The gospel for Sunday May 2 (John 15:1-8) features the preposition in, when Jesus says, abide in me, five times.
Jesus used repetition for emphasis. On Easter Sunday Jesus said Peace with you three times when he greeted the disciples in the upper room. Last week he said I lay down my life three times as the good shepherd defending his sheep. Saying, abide in me, five times stresses the importance of the invitation.
While repetition emphasizes the importance, it begs the question: what does he mean to abide in me.
The immediate setting for this saying is Jesus’ extended instruction at the last supper and the parable of the vine and the branches.
A larger context is the many scriptural references to God as owner of the vineyard (symbolizing Israel) who needs to prune the vines constantly to keep them from growing wild. In particular, the way the vines grow wild in the course of some Hebrew scripture is a source of constant frustration to God.
Psalm 80 reads, in part,
You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land…
… Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted…
Isaiah 5:1-7 reads
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;
he …hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes but it yielded wild grapes.
7 … the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!
I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock.
How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?
In contrast to the frustrating vines described in Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus opens the gospel for Sunday May 2 with, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. Unlike the vines in the Old Testament references which grew wild, Jesus said that he was the true vine, the one that fulfilled his vine-growing father’s wishes. He remained true to the father’s purpose.
Jesus continues, He (the Father-vine grower) removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. The woody vine stem and the branch are intimately connected. The same “life force”, the sap, flows from one to the other. The branch does not produce grapes without the stem. Jesus used an image of himself as the stem of the vine and his followers as the fruit-bearing branches. He also implied that some “branches” followed him insincerely, perhaps for the ‘entertainment value’ of his miracles, maybe for the free food he provided, or possibly with a genuine initial desire to live as he did but turning back when they realized the cost. The disciples could likely recall people who fell into these categories. These, they may have thought, were the unproductive branches whom the Father would remove.
The metaphor is clear: intimacy with Jesus glorifies God. The disciples would have understood that. But how to translate that metaphor into daily lives may have baffled them.
So Jesus explained the vine and branch metaphor. This is the heart of today’s gospel and it revolves around the preposition “in”. Jesus said, 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. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
The issue is: what does it mean to be in. The word can denote a physical relationship to external objects, such as being in a house, or living in a city. I can describe a dynamic situation, such as a joy in singing, in which one’s mind and lungs and voice are engaged. It can also describe a condition, such as being in love, or going in peace. But, as Jesus uses it, in suggests something more intimate, as when lovers say, “I want to be so close to you that I am inside you”. It goes beyond being of one mind, to experiencing the whole world, everything and everyone in it, as Christ does.
A little bit before this passage, Jesus had told the disciples, Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (John 14:10-11) He was urging his disciples to enter into the same kind of relationship as he had in the Father.
I suspect that Jesus’ disciples may still have been wondering about what he meant by abide in me. After all, they had left their homes, jobs and families to follow him. They had listened to his teaching. They had even driven out demons and cured people in his name. They were close to him. Their numbers had been pruned, (when Jesus had said unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot have life in you many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him (John 6:66). Yet, he was inviting … or commanding… something even closer and more person-expanding and productive.
He meant that the interplay between himself and us… his disciples… was meant to be dynamic, disciplined, productive, joyful in a shared view of the world with him and the Father. And, yes, there would be a cost to the discipleship, but it would make them and us almost infinitely more alive. *