5 Easter Yr B May 2 2021
Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8, Psalm 22:24-30
What an amazing passage from John. This is filled with good news, promise, and such encouragement in difficult times. There is so much to consider, and all of it is based on the fundamental claim of the intimate relationship Jesus has with his followers, and the promise that we are intertwined, never left to wither.
A branch cannot live by itself, apart from the vine. We cannot untwine ourselves from Jesus, there is no separateness, no vine apart from the branch. We are intertwined. The word that John uses is meno, a Greek word translated abide, or sometimes dwell. This is the primary designation of relationship in John’s gospel. This is the fundamental claim of the intimate relationship we have with Jesus. This is one of John’s themes. And it is the promise of what Jesus is leaving with the disciples, never severed, never to go away.
This is a symbiotic relationship. The closest I can come to trying to understand, and remember all metaphors will fail eventually, is pregnancy. When I was pregnant with Tom, my firstborn, my doctor was telling me about eating. I must have been worried about something, now I don’t even remember what. He said, the baby is a parasite, it will take its nourishment from whatever I eat. I’m not sure I appreciated his using parasite, but I do appreciate the intimate relationship between mother and baby in the womb.
What happens during this miraculous process? Science tells us that within the mother’s womb the placenta transfers oxygen and food from the blood of the mother to the blood of the embryo. Reversely, it transfers waste materials from the embryo to the mother. The fetus does not have to breathe or eat because the oxygen and food it needs is brought to it via the placenta. This new life uses the mother’s lungs, digestive organs and kidneys to sustain it during development.
As I think of how God devised such a beautiful and intimate connection, I realize that the message of the vine and the branches is also one of incomparable intimacy. It paints a picture of a symbiotic relationship. Symbiotic simply means life together—a life that Jesus wants to share with all of us, those who walk the way of love. Listen to the way Eugene Peterson in The Message translates this, I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant.
Another really amazing phrase in this passage is the I am statement. We have heard I am statements in the Old Testament, when Moses asks God’s name, God’s response I AM. John uses a number of I AM statements, all followed by a predicate nominative, do you remember that from your high school grammar class? I am followed by the shepherd, the bread, the light, a path, a gate. But this one is different, Jesus adds another clause this time, and you are the branches. Not only do we hear another I am, the culmination of all the I am’s that precede it, but this time we hear who we are as well. You are the branches. The symbiotic relationship is complete, fulfilled, and aspirational.
So first of all, being connected makes following Jesus, and the claim on our lives to love, conceivable and probable. Loving one another and loving our enemies is possible because of this symbiotic relationship. We are not alone, we don’t love alone, because of this relationship loving is possible. So what about the part that says “apart from me, you can do nothing.” Hear this as a statement of affirmation. This verse challenges our sense of being self-made men and women in the world. And yet… maybe after a year of pandemic and racial reckoning and political paralysis, maybe this is the year we can hear that affirmation more accurately and with fresh appreciation. Embedded in these words is a promise. It is precisely because everything we do depends on Jesus that we can count on doing something meaningful. Jesus’ words here remind us that it’s not up to us. It never was. It never will be. Thanks be to God. And Jesus’ words here remind us that it is the connectedness that supports, affirms, and empowers us to do the work that God calls us to do.
And secondly, it is this symbiotic relationship that makes it possible for the disciples to carry on after Jesus dies, is resurrected, and ascends. It is this symbiotic relationship that makes it possible for you and me to carry on after the trauma, the grief, the displacement, the chaos that is present in our lives most especially now, but really, always. This symbiotic relationship means that we do not wither, in fact, we may bear fruit, give birth.
Remember, by declaring their allegiance to Jesus by following him, Jesus’ followers have been thrown out of the synagogue, maybe even their families. They have been kicked to the curb, relegated to the margins. So this relationship that John describes, this intimate, intertwined and connected relationship, comes to Jesus’ followers as a promise in a very difficult time. Do not be afraid, connected to the vine you will have life.
But what’s more, because you and I have read to the end of John’s gospel, we know that Jesus leaves another advocate, whom we call the Holy Spirit. This is grace upon grace, when Jesus leaves, the disciples will not be left alone. They are part of the vine, intimately related, having abundant life, bearing fruit. We are not left alone, and we are in this together.
Bearing fruit means engaging for ourselves as individuals and as the church in those activities and tasks that recognize and invest in the goodness of God’s love by spreading that love to the neighbor whom we are called to love. The specifics of bearing fruit, what that love actually looks like is varied. Sometimes it is taking part in already vibrant community ministries, sometimes it is creating something new, sometimes it is quiet and contemplative. But what is most important and what this symbiotic metaphor shows us is that we are not self-made. We are individuals, yes, but the reality of the Christian life is that all that we are and all that we have are as a result of the abiding grace of God.
It is such a wonderful image, isn’t it? Being intertwined with Jesus in this way. And yet, it implies a claim, a moral imperative. Bearing fruit, co-conspiring with Jesus to love flows from this relationship. Go out and be love. It’s already possible, we don’t have to conjure something up, we have to go out and do the love that is already present. And that is Good News. Thanks be to God.