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"The Final I AM"

Jesus will not hoard the words his followers need to hear. He looks into their frightened eyes and tells them, “I am the vine, you are the branches…”


[1] “True Vine,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN
[1] “True Vine,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

John 15:1-8

April 28, 2024

Dr. Todd R. Wright


 “I am the vine, you are the branches” is one of my favorite pieces of scripture!


It’s a powerful summary of our relationship with God … and short enough to fit on a bumper sticker! Or a business card. In fact, that line is what I put on my first Village Chapel business card after I was called to be your pastor!


In the next line, Jesus talks about bearing fruit and reminds the listener that “apart from me you can do nothing!” Usually, preachers focus on that harsh reality and encourage people to abide with Christ because anyone who does not will wither and be “thrown into the fire and burned!”


You can tell a lot about a preacher’s theology by their tone when they quote John about the burning – whether it is said with grief or giddy, righteous, anger!


Neither communicate the first impression I want to make when I hand out my card, because I think Jesus’ final “I am” saying is about more than a threat of burning.


Let me mention three things that make me glad I put “I am the vine, you are the branches” on my card.


 

First, it is important to locate this passage in the larger story John is telling. It falls on the last night Jesus spends with his disciples. He knows what is coming and he is trying to prepare them for what is ahead.


By the time he gets to talking about vines and branches, he has washed their feet and warned them that he will be betrayed, arrested, killed, and raised again. He has already given them a new commandment – to love one another. He has predicted Peter’s denial and told the disciples he is going to prepare a place for them with the Father. He has promised them the Holy Spirit and murmured, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”


It is clear that his line about vines and branches is more of the same. He is trying to prepare them for what is to come, a pastoral response to their fear of losing him.


This is not an unfamiliar situation. You’ve experienced it too.


The loss of a loved one is terrible. It breaks hearts and upends worlds.


Brandi Carlile voices such feelings with haunting lyrics:

“I still talk to you in my sleep

I don't say much 'cause the hurt runs too deep

I gave you the moon and the stars to keep

But you gave them back to me.”[2]


At this point she could be talking about the loss of a parent or a child or a friend, but the next stanza removes any doubt:

“I still lay on my side of the bed

I dance alone when the last bottle's spent

Memories like a river runnin' through my head

I'll have me an ocean before I'm dead.”


Some of you know exactly what she is talking about – the way the habits of living with a spouse imprint themselves on both you and the space they occupied with you, the way you walk through the world as if they were still with you, in the next room or at your elbow.


I’m sure that was true for the disciples… and that they had an ocean of memories to deal with for those three long days before of the resurrection – good memories, accusing memories; memories that lingered even after word came that their beloved wasn’t gone forever.


In this context, Jesus’ words about vines and branches become a promise that even death will not separate them.  


Just as it is hard to tell where the vine ends and the branch begins, the relationship they have known will not end. Or as one commentary put it, Jesus is saying, “Don't worry, we'll be together; your life itself and all its fruit will testify to our ongoing intimacy. Take heart: I will be with you, and our companionship will be even closer than it is now. Today we walk side by side — but in the days to come I will live in you, and you in me. Today, you walk in my footsteps — but in the days to come you will walk, so to speak, ‘in my feet,’ and I will walk in yours. Indeed, you will be my hands and feet for a world that needs healing and good news. Friends, I’m not abandoning you! On the contrary, I will abide in you. You will abide in me. I will not leave you alone...”[3]


 

A second facet of this passage that the common understanding seems to miss is the pain the pruning causes the pruner.


God has a relationship with every one of the branches. God is the one who gives them life. God is the one who bears fruit through them.


Elsewhere Paul will talk of the church as the body of Christ, with Jesus as the head. That is just a twist on this vine and branches imagery.


So, for God, Scott Hoezee writes, “A branch is a branch and it is organically united with the vine. To lose such a branch is to lose part of your very self. The act of cutting that branch is a wounding, scar-making affair... A branch cannot leave the vine without some trauma involved. Pruning, cutting, cleansing a vine involves pain, for the branch but also for the host vine.”[4]


So why does God prune? Why do it, if it is painful for God and for the branches?


Bruce Wilkinson tells the story of moving out to the country.[5] There was a row of grapevines that rambled along the property line that caught his eye. He could practically taste the grapes! But as he was unpacking boxes, he noticed his neighbor hacking at the vines.


“You don’t like grapes, I guess.” Wilkinson ventured.


“I love grapes!” the neighbor replied and went on pruning.


But when he noticed the confused look on Wilkinson’s face, he explained: “We can either grow ourselves a lot of beautiful leaves filling up the whole fence line, or we can have the biggest, juiciest, sweetest grapes you have ever seen.” And then, looking Wilkinson in the eye, he closed the conversation, “We just can’t have both.”


God prunes so that the vines may bear more fruit.


No wonder Jesus pleads for his disciples to abide. He aches for them to be part of the vine, flowing with life, producing good fruit, witnesses of God’s love to the world.


 

Which brings me to the final thing I notice about this passage. These are some of Jesus’ final words to his disciples. He has shared with them a whole series of I am sayings, each revealing a different aspect of his character, each highlighting what he provides and what his followers need. This is the last one. At this point they do not need bread or a good shepherd; they need a vine that, even when it looks dead, contains life, as long as you can wait for the right season.


So he shares words with them, words of life, words of promise, words that cannot wait.


Annie Dillard writes of such words:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this:

Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book,

or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

The impulse to save something good for a better place later

is the signal to spend it now.


Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned

is not only shameful, it is destructive.

Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.

You open your safe and find ashes.”[6]


Jesus will not hoard the words his followers need to hear. He looks into their frightened eyes and tells them, “I am the vine, you are the branches…”


It is exactly what they need to hear… although it may take some time to realize that.


That’s true for us too. But as long as we abide, there is time for holy wisdom to trickle through the vine and into the branches and burst into good fruit!


May you taste its sweetness! Amen    


[1] “True Vine,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN
[2] From “A promise to keep”
[3] From the SALT project commentary on this passage, “Abide in me”, 4/22/24
[4] From his commentary on the text 4/29/18
[5] From Secrets of the Vine, page 55-57
[6] From The Writing Life

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