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.
– John 15:4
The more closely we examine Jesus’s words in John 15 – among the last words he would speak before his death – the more it seems an awkward mix of metaphors. On the one hand, he uses as the key verb “abide,” which sounds to our ears almost transcendental, serene, relinquished. Something that could happen most comfortably on a couch.
On the other hand, a simple look at the grammar (in original Greek or in translation) shows the verb to be imperative. Something we oughta to keep doing, or at least start doing! Jesus even adds tough words about what happens when the abiding doesn’t happen – cutting, tossing, burning. Seems we should take this seriously and get after it. But how to go after simply being a branch? Especially when, as Jesus says, we already are?
What’s happening here, and which is it? First, a few important observations about background and context…
1. Jesus refers to himself as the true vine (verse 1). Not only is “vine” a familiar image in his cultural setting (the teaching may have even taken place in a local vineyard shortly after the Last Supper), it is a familiar Jewish scriptural expression referring to the people of Israel (e.g. Isaiah 5:1-7). Jesus was reframing and re-locating “the people of God.” The provocative claim likely wasn’t lost on those listening.
2. Jesus employs the even more provocative I am divine identification (verse 1, echoing Exodus 3:14) that nearly got him murdered earlier (John 8:59), and now will bring his death in a matter of hours. “I am the bread of life” (6:35); “I am the light of the world” (8:12); “I am the gate” (10:9); and “I am the way” (14:6). While the Hebrew scriptures do carry themes of God’s desire for nearness with humanity, here we have an intermingling of the divine and human pressed to a degree of oneness that is frankly hard to fathom – then and now.
3. The verb “abide,” in addition to being imperative, is also plural. “You all abide” – together. Further, it shares the same root (in Greek and in English) as “abode,” or dwelling place. In other words, “Y’all make yourselves at home.”
4. At home where? In me. At home how? As I make myself at home in you (15:4). Yes the intermingling is hard to fathom, which is why Jesus actually has lived it together with his followers these many days and years, and will live and die it with humanity in the hours to come.
5. Still confused about this imperative and begging for a more familiar rule-command format? Ok then, Jesus says, here it is: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12). It’s been quite a journey, this love as I have loved, and will be quite a journey to come. “Pruning,” while a tad harsh to the ear, hardly even begins to evoke the extremes Jesus and his followers will undergo in coming hours, days, and years – “made perfect through sufferings” (Heb. 2:10).
6. But here’s the mystery: what needs to be accomplished is already deeply true. “You have already been cleansed” (John 15:3). The word “cleansed” here is actually pruning lingo; the vine has been nipped and tucked into shape exactly as the vinegrower wishes. Already. Yep, you friends of mine, who as it happens will betray and deny me before the morning rooster crows, are already fully inside the abode of love.
What richness here! What an image of intimacy and vitality! Yet utterly devoid of sentimentality in these last hours. All but essentials are stripped bare, and the stripping experience is frankly quite rough.
Reflecting on Jesus’s multi-layered use of this very simple image of vine and branches, together with our multilayered lives, we can discern a pattern of unfolding stages of life in Christ:
First, our belonging in belovedness. The amazing good news that we already “are” deeply at home in love, and love finds its home in us. “As the Father has loved me” – remember the words at Jesus’s baptism and transfiguration? – “so I have loved you” (15:9). Which is to say, we are deeply at home in God.
Second, becoming alive to love. Together in the humanity we share with Jesus, we may give our yes to love’s invitation, struggle to learn obedience to love’s imperatives, suffer love’s deaths, and awaken to love’s resurrections. We become pruned of whatever is not life, not love. Which is to say, we are becoming alive to God.
Third, simply being. We become love’s very way of flowing, as life-sap flows through vine and branches and fruit, with an effortlessness beyond our efforts. Christ is “in us,” as Jesus puts it here and Paul is fond of saying later. Our experience becomes less about any uncertainty of belonging or any struggle for loving – we are simply part of God’s flow.
In all is grace; “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).