Jesus’s vine image and the challenge of abiding in him
Easter 5B | John 15:1-8
A Green Thumb
My Mom is a gardener.
When we moved up to Alpena from southeast of Detroit, we were moving into a rectory: a two-story beauty with a side porch and slightly sloping lawn. Big, mature trees next to the wide avenue provided some shade and the big pine trees on the south side of the house were a favorite place to play. The bushes along the front were great places to hide.
While I was most interested in the lawn and the trees and the bushes, my Mom was more focused on the lack of color and contrast there was. Grass, then cement. Or bushes, trees, white vinyl siding. It was a big house and it needed someone to care for its outsides, and this wasn’t something the church was really into doing themselves.
So she started planting.
My Mom is a gardener, but really, she’s an artist. At that point, flowers were the medium for her. The soil was the canvas and the flowers were the colors.
She was also recognized in the community in the ways most artists often prefer to be recognized: not so much with awards (but who doesn’t love those, let’s be honest), but with recognition.
That’s your house! people would say.
I appreciated as a child that she cared for the back as much, if not more than the front. There we had this wild garden where my toad lived.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take on the same art. I am awful with plants and I struggle with gardens. All of these shoots in the spring look the same to me and I can’t tell the flowers from the weeds.
So I struggle a little with Jesus’s gardening metaphors.
GOD as Gardener
This morning Jesus speaks to us about pruning. Gardeners get pruning. Dead branches need to go. Weak branches need to go. They steal nutrients from the healthy. The gardener wants to encourage the healthy to grow.
Israel was telling me about planting apple trees and how long it takes for them to mature. And one of the things I didn’t know about was that they don’t encourage the baby trees to grow apples yet, to help them put their nutrients into growing more mature before producing apples. Then picking the small fruit early so that the later fruit is bigger, fuller.
And as he told me this, I was with him scientifically and intellectually. But not having done it, I wouldn’t have a clue how to do it; what it really looks or feels like.
The metaphor that Jesus gives us, however, isn’t a how-to teaching. It doesn’t suppose that we’re the vinegrower at all. He says straight-away that GOD is the vinegrower. It isn’t even Jesus. He isn’t responsible for the pruning. That’s on GOD.
Jesus says is that he is the vine and we are the branches. Despite the way Jesus presents this idea, and despite what we might think of our relationship to Jesus, the branches and the vine are really the same: it is one. One co-existent and mutually-dependent eco-system to itself. Maintaining the vine, means caring for the whole. Caring for the whole will eventually lead to roses.
I don’t have to be a gardener to make sense of this. We get it. But here’s what I don’t get. If Jesus is the vine and we’re the branches and GOD is the vinegrower, then what’s the point? What part do we have to play if we aren’t pruning? Are we just waiting to be pruned?
Abide the vine
Jesus answers the question with a funny word: abide. This isn’t a word we use, abide. It is also one that, when it is used, is used in a ton of different ways. But as an action, as a verb, none of those ways seems active. It’s more like “being” or living.
This isn’t the answer most of us want to hear. We want to get up and do something. In fact, the church has been pretty divided from the very beginning between believing actively and doing works of justice and mercy, but both of these are fundamentally active. Believing and working require emotional and physical energy. They are verbs in a definitive sense. To believe is to choose, to own faith and make it tangible. To believe is to pray and claim conviction actively. It is an act. To work for justice is to march in the streets and to feed and visit and proclaim.
But as verbs go, abide is about the least active there is. It’s the “hanging out” of actions. It’s the “just chillin’” of doing. To abide seems to be the lowest bar of entry for counting as doing something.
Abiding is about as easy to just do as meditating silently for 20 minutes without thinking. The art of abiding, of being with GOD and with other people in a state of “being” is as fundamental and deep a concept as they come. It is much more significant than the doctrines of belief we declare to one another or the money we spend feeding strangers from the food pantry.
Abiding is communal and vulnerable. It is not only occupying the same space, but the same spirit, the same love with another person, with our GOD.
It is ultimately about being with GOD when we are sitting next to someone else. Even someone different or really, really annoying. Elsewhere Jesus says “abide in my love”. Be in it; like swimming in the ocean: vast and deep.
This is what makes the whole plant healthy, so that it bears fruit.
The abiding in Jesus, the being with and loving him, swimming in the Spirit: this is the work. It is how the plant remains healthy. It is what the vinegrower looks for. It is the sign, the assurance that fruit will be born; that flowers will bloom.
Ultimately, it is why the pruning image has any cache with me. Because all branches will eventually be pruned. It isn’t the fickle machinations of a GOD that sets up some for success and others for failure. It is a life-giving and sustaining ecosystem that assures that even though not all branches will ultimately produce great fruit, all branches will be pruned.
Pruning hurts, it cuts and manipulates the plant. And every branch that is removed is felt by the whole plant. It is fundamentally changed. When we lose someone we love, we are fundamentally changed.
Like with any deep wounds, there can be scarring; lines marking the violent moments of time shaping our lives. But there is also new growth. The skin growing over in a scab, the tender touch of new skin, not yet weathered by time.
We all feel the pain of loss and change. We also have a whole ecosystem that depends upon it. That needs energy and nutrients to be moved to a different branch: a branch more likely to produce fruit.
Thankfully it is up to GOD to do that pruning. Because we’re terrible at it. We have some decent gardeners working on the Kingdom of GOD around here, but we have enough trouble agreeing on paint colors for church rooms. We don’t need to be in charge of the really heavy lifting.
This is what we do: we abide. Here on North 7th Street. In our neighborhoods and neighboring communities. In our schools and our offices and our courtrooms. Because abiding is our energy. Instead of photosynthesizing sunlight, we use love. We live in it, we swim in it. It is our life force.
Abiding in love protects us from the evil of violence and rage; of destroying the dignity of our neighbors and breeding the arrogance of control. It cuts away the sin of indifference and the horrors of abuse. Abiding in Jesus means we can live with each other.
As Christians, there are a lot of buzz words that fill up our job descriptions, but at the center of them all is this. Abide in Jesus and we abide in one another.