Barbara J. Campbell, Pastor
As part of the very first words of Jesus in John’s gospel, this early evangelist introduces the idea of “abiding.” Jesus asks two men who were disciples of John the Baptist and were now following Jesus around, “What are you looking for?” And the answer the disciples give to Jesus is, “Where are you abiding?”
At first it seems like an innocent inquiry about where Jesus is living since many English translations use the word “staying” in this context. Perhaps this made sense to English translators because knowing where Jesus was living would help the disciples find Jesus later, if or when they wanted to learn more from him.
Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer to the question of the disciples about his accommodations, however. He tells them only, “Come and see!” and with these three words we are drawn down the road with the disciples and into the story of Jesus’ ministry as John’s gospel tells it.
The text we read from John today is at the end of this story. Jesus has finished the Passover meal with his friends and, it seems, senses that his life may be in danger. The author returns to the theme of abiding, but this time Jesus talks to his disciples about where they will abide.
The vineyard is used as a common image for God’s people in scripture. After the Hebrew people were rescued from slavery in Egypt they were called a “vine” that God had planted in the Promised Land. The prophet Isaiah spoke about Israel as the vineyard that God cared for meticulously, giving them every advantage, yet at harvest time they yielded only wild grapes.
The image of a vine with branches and fruit is one of nourishment, growth, productivity. There can be no branches without the vine to draw nourishment from the earth. There can be no fruit with the branches to bring forth buds. The leaves on the branches collect sunlight needed for everything to grow.
The vine is an image of interdependence; community; of living in relationship, of not living life on your own. Community, like a vine, is the first and ultimate nature of God. In Judeo/Christian stories, and many other traditions, God exists in community. In the story of Genesis God declares, “Let us make human beings in our image.” Throughout scripture, God walks and speaks and protects and defends God’s people. God exists in sacred story always as part of a community.
Jesus, the revelation of the divine for Christians, ministered always as part of a community. He had a network of human friends, like Mary and Martha, on whom he relied and he gathered disciples to travel with him and formed intimate relationships with them. He welcomed strangers who came to him for help and the crowds that followed him.
For 300 years after the Christian Easter experience, the followers of Jesus stayed connected in small communities; meeting in private homes. The Apostle Paul called these followers the Body of Christ; a body called to participate in the creative work of redeeming the world. Our creativity and strength relies on our connection to the body like branches to a vine.
There seems to be two parts to this abiding for John’s evangelist. First there is the issue of what we do with our lives, as when the disciples followed to see what Jesus was up to, and then there is the issue of where one’s heart, mind, and soul abides; what our inner lives are attached to; abiding in.
What do you suppose is so important about “abiding?” about recognizing where we “abide?” Where are some of the places, emotionally or out there is the world, that you abide at times? What are some of the hard places we abide and the helpful places?
The Greek word for “abiding” means literally “pitching a tent.” We can pitch our tent freely and purposefully, or we can find that we’ve pitched our tent somewhere that we never meant to pitch it. Sometimes we “abide” in a place of anxiety; or in an environment of competition; or in the land of “shoulds;” or fenced in by anger or any other human emotion. Sometimes we “abide” in quiet, restful, loving places; sometimes we find an answer to a question and relax into a state of peace; we glimpse at family, friends, loved ones, just doing their thing, and abide for awhile in thankfulness and grace.
In ancient Israel, much like today, the poorest in the land, the destitute of society, the migrant workers, did the work of vine-dressing. Jesus would have turned the worldview of his listeners upside down when he spoke of God as the ultimate vinedresser. Vinedressers do more than break their backs toiling in the fields. It is the vinedresser who is in charge of the pruning; of cutting back the vine to insure new and productive growth; of determining what death or disease is harming the vine and needs to be eliminated. The vinedresser is responsible for the vitality of the vine.
I have often wished that this story of the vine did not include this work of pruning. It would certainly be nicer to read how our God, as the vinedresser, strolls in the vineyard speaking words of encouragement to the branches, propping them up with sturdy stakes, giving extra care to the unhealthy and urging even the fruitless branches to hang in there. This is often the care and encouragement that God’s grace provides but not in this story.
This time we read that the vinedresser takes the branches which do not bear fruit and throws them into the fire. Even though these are harsh words; words added to the story perhaps by an early gospel writer to encourage his readers toward faithful living, we also know realistically that if a branch fails to abide; to dwell, to pitch its tent, as part of the vine; it will not survive for long. And when we separate ourselves from the spirit that nurtures and sustains us or from the work that enrichs us, we also know that we often wither and fade.
There were other times when Jesus talked about belief and faithfulness and justice, but as part of his final words; his “farewell discourse” in John, Jesus spoke simply about “abiding.” “Abide in me,” Jesus says, “as I abide in you.” John declares that Jesus abides in us. Jesus has pitched his tent within us; as close as possible to our heart and mind and soul, as close as possible like the vine that we draw all our strength and vitality, courage and wisdom from.
His love; his gospel; his justice abides within all of us. It is abiding in us leading us to live fully in the Spirit of Love and Truth. But we are also called to abide in Jesus; to stay connected to Jesus, as we stay connected to those loving and accountable relationships in which God transforms us and uses us to transform the world. We abide in Jesus at this table today and celebrate that he abides in us.