How many people here have a vineyard? I thought so. How many of us routinely use the word “abide” in our daily conversations? I thought so. So this is a very difficult passage for us. Wait a minute …
How many people have a yard … and shrubs or azaleas or weeds growing in the yard? Yes, lots of us have that! Azaleas and shrubs and weeds need to be pruned, trimmed, cut back, or eradicated – but that’s just the bamboo. We do have a point of connection with John’s gospel message; we may not have vineyards, but we do have plants that grow and that need attention. We have climbing roses, morning glories, jasmine and honeysuckle; we know about vines, and we know about pruning branches.
John tells us that branches that do not bear fruit are cut off. Okay. But then the ones that do bear fruit are cut back so that they bear more fruit … and we don’t like that part at all. We understand that we have to cut back flowers and herbs, but we do not like this idea of pruning ourselves. It sounds like God purposely makes our lives difficult so that we will grow.
Perhaps this passage is difficult, then, not because we do not understand it, but precisely because we DO understand it. We have a Father who is the vine. We are but branches, subject to pruning, cutting back – correction, if you will, so that we might bear fruit. We might use this passage to tell ourselves that we need stern correction from God, that we go through difficult times in order that we might grow. Bad things happen to us, and we do grow.
But what about these words? “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
The vine does not exist apart from its branches. Apart from God and Jesus Christ we can do nothing. We are meant to be with our Lord, to grow and intertwine and be together, not just as individuals, but as the church. A vine with a single branch is pretty weak. We cut it back at our own peril, but if we leave it alone it is sparse and weak; it stays alone. There is only so much one branch can do. It survives, yet it certainly cannot bring forth a bounty of anything. A single vine is weak.
But the true vine, God in Jesus, cuts back that vine – reach out, God seems to say – reach out to one another. You will bear fruit that way. We are not individual branches, we are the church, and we are meant to be together, to grow together, work together, and work through our faith alongside each other. An intertwined branch is strong – have you ever tried to tear one up? – it stays together pretty well! We are pruned back from our individual “missions” in order to be the church.
Even then, we are but branches; Jesus is the true vine. We, even together, do not exist alone – can do nothing alone; we need God, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We can grow and be strong for a little while, but it is at our peril that we cut ourselves off from Jesus. We are the church, and we are all about Jesus!
Our gospel becomes one not only about correction, but about connection. What happens to a limb that we cut off? It may live for a little while; even cut flowers give us beauty for a time, but eventually those things that are separated from their life source die. They wither and die. It is then that the branches are gathered together and burned – not because of adversity, but because of detachment, of being totally separated from that which gives us life! And we know that it is Jesus who gives us life, new life, every day.
How do we abide in Christ Jesus? We do our best. We learn from Peter and the Eunuch what perfect abiding looks like, which is the way that Jesus the vine grower abides with us. Here is abiding, love, as told by Ralph Milton:
“May I tell you a story?” Philip asked. Then for an hour or two or three – I have no idea how long – he talked about a man named Jesus – a prophet from a little jerkwater town who seemed to reach out and touch all the hurting people – tax collectors, prostitutes, widows, lepers, foreigners.
“They killed him,” said Philip. ”They accused him of sedition. He was crucified.”
“I’m not surprised.” I said. I felt sad. But it was not the end of the story. Not by a long shot.
And so Peter talked some more, about a resurrected Jesus, a Jesus who it turns out is the Messiah – the chosen one Isaiah was talking shout – one who came to save the weak and the lost – the people nobody else cared about.
I asked. “Would Jesus care about me?”
“Of course,” said Philip.
“Did you know that I’m a eunuch?”
“I guessed. But why should that make a difference?”
“I’m black. I’m a foreigner. But I am successful, and I am rich.”
“That’s all obvious,” Philip laughed. “But again, why should that make a difference. Jesus loves you. He doesn’t care about your genitals, or about your skin color, or about your nationality. Jesus especially doesn’t give a hoot if you’re rich or successful. Jesus loves you.”
It took me almost an hour to stop sobbing. I felt as if a huge, heavy load had been lifted from my shoulders and tossed over onto the roadside. Now I could stop trying harder and harder. I could stop struggling. I was a real person, a real person because I am loved by a real man named Jesus who lived and died and rose again and danced among his people.
We are loved, we are loved, we are loved. We need only abide in Jesus, just as He always abides in us.