This message was presented at the FSU Wesley Foundation on February 9, 2014, based on John 15:1-17.
Here’s a question you may have never thought about before…
When you think about God, or maybe when you pray – where is he? Do you imagine God as being off in some far off, distant heaven? Do you imagine him everywhere? Do you imagine him close – nearby – maybe even here, now? Locationally speaking – where is God located?
When I was in seminary, there was a small group of monks living near the school, who would welcome us into their home for daily Eucharist, retreats, spiritual direction. I was a regular, and met frequently with a monk named Father Brian for spiritual direction. Brian was a funny, quirky, odd, Canadian, stereotypical monk – as wide as he was tall – and incredibly opinionated, and, wise, and deeply spiritual. I told him once that God felt distant, so he assigned me this passage from John 15, of Jesus as the vine, to read and pray with everyday for a month. I said, “A Month? I think I can be finished with that in a couple of days!” Brian said, “1 month. Every day.” Father Brian was unbending.
A month later, I had discovered a God who was not far away, but lived deep within me, and I deeply within him. Since then, as I pray, I don’t look up to some far off heaven, but I seek the God who lives in me – but whom I often forget or ignore.
Jesus present us with the image of a mature grapevine, a common image in the lands Jesus walked and taught in. Jesus says that he is the vine itself – in other words, the trunk – deeply grounded and rooted into the life-giving soil. We are the branches, connected to the vine. And, what would be the point of having a grapevine if the branches did not bear fruit – thus we as branches are expected to bear fruit. What is the fruit? We’ll get to that.
The passage begins with a lot of talk about pruning. That’s not really my focus today. But, you can’t ignore it either. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunesto make it bear more fruit.” Apparently, for a grapevine to produce the optimum amount of fruit, it has to be pruned. First, you cut off the unproductive branches – they’re not bearing fruit anyway. Then, you cut back even the fruitful branches, so that they can bear even more fruit. Jesus describes it as a process of spiritual cleansing that we must go through in order to be spiritually pure and mature. On a grapevine, the branches tend to be come so thick and full that some branches are blocked from the light, which is needed for fruitfulness. So, the branches have to be pruned back so that the light can shine through. Apparently the same is true for us.
We could talk a lot about the process of refinement and purification in the life of a Christian – but today I want us to focus primarily on the following words…
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. I am the vine, you are the branches. 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.”
Abide. Abide in me, and I will abide in you. When I hear the word I think of a place I will live – my home. It is similar to the word abode, as in “my humble abode.” You abide in an abode.
The early English version of the word simply means to remain.
The NRSV, The NASB, and the King James version of the Bible all use the word abide. The CEV says “Stay joined to me.” The Message says, “Live in me.” The NIV says, “Remain in me.” All are slightly different, but conveying the same idea. Jesus is inviting us to live in him, as our permanent dwelling place – to be joined to him, and to stay joined to him – to make him our abode, and for him to make us his abode.
Henri Nouwen writes,
“Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells, has become our home. By making his him in us he allows us to make our home in him. By entering into the intimacy of our innermost self he offers us the opportunity to enter into his own intimacy with God. By choosing us as his preferred dwelling place he invites us to choose him as our preferred dwelling place.”
Think of the image of the vine and the branch, and their connection. You can sever a branch from the vine and clearly have two distinct things – but the branch will soon wither and die. But, a branch growing out from the vine is deeply connected. Where precisely does the branch begin and the where does the vine end? The branch is deeply rooted in to the vine, and dependent on the vine as it draws nutrients from the vine. And, the stronger and thicker the branch, the greater the connection to the vine. The vine is joined to the branch and vice versa, and must stay that way for the branch to be fruitful.
In the same way, we are to be spiritually joined to Christ in such a way that we cease to know where we end and he begins, or he ends and we begin. We live in him and he lives in us. And, to live and stay fruitful we must stay deeply connected to the vine. We must intentionally abide – remain – in the constant presence of Christ.
The Trappist Monk, Thomas Keating wrote, “We rarely think of the air we
breathe, yet it is in us and around us all the time. In similar fashion, the Presence of God penetrates us, is all around us, is always embracing us.”
Jesus says it another way in,” John 17:21-24 (The Message)…
“Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us. Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. The same glory you gave me, I gave them, so they’ll be as unified and together as we are—I in them and you in me. Then they’ll be mature in this oneness, and give the godless world evidence that you’ve sent me and loved them in the same way you’ve loved me.”
Thomas Keating writes, “God and our true self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true self are the same thing.”
To be united with Christ, to abide him, is to receive life. Likewise, to be cut off from him, is death. Thomas Merton wrote, He is closer to us than we are to ourselves and that is why we do not notice him.”
Jesus said, “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.” I used to read that as extremely harsh and severe. It felt like the threat of punishment. “If you chose to be severed from me you will pay the price! I’ll throw you in the fire!” But, increasingly over the years, I have both found these words to be true, and to hear Jesus speak them with compassion. It is true – a branch cut off from the vine withers and dies. If we are cut off from the source of our life, we too will wither and die. As I hear Jesus say it, I hear his heart breaking for us. “Don’t be cut off from me. Don’t wither. Don’t die. I made you for life. I made you for abundance. I made you to be my home.”
Richard Foster writes, “At the very heart of God is the passionate disposition to be in loving fellowship with You.”
But, we get busy. We get distracted. We neglect our devotional time and spiritual disciplines. The world increasing robs our attention and ensnares us. And, sometimes we feel our selves withering. Though God is everywhere, we allow ourselves to drift further and further away from him.
We need reminders, and practices, that keep us deeply rooted in the vine.
What Jesus is describing in his metaphor of the vine and branches is an invitation to intimacy. Intimacy with the creator of the universe. Intimacy with the savior of the world. Intimacy with the Holy Spirit of God.
In the words of Henri Nouwen, “Jesus says: ‘You have a home…I am your home… claim me as your home… You will find it to be the intimate place where I have found my home… it is right where you are… in your innermost being… in your heart.’”
And, you can’t speak of intimacy without speaking of love. Love, by it’s very nature, seeks union. It is love that draws us to Christ, and him to us. In addition, Jesus said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” The first and greatest of the fruits of the Spirit is love. Jesus ends this passage with these words…
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends… You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
And so, this presents us with both an invitation and a warning – but a warning spoken with the deepest of love and compassion. The invitation is to enter into a life of intimacy with God. The warning – spoken as a parent to a child, as an intimate friend, as one lover to another – apart from me you will wither. This passage is Jesus inviting us to pursue him and know him more deeply, more fully, and more intimately. To abide.