Text: John 15:1-8 (RSV)
Jesus the True Vine
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. 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. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. AMEN.
Whenever I read this passage, I automatically think of that great old hymn “Abide with Me.” The first verse – familiar to us all – goes like this:
“Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide!
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
In our hymnal, “Abide with Me” is in the section “Death & Life Eternal,” and we tend to sing it at funerals, but I think we can just as easily sing it at any time, particularly in those moments when we, too, experience the failure of other helpers and find that those things that normally comfort us have fled. Those are the times when we really need to know, to feel, the closeness of God, and the strength that comes with that closeness.
Anyway, it’s the word “abide” that makes me think of that hymn – “abide” appears six times in this short passage. So it’s a vitally important concept.
It’s too bad that the word “abide” isn’t used very much anymore. Nowadays, instead of saying “abide” we might just say “stay.” “Stay” has a similar meaning, but it doesn’t have the depth that “abide” has. You can stay at a motel; you can even stay with a friend or a loved one as a matter of convenience. But when you stay with someone in order to be present to them, to maybe help them, or accept the help and the love they offer you, then you are abiding with them and they with you. “Abide” implies, at least to me, a relationship you and another person share. We abide with our families, for example.
“Abide” also has an element of invitation to it. The Scots have a term “bide a wee” which generally is translated as “stay a little,” but it’s really much more – the Celtic concept of spirituality, much like its Germanic counterpart, is rooted in hospitality – so when a Scot invites you into his home, you receive not just a warm welcome or a hearty plate of food, but you are also invited into his very being. Similarly, the ancient Germanic tribes “believed strongly in hospitality, so much so that there was a law that banned the refusal of it to any passing stranger who asked for it.” I believe there’s something very deep inside us that recognizes how it feels to abide with others when we experience it and also how it feels when we don’t.
Today’s passage starts off with a slightly jarring note, though, or so it seems. It sounds almost threatening when Jesus says, “[e]very branch of mine that bears no fruit, [the Father] takes away”; and then later in the passage where he says, “[i]f a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” It’s not hard to take from that the sense of a “do this or else” admonition.
But that’s really not what’s going on here, because the second half of Jesus’ statement is “as I abide in you.” There’s no implied warning or threat here, but just a simple statement of fact as to what happens when people don’t abide in Jesus – when we, as David Lose writes, “are separated from his love and acceptance, [when] we run or hide or think we can do it on our own or decide to stand alone or whatever. Branches don’t do that well when separated from the vine. At best they, like cut flowers, have a burst of color and bloom but then fade and wither.” In short, when we decide that we are indeed the be-all and end-all of humanity, we take a pruning shears and separate ourselves from God. And nothing good ever has, or ever will, come from that.
But first, a bit about the context of this lesson. I need to mention, first, that Jesus is preparing his disciples for his imminent departure, and he wants to make crystal clear that he is with them and will abide with them even when life gets hard – which it will very shortly do. Secondly, John wrote these words for a community of believers who have very likely been thrown out of their communities, who’ve been rejected by friends and family for their faith – and they’re isolated, alone, even orphaned. The image of the branches being cut off is more than relevant for them – they’re living it. But John helps them to see this in a different light – they haven’t been rejected; they’re just being pruned so that they might bear more fruit. John’s saying, “yes, what you’re experiencing is very painful, but it will help you in the long run.” And to cap it off, John makes the promise that Jesus is indeed with them, for them, abiding in them, and will never let them go. It reminds of yet another wonderful hymn: “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go:”
O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe, that
in thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.
John’s message is as relevant today for us right here as it was for Jesus’ disciples two thousand years ago. Shakespeare’s words about “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” aptly describe our everyday life, too.
But the message for today is: Do not despair! John’s words of comfort and encouragement are meant for us, too! Jesus is with you, abiding in you, holding onto you, and he will not let you go. What we sometimes feel is The End (capital “T” and capital “E”) is just pruning. Growth is ahead. New life is coming.
“Abide in me, as I abide in you….” What words of pure promise! What words of pure grace! What powerful words of the presence of Christ and the providence of the Father!
And there’s yet one more bit of good news to share, and it has directly to do with all of us, but particularly with you. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, thinking and research this week on the subject of church growth. One theme that keeps recurring is that of faithfulness. Well, I have never been part of a more faithful group than this one. When a need arises, you step in to help. You are active participants in your community. When new people come through our doors, you welcome them. You have taken Jesus’ words “abide in me, as I abide in you” to heart, and you live them. You show love toward others, and they respond.
These are things that can’t be faked. You are the genuine article. And I really believe that if we build on that foundation, we will continue to do well and serve the world around us.
All we need to remember is that Jesus abides in us, and that we abide in him – and together there’s nothing we can’t achieve!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
 “Germanic Tribes,” BMS Ancient Civilizations, https://bmssancientcivilizations.wikispaces.com/Germanic+Tribes
 Lose, David, “Easter 5 B: As I Abide in You,” “…in the Meantime,” http://www.davidlose.net/2018/04/easter-5-b-as-i-abide-in-you/