John 15:1-17: The farewell discourse of Jesus continues, but the topic has changed. This chapter begins with the final “I am” saying of Jesus. As noted, John’s gospel is full of metaphorical discourses on the person of Jesus. “Like the parables of the Synoptic Jesus, this metaphorical style keeps the reader off balance, frustrates too quick and too easy efforts to reduce the imagery to simple points” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Poetic language and religious language seem to share an important characteristic, both seek to open hearers to the world in new ways. Poetic and religious language asks that we pay deep attention and be willing to look at the world differently. Religious language asks that of us because there is a confidence that as we look more deeply and look differently we will encounter a presence in the world that we find to be loving and caring, a presence that seeks the good, and challenges us to do so as well. For Christians, that presence is God and for Christians that presence is known especially in Jesus. It is little wonder, then, that John’s gospel is filled with metaphoric language.
The metaphor used for Jesus here is “the true vine.” “True” in such Johannine sayings means “ultimately real.” Its opposite is not “false” but “unreal.” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Vineyard images have a long history in Jewish religious thought, and are found often in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. The image is an organic one. Jesus is the vine into which his followers are incorporated – we are branches which are a part of the vine. This language of becoming a part of Christ, of abiding in Christ, is mystic and mysterious and we will explore it more in a moment.
To bear fruit is a common image in the Hebrew Bible for being faithful to God. “To bear fruit is to keep Jesus’ commandment to do acts of love” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The same Greek word is used in verses two and three for “prune” and “cleanse.” In some sense those who are a part of Jesus have already been cleansed, but there may be more of that process to continue.
Verses 4-6 introduce us to the language of “abiding.” This rich language can be looked at in a number of ways. While the Johannine Jesus speaks with a certain “mystical” tone, it is not mystical spirituality that is offered, but concrete reality in the world of Christian community that finds its new life “in Christ”…. This statement is the death of all purely individualistic Christianity. The Johannine Jesus understands discipleship to him as necessarily incorporating the believer into Christian community. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Abiding in Jesus, in this reading, has something to do with being a part of Christian community, and I think it is a central part of Christian faith. The New Testament sees faith as personal, but the life of faith is never simply individual – never just “me and Jesus.” The life of faith brings us together with others. “Abide” or “remain” expresses the central theme of chapter 15: the relationship of God and Jesus with one another and with the community is one of presence and mutuality. The vine imagery symbolizes how the life of the Christian community is shaped by love and intertwined with the abiding presence of God and Jesus (New Interpreters Study Bible).
I don’t think we should ignore these communal emphases for what it means to “abide in Christ” especially given the rampant individualism in American culture which tends to distort this crucial side of Christian faith. At the same time, I would take issue with the authors who try and say that there isn’t really a “mystical” dimension to these passages. Both the communal and mystical are there, both are important parts of the Christian faith. John Sanford in his book Mystical Christianity calls this chapter “pure mysticism, concerned with the mystery of the transformation of the soul through union with God,” and “one of the most important passages in the Bible for the idea of deification” (279). What does Sanford mean by “deification”? “In the first centuries of Christianity the idea of the deification of the soul through Christ was widespread” (Sanford, 214). Here was the notion that the work of Christ and the Spirit in our lives was to make us more Christ-like. The early Christian theologian, Irenaeus put it this way, “Jesus Christ became what we are in order that we might become what he himself is” (quoted in Sanford, 216). For Sanford all this has something to do with an inner process whereby “the egocentric faults of the ego must be overcome, and focus must be made on the dynamic inner Center” (219). Returning to the image of the vine and the branches, Sanford writes the following. The imagery can be compared to the relationship of the ego to the Center. The ego has little vital life of its own. The source of its vitality and creativity lies in the Center, and as long as it has a connection to this Center it flourishes and brings forth the fruit of a life that is lived significantly…. At its best, the Christian sacramental and devotional life strengthens this connection of ego and Center (281).
Is there an important sense in which Christian faith invites us to uncover, recover, rediscover something of a divine nature within us, something that leads us to live more lovingly, justly and caringly in the world? Walter Wink, in his book The Human Being puts it this way. Jesus incarnated God in his own person in order to show all of us how to incarnate God. And to incarnate God is what it means to be fully human (47).
The idea that there is some reality inside of us which in our lives we often bury, to our own detriment, can be found in other religious traditions. For Zen Buddhists, there is the affirmation that “we are already buddhas.” At the same time, Zen Buddhists would also say that “we are not yet buddhas… and we must strive to become enlightened” (both quotes from Kim Boykin, Zen for Christians, 114). Zen practice (meditation, following moral precepts) is both a way of striving for enlightenment and of affirming that one is already a Buddha (an enlightened one).
For Christians, practice of our faith (prayer, worship, acts of compassion, acts of justice) is both part of what it takes to abide in Christ and a realization that we are already abiding in Christ and that we are one with him. For me, the richness of this image of Jesus being the vine and we being branches in Christ, and of the notion of abiding in Christ, suggests that the Christian life is a life to be lived in community, it is a life of practices, and it is also inner transformation – all these.
The next verses (7-11) continue to play on the image of the vine and on the notion of abiding. The relationship between Jesus and the disciples mirrors the love and mutuality of the relationship between God and Jesus. Practices (keeping commandments) are an essential part of abiding in Jesus’ love – and this way of life is a way of joy!
Verse 12 reiterates what Jesus said in chapter 13:34-35. He elaborates by stating that the greatest love is to give one’s life for one’s friends. Abiding in Jesus, following Jesus initiates a relationship of friendship, not one of servitude, except that it is love and friendship which involve mutual service to each other.
Verse 16 is a sticky one. How is it that the disciples, who clearly made choices to follow Jesus early on are now told that they did not choose but were chosen? It is a paradox of faith that we often feel just this way, swept up in the love of God in ways that we almost could not have “chosen,” and yet we do choose. Choosing or chosen, the bottom line is faithfulness in love – bearing fruit.
John 15:18-27: Much of this, though mysterious, sounds quite exciting – love, joy, bearing fruit, closeness with Jesus and through Jesus, God – but there will be a down side. Not everyone is excited by what Jesus is doing, and some hate him. This is the context for Jesus words as he is in his last days, but it is also the context for John’s Jesus community, some of whom have been thrown out of the synagogues, some ostracized by the Roman culture. Jesus is inviting people to a different way of life, one that will stand in contrast to the prevailing culture – and the Roman culture was both religious and political. Jesus is inviting the disciples to a counter-culture, and such activity is not always appreciated. Some of the language here no doubt reflects the deep disappointment many felt in being shunned by others.