“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”
This is Jesus’ 7th“I am” statement in the Gospel of John. As Father Chris mentioned in his last sermon Jesus is intentionally using the Divine Name “I am” to declare His divinity. In biblical numerology 7 is the number for perfection or completion. For example the Lord created the heavens and the earth and on the 7thday He rested. Thus as the 7th“I am” statement it causes one to wonder if this is not intended to be the completion or apex of them all.
I say that because this particular I am statement perfectly captures the relationship with Jesus to which we are called and it summarizes that relationship in a way that tells us all we need to know. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. What does it mean to declare Jesus as Lord? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit. What does it mean to walk in holiness? It is recognizing that He is the Vine and you are the branches and you are to bear fruit.
Actually we need to take it a step further. Jesus not only declares that He is the vine and we are the branches but He adds a command in verse 4 when He says “Abide in me, and I in you.” He also gives a warning in verse 6 if we don’t abide in Him so it would behoove us to be clear about how we go about abiding in Christ. These passages give us several thoughts as well as several benefits for abiding in the Vine.
The first thought to abiding in Christ is found in verses 4 and 5. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abide in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me….for apart from me you can do nothing.” We abide in Him when we place our trust in Him, when we realize our utter dependence on Him. The disciples got that. As the crowds were leaving Jesus because of His hard sayings, Jesus turned to His disciples and asked if they were going to leave Him as well. They said, “Where would we go Lord? Who else has the words of life?”
It is when we realize that we are helpless without Him that He becomes our help. It is one of those gospel paradoxes that we only find strength when we admit our weakness. We will gladly abide in the Vine when we realize that we are dead in our transgressions without Him.
This perspective is what makes the difference between nominal Christianity and a vital faith. If you think that you are basically well and you see the Gospel as a multi vitamin then you can take it or leave it at your convenience. You will think that it is acceptable to be a C. E Christian (Christmas and Easter). After all who doesn’t miss taking their vitamins every now and then. But if you believe that you have been snake bit and the Gospel is the only anti-venom that there is then there is not a thing that you wouldn’t trade for it.
It starts with trust. But in his book Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning offers us a reality check about a trust that we need to hear. He says, “The story of salvation history indicates that without exception trust must be purified in the crucible of trial” (p9). He is right. From Abraham thinking that he was to sacrifice His son, to Moses standing on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army closing in, to Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, their trust was tested to the max. Perhaps God can use this pandemic to purify our trust. We can seek Him to do so when we realize that, as we are told in the great hymn, His only design is “thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”
Believing that we can do nothing without Christ naturally leads to another way that we abide in the Vine; and that is by prayer. Verse 7 “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Since I cannot do anything without Him then it only makes sense that I would be continually asking for His help. Ask for wisdom when you need to make a difficult decision. Ask for courage to follow where He leads. Ask for strength when you are weak. Ask for faith when your knees are shaking. As I said in a previous sermon we can ask for everything from His Kingdom to come to our daily bread and everything in between. Prayer is how the branch stays connected to the Vine.
Of course this verse needs some clarification because it has been martyred by the televangelist and health and wealth preachers. “Ask whatever you wish” does not give us license to pray the Janice Joplin prayer of “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all have Porches I must make amends…” What we wish is to flow from the previous word, “If you abide in me and my words abide in you.” If we are abiding in Him and His words are abiding in us then our prayers will be filled with what He wills and not necessarily what we will. Archbishop William Temple put it this way. “We ask whatever we will but being in Christ our will must be for the glory of God and the accomplishment of His purpose. (Readings in St. John’s Gospel, p.263).
When I was in college and part of a couple of campus ministries, while it was never said outright, the clear message that you got was if you were spiritual you would have a one hour quiet time each morning. And if you were super spiritual you would go for two hours. I tried and tried, I honestly did. And I managed to fail at every devotional plan that I ever attempted. To be real honest I dreaded morning devotions. For me it was a form of protestant penance.
Things changed for the better when I learned of the pattern of the historic church. Following the Psalmist who said, “7 times a day I will bless thee” the historic church developed a pattern of prayer of offering prayers and readings all throughout the day and into the night. It was like eating seven small meals rather than one huge breakfast.
That pattern has continued for many centuries and is still the pattern today and not just in monasteries. That is the pattern of the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer, Noonday Prayers and Compline. It is the pattern of Christians throughout the world that have embraced a rule of life like those of Benedict or Francis.
