Abide in Me: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 5
1) This is the fifth of the seven weeks of Eastertide, and the second of four weeks exploring Jesus’ teachings about living in intimacy with God.
2) The larger context in John is that Jesus is in the midst of his so-called “farewell discourse” to the disciples (John 14-17), and they are understandably distraught. In their eyes, here was the Messiah, the one who would deliver them and the whole world, the one on whom they had pinned all their hopes, all their lives - and now he's leaving? Not only leaving - now he's going to suffer, to be humiliated, desecrated, vanquished? And his disgrace - wouldn’t it unavoidably amount to theirs as well? Accordingly, the disciples are disoriented, unnerved, and afraid; Thomas’ wide-eyed, anxious question is emblematic: “How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This context of crisis is the interpretive key for understanding the entire “farewell discourse” in John. So far from a cerebral lecture on salvation or discipleship, Jesus is engaged here in urgent pastoral care, assuring his companions that his imminent departure is not abandonment, but rather an astounding shift that will make way for an even deeper intimacy. It’s as if he is saying: “On one level, I am about to leave; but on a deeper level, I will continue to be with you, even closer than before. Don’t worry; take heart. Trust me!”
3) Like last week’s motif of the “good shepherd,” this week’s image of the vine would have been familiar to many early followers of Jesus: Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the Psalms each make use of it. Here again, Jesus’ teachings are inextricably grounded in Jewish scriptural, poetic imagination.
4) Jesus makes seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel (“I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” etc.), each of which evokes the name of God in Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am” or "I will be who I will be." This week’s passage - “I am the vine” - is the seventh and last such statement.
5) In Acts, the larger theme around and underneath this week's passage is the Jesus movement opening up to also include the Gentiles. The Ethiopian eunuch, while a prestigious figure in a foreign royal court, is nonetheless an outsider. For Luke, an “Ethiopian” meant anyone from territories south of Egypt, a region some ancient writers (those from the northern and eastern sides of the Mediterranean) depicted as the outer edge of the known world. As a Gentile whose status as a eunuch meant he traditionally could not become a Jew (see, e.g., Leviticus 21:20), his conversion foreshadows Cornelius’ (Acts 10-11), which in turn inaugurates the official Christian mission to the Gentiles. Thus the choreography here reflects an expanding circle of inclusion in God’s good news of salvation.
1) In the context of Jesus assuring his disciples that he isn't abandoning them, the image of the vine and the branches functions as a soothing word of solace. The enduring connection with his disciples, Jesus insists, will be so organic and integral that separation is virtually unthinkable: the disciples’ very lives will be signs of that connection, just as the life and fruit of a branch are signs of its ongoing connection to its vine. In this way, the gist and upshot of the metaphor is not (as it’s too often read in Christian circles today), “If you want to live, you’d better stay connected to me, or else” but rather, “Don't worry, we'll be together; your very life and all its fruit will testify to our ongoing intimacy. Take heart. I will be with you, and our companionship will be even closer than it is now. Today we walk side by side - but in the days to come I will live in you, and you in me. Today, you walk in my footsteps - but in the days to come you will walk, as it were, ‘in my feet,’ and I will walk in your feet. You will be my hands and feet for a world that needs healing and good news. Friends, I’m not abandoning you - on the contrary, you and I will now live closer together than we’ve ever been before. I will abide in you. You will abide in me. I will not leave you alone...”
2) This theme of mutual indwelling is shot through John’s gospel, and also through the Bible as a whole. Genesis depicts human life itself as possible only via profound intimacy with God; we live each day precisely to the extent that divine breath is in us (see Genesis 6:3, where God says, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever…”). In Galatians, Paul says, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). In Acts, Paul preaches to the Athenians that God is the One “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And here in John, because Jesus’ “I am the vine” is the seventh and last of his “I am” statements in the gospel, it’s arguably the culmination of his teachings about how God, Jesus, and human beings are related: Jesus abides in God, and we abide in Jesus, as deeply, organically related as a branch is to its vine. For John, the ultimate goal is not merely to follow Jesus or obey his commandments, but to live in Jesus as he lives in us. Obeying his commands to love will then be a natural outgrowth of that intimate companionship.
1) This is a passage of consolation; Jesus is assuring his dismayed disciples that he is not abandoning them. What’s coming, Jesus promises, isn’t distance but rather a radical closeness, a companionship so intimate as to blur any sharp distinction between the companions. Branches and vines aren’t identical, of course, but they do share a common life, a kind of symbiosis. “Abide in me, as I abide in you.”
2) What would such mutual indwelling look like? It would look like Jesus, and at the same time it would look like us - that is, it would look like us being our true selves, the people God made us to be. In a word, it would look like love: incarnate, tangible, down-to-earth, intertwining, intersecting, growing love.
3) And accordingly, it would look like reaching out to outsiders and ushering them in, the ones who are excluded from the privileged, sacred precincts, or otherwise relegated to the margins of community. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:36). Well, there’s quite a bit to prevent him, actually, since religions - Christianity included! - are endlessly creative in throwing up barriers that dissect and divide. But the gospel seeks to dismantle such barriers, extending its circle beyond the in-group to embrace those on the outside, the lost and left-behind. This idea challenges us to press the question: For our community today, and in each of our lives, who are the supposed outsiders, the disenfranchised, the excluded (whether we intend to exclude them or not) - and how can we reach out to them, build bridges with them, learn from them?
4) Finally, mutual indwelling would look like a buzzing, blooming, fruitful garden. As we saw last week, Jesus’ mission is for the sake of “abundant life,” and this week the same idea is cast in terms of a vine’s fruitfulness. In verse 3, the Greek word translated “cleansed” may also be glossed, “pruned” - a rich metaphor for any gardener. Pruning means cutting away for the sake of new and greater growth, more fruit, more abundance, more life. Thus Jesus takes up and transforms the ancient prophetic image of God cutting away and burning portions of the vineyard, reframing it in terms of helping the garden to grow and thrive. In light of both Jesus’ pastoral assurance in this passage and his promise in 12:32 to “draw all people,” not just a few, his focus in John 15 is not on banishing the barren, but rather on helping each and every branch to bear fruit.