Abiding in the Branches

GOSPEL: John 15:1-8
Jesus said: 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Here we are into month 14 of this global and pandemic, while it feels like we are in much the same place that we found ourselves one year ago, so much has taken place during this past year. 

This Easter season has again been a journey begun in Lent, Lent 2020 that is. And when we gathered at the foot of cross on Good Friday and then again the empty tomb on Easter morning with the women who were afraid, our journey barely paused for moment. 

These 14 months have dragged us through much, through world changing times, even as so much of it has been about staying in place and keeping to ourselves. 

In this back half of our second pandemic Easter, Jesus lays out this metaphor of the vine and branches for us. And today, we need as much as ever to hear Jesus’ promise again… the invitation to Abide. 

To stop, to gather ourselves, to lay aside our fretting and worrying, to take a breathe and simply abide.

Abide in me as I abide in you.

This 1st century metaphor of a grape vine may be an image mostly lost on our 21st century ears. While there are certainly many green thumbs out there, grape vines are fairly uncommon in wintery Manitoba. I know because I remember them being uncommon in wintery Edmonton where I grew up. I know because many summers growing up, the back walls of my parent’s house bore the unusual sight of heavy, leafy, green vines growing up makeshift trellises, tended to by my father. Dutifully grown, and pruned each spring and summer. Harvested and picked clean each fall. Carefully wrapped and buried each winter only to be resurrected each spring. 

So unusual were the grapes, that my kindergarten class took a walking field trip to our house to see them. So did other gardeners come from time to time, interested in seeing these uncommon grape vines. 

Now the thing that almost all the first century folks listening to Jesus would have known about grape vines is that they are complicated plant systems. The vines twist and tangle up around grape trellises to find sunlight and air. The branches grow big leaves which protect the fruit from the sun and the rain. Other branches grow to make structure and support space for the fruit to the grow in sheltered areas between vines and branches. The grapes grow in luscious bunches when they find the combination of supported vine, protected shade and space. 

The vine, the support systems, the branches, the leaves all work together in symbiotic harmony to produce fruit. Unlike apples or some other fruit bearing trees and bushes that just seem to grow something no matter the conditions, grape vines need attention and care, they need all the parts of the plant working together towards the common purpose of growing fruit. 

And the branches that don’t work in the system need to be pruned back, even sometimes the branches that do work need to be cut back in order to keep the fruit growing. 

And it is this image of the complicated, fragile plant system that Jesus choose to describe the community of the church. If Jesus were Canadian he would describe a well coached hockey team, with all team members working toward the common goal… the players who weren’t getting cut from the team or traded away. 

The branch who does not abide withers away. 

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Whether it is a withering branch, a hockey player cut from a team, or a church members feeling disconnected from church community… it can feel a little rough to consider being cast out from a community from which we think we should belong. 

A branch withering on its own maybe hits a little too close to home these days. We get what it means to feel like we are withering way having cut pruned from the other branches and vine that we thought we belonged to. 

And on the other hand, we also know of the branches who will not abide. Those who insist on striking out on their own, those who will not abide working in harmony with the community, those who would rather be cut off than be beholden to system working together for the common good. 

Either way the effect is much the same, being cut off from community is life draining. Both for the branch who cannot abide or will not abide, but also for the system as it must heal and regrow to compensate for the loss. 

Abide in me as I abide in you.

And so it feels almost harsh that Jesus seems to suggest that not abiding is cause to get cut off by the vinegrower. Yet, Jesus is not being prescriptive, Jesus is not suggesting condemnation for those who aren’t getting along. 

Jesus is describing what happens to the branch that leaves the plant system. The branch will not abide, so the branch withers and then the branch is thrown into the fire and burned. Immediately our minds turn to the medieval visions of hellfire and brimstone. 

And yet to Jesus’ ancient hearers, hell would not be the place that they would be thinking of. 

Instead, they would imagine the cleansing fire pit of agricultural land. The place where the pruned branches, the branches who will not abide are reclaimed. Reclaimed, found again,  and brought back into the fold, into the plant system. 

These burned up branches are reclaimed and turned into new life, sprinkled as fertilizer onto gardens and vineyards, or added to compost as key sources of nutrients. 

Even the branches who will not abide, the branches that are burned up are still found and reclaimed by the vinegrower and put the purposes of new life. 

The withered branches are not left or abandoned or punished by the vinegrower, but instead are brought back into new life. 

And this complicated system of vines, of branches for leaves, branches for support and branches for fruit, are joined by branches for fertilizer ash. In the vines and branches, the community of the church there is room for all, for all kinds of gifts and skills to join in the work of producing fruit for the sake of the world, for all kinds of people who work in the midst of community and those who have trouble abiding. God vine grower pursues them all and finds a places for in the community that produces life. 

This is good news for us who are withering away these days. Those who of us who are having trouble abiding alone. Those of us who have forgotten how to live in systems and communities tasked with working for new life, for life for the sake of the world. 

That even when life feels as though it is draining from our bodies, God is the One seeking us out, finding and reclaiming us for the sake of the kingdom, putting back into the business of growing into new life. 

As we enter into yet another withering lockdown, as we contemplate our ever shifting and uncertain future, as we imagine what comes next in this topsy, turvey world, as the life feels as though it slowly draining away from us… God is busy at work, pruning, watering, tending and finding a place for us to grow into new life. 

God is making us ready to grow into new life when the time comes, making us ready for life in community, for being part of a system of vines, branches, leaves and fruit… and fertilizer once again. God is preparing us for life in together in the church, for being part of a worshipping, baptizing, word proclaiming, meal gathering, learning, growing, music making, praying, serving, community of faith once again… soon. 

But today, as we wait and wonder for God’s future… Jesus says:

Abide in me as I abide in you.

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