The difficulty of abiding

3 May 2015
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Easter 5B (RCL)
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

What does a fruitful life look like? John’s Jesus talks a lot about bearing fruit, but we’re never really told what that fruit looks like in our lives and the life of the community. I hear echoes in this discourse to the changing of water to wine in Chapter 2. The fruit of the vine goes in to the making of the wine, and Jesus turned 120 gallons of water into wine. Talk about high spirits! And any use of vine imagery reminds us the use of that image in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 5, the prophets sings of song of God’s vineyard. Psalm 80 speaks of the vine God has brought out of Egypt and planted in the new land. Isaiah 5 may help identify the fruit in question. God looked for grapes and found wild grapes; God looked for justice and righteousness and found instead bloodshed and a cry.

The theme of remaining also plays a significant role in this passage from John’s Gospel. The Greek verb menein and its cognates appear 38 times in John’s Gospel, compared to 3 times in Matthew, twice in Mark and seven times in Luke. When the two disciples of John the Baptist follow Jesus, Jesus turns and sees them. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth in John’s Gospel are addressed to these two disciples: “What do you seek?” “Rabbi,” they reply, “where to you remain?” “Come and see,” he answers. The reader is thus invited into John’s Gospel to see where Jesus remains. The whole Gospel is an answer to that question.

Here, in the saying of the vine, we learn a little more about what it means to remain in Jesus. In part, Jesus’ word must remain in us, just as we remain in the community of branches connected to the vine. For John, the word is living — it functions like the sap in the vine, flowing from the leaves to the root and fruit during the growing season, and then flowing from the root to the branch in the spring. If the rabbis were answering the question of where God might be found after the destruction of the Temple by locating God’s word in a fixed canon of scripture, John’s community was locating that word in the community’s discourse.

The fruit of righteousness, then, is produced in the discourse of the community. In our current situation, we can see the fruits of the failure of that discourse. We have not remained in the vine with conversation partners whose words make us uncomfortable. We have chosen to ignore words we would rather not hear. Jesus’ warning is quite harsh: any branch that does not bear fruit will be pruned off the vine. Even fruitful branches must be pruned each season in order to bear fruit.

The passage from the first epistle of John also suggests what abiding looks like, and the fruit it will bear. How can we say we love God, whom we have not seen, if we have not loved the brother or sister we have seen? And that love will be instantiated in concrete ways (as we heard in last week’s reading): if we have the goods of the world, we will share them — we will use them as sap, flowing free, to invigorate the whole vine.

We often treat church, and other communities of discourse, as a convenience or a commodity. If I don’t like this one, I can always find another more suited to my tastes. Remaining in the vine, and having the discourse of the community abiding in us, requires work. God must prune away certain aspects of our being, so that we can become more fruitful. And the fruit is not just of the community alone, but for wine for the whole world, the cup of the covenant for the forgiveness of sins for all.

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