The Reading (John 15:1-11):
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed* by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become* my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 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. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
In John 15, Jesus uses an agricultural metaphor to describe the Christian life. He tells us that he is the “true vine” planted and tended to by God. He goes onto say that we are offshoots, or branches, of that “true vine” and that we only live abundantly through our connection with Him, saying “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
Well, that’s all well and good, but, practically speaking, what does it look like to “abide” in and with Jesus when he’s not exactly walking around on earth waiting to come to our dinner parties and church services?
Though it may not be immediately clear, I think this passage is rooted in a simple concept:
Growth happens in relationship.
I’m not presenting a new theological idea here, but I think it’s one we often take for granted. Paul helps us understand what relational faith looks like in 1 Corinthians 12, when he tells the people of Corinth that God’s church acts as the “Body of Christ” on earth.
He says: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” He ends this section with this: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” I love the phrasing of that last verse – though I read this passage over and over in my daily devotions as a young Evangelical, I’d taken it for granted. We don’t lose our individuality when we join a community, but we do become something different – and better – as a collective. Like the human body, we work together to survive and thrive. But we’re not just any body – we’re the Body of Christ – and we do His work when we band together.
That understanding helps clarify John’s passage – it helps us find a way to put into practice what Jesus suggests. Jesus is not present on earth as an individual entity – we can’t hold onto him like branches on God’s vine – but we do have the church. Through the church – Christ’s Body – we may find a life source, and a connection to God our planter and sustainer, while simultaneously offering the love of Christ to others.
A rewording of John 15:1-11, replacing the pronouns for Jesus with “the church,” becomes a powerful statement of the church’s relationship to us:
“Abide in the church as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in the church. The church is the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in the church and the church in them bear much fruit, because apart from the church you can do nothing.
…if you abide in the church, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you
…abide in the church’s love
…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
God can work through you or me on any given day, but the work God does is always relational. God’s children must join together for the work of the Kingdom to be done. We prune off the bad fruit in each other’s lives when we ask hard questions and hold each other accountable. We bear new fruit by creating welcoming spaces for everyone – not just the people who are easy to get along with – and by joining together to solve issues within our congregations and the larger community. Conversely, when we resist relationship, we stunt our growth.
I thought for a long time that I could go off by myself with my beliefs and convictions and be just fine, but that mindset fails to grasp the awkward, fulfilling, annoying, life-giving power of church. And I don’t just mean the formal church – I mean the miraculous spaces that allow us to be seen for who we are, to hurt and to hurt others in our confusion, to just be – that don’t give up on us. We cannot fully participate in the Christian life – we cannot build a Kingdom! – apart from Christian community.
My own life is a testament to the church’s work. I attended a highly patriarchal evangelical church through much of college. Though I majored in Religious Studies, I was barred from teaching Sunday School classes if men were in attendance. It was a congregation that privileged the opinions and perspectives of men over even the informed perspectives of women. It tore me apart. I had decided to major in Religious Studies precisely because I wanted to understand my tradition and share it with the church, but everywhere I turned, I saw people who once seemed to love and welcome me slam the door in my face.
I wanted the church, but it didn’t want me. It was a horrible loss; the worst kind of break up. I wasn’t wanted, so I left.
When my husband and I moved to Charlottesville in 2012, we hadn’t been attending church for over a year. We haphazardly church hopped once we arrived in town, but I knew there was still a lot of pain and bitterness in me and I wasn’t sure I was ready to come back.
Ultimately, it was the newly formed Women’s Prayer Group that restored my soul. For the first time in a long time, I was experiencing Church. Not the smug, scared, resistant face of some organization calling itself church, but the welcoming, intentional, safe haven I needed to come back to life. I was free to ask hard questions or say nothing at all. I was allowed to be vulnerable, to be human. But I was also a part of this tiny Body of Christ in the basement of the Canterbury House, and that meant I was called to give the same love and offer the same restoration to other members. We couldn’t do it alone. We had each come as individuals to be healed by one another, but we had also become something different, and better. We had become church.
The church is why I left and the church is why I came back.
There will be pain in this place. There will be hurt feelings and rash decisions and ignorance. But we are called to ABIDE here, in each other, in Christ. We wither and die when we go it alone. In her book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans says it this way: “Like it or not, following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together.”
I need you to be Christ for me and, though you may not always feel it, you need to have access to the tangible, living Christ on earth, here in this community and in the universal church.