I tell you this so that you don’t think you should only pray if you have a huge chunk of time to do so. The most perfect prayer of all it the Lord’s Prayer and that takes less than a minute to pray. Connecting with Jesus through prayer throughout the day and into the night, about anything and everything, sure sounds to me like abiding in Him.
A third way that we abide in the Vine is through obedience. Verse 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.” The Pharisee in us loves this verse. Now we get to make a list and check it twice. We get to create rules to follow and especially make it our job to see that everyone else is following those rules. We become so proud of our obedience that we thank God that we are not like that sinner in the Temple.
On the other hand the rebel in us is repulsed by this verse. As soon as we hear a call to obedience we hear legalism and control and a loss of identity. We expect to hear moralistic sermons on drinking and dancing and chewing.
Of course both of those viewpoints are entirely wrong because they have missed the connection that Jesus makes between obedience and love. “Just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” Jesus didn’t obey His Father because He was afraid that He would be sent to hell if He didn’t. He obeyed His Father because He loved His Father. He delighted to do His Father’s will. When you obey out of love then your obedience is a joy and not a burden. And when you obey out of love you don’t need a set of rules to follow. Love is your guide. Jesus said that if we love Him we would keep His commandments. What was the new commandment that He gave to His disciples? It was to love one another as He had loved them.
Let’s consider the benefits of abiding in the Vine. First we bear fruit. Verse 5 “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” Note that Jesus not only says we will bear fruit but that we will bear much fruit. What is the fruit that we will bear? How about the fruit of good works? Abiding in Christ will cause us to love and serve our neighbor. How about the fruit of the Spirit? Love, joy, peace, patience…could anyone use a little more of those these days? And what is wonderful about the image of fruit is that it is naturally produced, as the branch stays connected to the vine. It is not something that needs to be conjured up or developed by years of disciplined study. It flows naturally from your relationship to Christ.
A second benefit of abiding in Christ is that it brings glory to God. Verse 8. “By this my Father is glorified that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” I believe that the Presbyterians are correct in their catechism when they ask, “What is the chief end of man?” and the answer is, “To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” People are always searching for happiness but they inevitably look in all the wrong places. True happiness that is accompanied with lasting contentment is found when you discover your reason for being. If our reason for being is to glorify God and we can do so by producing fruit then we have found the road to happiness. And the good news is that road is a freeway and not a toll road.
A third benefit of abiding in Christ is joy. Verse 11. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” That is quite a promise. Not just any joy but we are to receive Jesus’ joy and not just some joy but joy that is full, drinking from the saucer joy.
You have probably figured it out by now but you are not going to get that kind of joy by watching the news. I counted the other morning and I came up with either 6 or 7 reports in a row that were nothing but bad news. It started with Covid-19, then a meat shortage, then a monster killer wasp discovered out West, then a strange new infection in children, then the airline industry collapsing and on and on it went. I know that they have to sell ads but the news has not always been delivered in such apocalyptic tones. It is more and more difficult to discern how much is information and how much is manipulation.
So that is why when I want some joy in my life I think about His unfailing love and mercy for me. I think about a kingdom that is not in trouble. I think about a day when all things will be made right. I think about eternity with those I love. I think how nothing can separate me from His love. I think of Jesus admonition again and again to not be afraid but to trust. All of this brings me joy. I can’t stand here and declare that my joy is yet full, but I’m working on it.
I want to mention one more way that we abide in Christ that is not seen in today’s portion of John’s Gospel but is found in a few chapters earlier in John 6. Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” It is through the Sacrament that we abide in Christ and that is why we need to reopen Sunday worship as soon as possible. Our plan right now is to return to Sunday worship on the last Sunday of May, which is the Feast of Pentecost. And we need to do this together because it is as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ together that we are the Body of Christ. That cannot be done sitting alone in front of a computer.
Beyond that we are meant to live in community because we are created in God’s image and God lives in the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We need to be together. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that “Making your way in the world today takes everything you got. So taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came. You want to be where you can see; our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name.” (Someone should turn that into a song).
The clear message from Jesus today is that we are to abide in Him. And please note that He gives that to us as a command and not as a suggestion. This command comes with a promise. If we abide in Him then He will abide in us. Could there be anything better? We abide in Him by being utterly dependent upon Him, staying connected to Him in prayer, walking in obedience based on love and by regularly and faithfully receiving the Sacrament. Let’s commit ourselves to this and may His joy be and you and your joy be full. Amen.