Anglican Church, are we on a path where we will be remembered as heroes or will the Anglican die and be forgotten. It is a confronting question. Geoff reminded us, that in terms of the Kingdom of God it doesn’t matter if this particular Church dies as long as the work of the Gospel continues to flourish. Geoff did conclude by saying he did see signs of health and wellbeing that suggested maybe the story would not just move forward with the Anglican Church being forgotten.
May be those signs of health and wellbeing are exactly what the vinedresser is looking for. The vinedresser will still prune so that those branches will bear even more fruit. Perhaps in a way the Covid Pandemic has acted like the vinedressers pruning hook. It is causing upheaval and change. Some of our ways of doing and being Church are being tested. Some will be found wanting and if we are to thrive, we will need to let go of them. I don’t think we have learnt the lessons of the pandemic yet. The fall out may continue for a few years yet. The image of the vine being pruned can reassure us that greater health and wellbeing comes from the process of pruning even though it is painful.
That doesn’t mean that you and I can stop worrying about ourselves and if we will be pruned for not bearing fruit. We do need to ponder, are you and I individually abiding in our Lord Jesus. We can certainly ask ourselves questions: about our prayer life; our participation in worship; our contribution to the community of faith; our times of reflecting on the Scriptures. We can also ask ourselves questions about the fruit we bear: am I generous and kind; patient and forgiving; thoughtful and caring; is love central to my way of being? Of course, we can turn those questions around and ask about the sour fruit: am I often angry and unforgiving; thoughtless and uncaring; more inclined to blame others than to seek solutions; do I gossip behind people’s backs. It serves no good deciding our church has gone to rack and ruin if we don’t look to see if we are dwelling in our Lord Jesus.
Probably the simplest question for us individually to ponder comes from the 1st letter of John. Do I love my brothers and sisters? We can’t presume to say, I am abiding in Jesus, if don’t love our brothers and sisters. The temptation of course is to join with the lawyer in Luke’s Gospel who asks, who is my neighbour. To which Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans were disliked and even hated by the Jews. So may be the simple way to answer who are my brothers and sisters is to think about those I dislike, those I hate. Who are the people who make you angry, who do you distrust, who do you most find fault with? These are your brothers and sisters, your neighbours. When you can honestly say you love them, then you will be able to confidently say, I am abiding in the vine.
I began by emphasising the community of the Church as a whole. Then I moved to us individually. But really the two are woven together like a mass of vines on a grape vine. The wellbeing of the Church and our spiritual wellbeing are completely interdependent. The church can’t be a healthy branch bearing an abundance of fruit if you and I are miserable and angry, uncaring, and selfish.
The Good News is that the Holy Spirit is working with both at the same time. This tangled web of vines we belong to as the church is sustaining and nurturing us so that we can become the loving caring Christ-like people we are called to be. And the more you and I embrace our calling to be loving and caring, the healthier the church becomes. It begins to grow and produce an abundance of fruit. Initially that fruit is noticeable as joyful community gatherings and joyful worship. Laughter becomes more evident in meetings than bickering and complaining. Then bit by bit we start to see the fruit includes more people coming to know Jesus. Eventually the fruit is evident as people being sent out to help build a loving caring community of faith somewhere else.
Let’s hold onto that vision of a joyful community of faith where laughter and love are the signs of deep love for our brothers and sisters.