Jesus is on his way out. On his way to suffering and death and life and ascension. Out. Away. Apart from them. And he knew it and told them. Over and over he told them. Did they not get it? Did they just glaze over whenever he talked about that departure? Did they live each day of their new and exciting lives thinking that it was always going to be like this? Probably. Do any of us imagine life without us in it? Only on our sad days. And if we try to talk to those we love about this departure, they won’t want to hear. Can you see a field full of disciples with fingers in their ears loudly singing, “la la la la, I can’t hear you!!” when Jesus started his “the Son of Man will be lifted up to die” routine?
But he knew it. He knew it as surely as he knew he was breathing now. And he faced it with the same confidence with which he faced drawing that first ragged breath in a barn in Bethlehem, with the same sense of presence that he faced when he rose from the muddy waters of the Jordan with a beaming John the Baptist trembling beside him. He faced it with the same sense of possibility and responsibility that brought a sigh out of him when he healed in the face of doubt, or the groan that came when he tossed out a demon that thought it was secure with claws deep in the human psyche. He knew what was next, and he wanted to prepare them. “Abide in me,” he told them, as an antidote to his absence. “Abide in me.”
Wait. What? He was leaving so he wanted them to abide in him? What? Did he mean that the time is short, get your abiding in while abiding is possible? Or worse, was it a “look what you missed! You should have gotten closer! You should have taken up residence, you should have gotten on board, you should have been on the team!” But now the game is over. The clock is ticking. The last second shot will probably fall short, as they do more often than not. And you will have missed it. Too bad for you. I’m on my way out. You could have had more. You could have been a contender. But no.
No. That can’t be it. Jesus didn’t taunt in that way. Jesus wept for missed opportunities, yes. But he didn’t wag his finger at those who just didn’t get it. No, this had to be a real opportunity, a real commandment. Like the other commandment that is about to come in a few more verses, the love one another one. That wasn’t a taunt. Neither is this. Abide in me. Not you should have, you could have, but you didn’t abide in me. No, there is still time, the clock hasn’t yet run out. Abide. Get in there and abide; there is still hope; we are still alive.
But how? Jesus is annoyingly short on detail, even as he is rich in imagery. Vines and branches, fruit and gardeners: there is a secret here. Not a hidden code, but an obvious puzzle that, if we could but glimpse it, it would explode in our consciousness like a lightning bolt. It doesn’t need a degree in ancient languages, but an “a-ha” moment that unfolds the truth that was always there.
I like a good metaphor as much as the next guy. Jesus could have just mentioned the whole vine thing and left it at that. “I am the true vine” was a powerful statement to those first hearers. Because the image of the vine wove all through the scriptures of the day. The prophets loved to talk about the vine. But for them, it was Israel— vine uprooted from Egypt and planted in the Promised Land. A vine that bears fruit to feed many, but also a vine that withers when it neglects the source of strength, when it becomes unconnected. This sounds surprisingly like what Jesus says here in this farewell discourse. Stay connected. Remember the source of strength, bear fruit. What changes is that instead of a nation, the vine is now a person. “I am the true vine” says Jesus. Startling, no doubt. And maybe offensive to a degree? How could one man replace a nation?
But look again. Jesus differentiates between vine and branches. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” He is simply bringing the source closer to us. Instead of the people being uprooted and planted by God and sometimes withering when they forget that, now that source of strength is right there with us. We are connected to it. It is right there, right here. We abide in it.
The people of God still produce the fruit, that is how God decided that it would work; God just moved a little closer because we could use the help. Apart from God, apart from the source of strength, the vine, we can do nothing. And we have to stay close.
“In a vineyard, the best grapes are produced closest to the central vine.” Stay close. Because we need to be pruned. We wish it weren’t so. But we do.
Pruning is an art form as much as a horticultural technique. It looks like you are killing the plant or bush or whatever you are pruning. But if pruning is done right, then the plant always comes back stronger. Always. It produces more; it flourishes; it grows beyond where it was cut back. Pruning, I’m told, is necessary for a certain kind of plant or it will wither and die. Because it is trying to sustain something that isn’t necessary, or isn’t healthy, or is a distraction from its true function of bearing fruit or flower.
Step away from the metaphor for a moment and realize that pruning hurts. Cutting away what we’ve become attached to, no matter how unhealthy it is for us is hard and painful. And it makes us ask that question that we don’t like to admit that we ask: “Is it worth it?” Is it worth the struggle, the pain, the self-denial, to live this life that Jesus offers us, to enjoy this abundance that he wants to pour down on us? Is the fruit that we bear - this commandment to love, God and neighbor with equal amounts of passion and service - worth the effort it takes to bear it?
“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11, NRSV). He says it is more than worth it, and we have chosen to trust him. And the moments of real joy that we have experienced in life are always caught up in loving and being loved. So, we know we want more. More of him, more of love, more joy.
So stay close. “Abide in me,” is the way he says it. We are learning to abide, to seek those moments when we can be in Christ’s presence, can soak up that word, can sing of praise and healing, loving and reconciling. We want to stay close. But how?
That is too big a question for the space that is left. But the short answer is, “We need to be grafted into the vine.” True, there is nothing about grafting in these verses. Vines and abiding, pruning and being cut off, yes. But not grafting. So, we’ll venture out a little further on this limb. Grafting is a process whereby one plant, the scion (or offspring) becomes a part of another, the root stock (or the vine). The process allows the plants to become one. But the only way for the scion to be grafted into the root stock is if the stock or the vine is cut, is pierced to make room, to allow entry. By his wounds, we are healed.
Look again, “abide in me as I abide in you” (15:4). As I abide in you. He’s leaving, but he’s not leaving. He is with us, even to the end of the age. That means we are with him, come hell or high water, when the chips are down, or our ship has come in. We are with him, and he is with us. We remember the events of Holy Week, that divine drama that is acted out as a historical remembrance year after year to our great appreciation. Except that it isn’t a historical remembrance. It is the rhythm of our faith. Christ comes to us. And for joy, we ask him to save us, because Christ comes to us. To us. With tears streaming down our faces, we embrace him and hope for a new start and new opportunity and new outlook on life.
But when the glow dies down and the new outlook looks a lot like the old look and takes just as much effort to hold onto, if not more, our disillusionment grows and we look for someone to blame, a scapegoat who must be at fault for the rotten life we’ve been given. We lash out and cast aside that which only recently seemed so full of possibility and hope and now tastes like ashes instead of bread and wine. And we turn our backs on the one we wept over, and we flee in fear and shame and doubt. And in the darkness, we feel so alone. Again, so alone. Like no one understands. Like no one is on our side. Like no one . . . there’s just no one. For us. No one.
We are apart from him and can do nothing. Or nothing that we can do seems worth doing. Or nothing that we have done seems to amount to anything anymore. Apart from him. Life is emptier. The colors are muted, the air is heavy and gravity seems stronger. Apart from him.
Instead, we are grafted into the vine and receive the strength we need to bear fruit. Instead, we abide in him.