by William Loader, Murdoch University, Australia
Gospel Reading: John 15:1-8
John 14 ends with the word, ‘Arise, let us go from here.’ At an earlier stage in the composition of the gospel, chapter 18 would have come next, but now chapters 15-17 intervene. This is an expansion of Jesus’ last words to his disciples, found in John 13-14. It was a feature of accounts of the lives of significant people, that people focused on their last words. They are their parting advice. Already we see this in the blessings of Jacob at the end of Genesis. Similarly Deuteronomy represents Moses’ final words. Literature sprang up devoted to portraying the parting advice of holy people like ‘The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs’ and ‘The Testament of Abraham’. In the gospels we see this development already in Mark with Mark 13. Luke relocates Jesus’ final speech to the context of the last supper (Luke 22:21-38). John also has it there, but in a greatly expanded form. John 14 picks up many of the motifs found in Mark 13.
In these discourses we find the kind of things that the authors believed Jesus was saying to the people of their day. In Mark, it is above all about the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. It is interesting that the expansions in John 15-17 strongly emphasize unity within the community. When we read 1 John, we are not surprised at this, because we read there of a split in the community (1 John 2:19). John 15-17 is probably written at a time when the danger of a split was emerging.
It begins, however, with a familiar image: the vine. Perhaps the claim to be the true vine contrasts with the use of the image for Israel. More likely it is yet another example of applying images of Israel and of the Law to Jesus. The focus is not, however, on differentiating this vine from others, but on the need to remain in the vine and to bear fruit. The historical Jesus had spoken of good trees and good fruit. Paul uses the image of fruit of the Spirit. The image is useful in explaining behavior as the result of the state of our being. In John it refers directly to Jesus and the community of faith. This enables the author to emphasize a number of points.
Remaining in, abiding in, the vine is crucial. The language of abiding in or simply being ‘in’ is the language of intimacy, almost sexual in tone, but expressing a continuing relationship of closeness. For John, salvation is, above all, a relationship with the Son and with the Father through the Son. This fits well the image of the vine. Branches need to ensure they remain connected. Fruitful branches will be carefully pruned - a reference to persecution? It need not be. In fact the pruning is likened to purifying. What purifies is the word (15:2-3), so care for the branches means teaching and nurturing them. The word is the word of love, the word of life which Jesus brings.
Fruit could also be love. Certainly 15:9-17 emphasizes the command to love. But in the light of previous use of the fruit image (for instance, 12:24-32) and the emphasis in 14:10-14, it is more likely that fruit bearing relates to bringing others into this relationship with Christ. The two ideas are in any case closely connected. Evangelism which is not understood as an aspect of love usually becomes some form of manipulation or numbers drive.
The exhortation to bear fruit and the warning about what happens with branches which fail to do so sound like a distant reworking of the preaching of John the Baptist, who also used such imagery (see Matt 3:10; Luke 3:9). The version here is a little less brutal in its threat. There is a sadness about withering branches, but John’s gospel also gives stark warnings. When we cut ourselves off from life, we cut ourselves off from life.
The image of the tree, vine or plant is a rich source for spiritual reflection. It invites us to sense the divine as beneath us, rising up, rather than above us condescending. The top down model has its attractiveness, but it is often associated with notions of power which confuse or abuse. The simplicity of the image of life from below suits John’s spirituality well, where relationship is what matters, and how we live is determined solely by that relationship, what flows from it. The vine and its resources enable the branches to grow and bear fruit. The image invites us to transcend its contours and imagine ourselves as being able to connect and disconnect from the source. Our spirituality consists in letting the flow happen. John is practical enough to know that this is not automatic. It needs encouragement, instruction, leading.
The promise that we receive what we ask for (15:7), also echoes an early tradition (‘Ask and it will be given to you’ Matt 7:2; Luke 11:9). It has already appeared in 14:13-14. Here, as there, it belongs within the context of living for love. There, the disciples will do what Jesus did, and even more, as the Spirit enables them to do so (14:12,16). So neither here nor there is it the foundation for a prosperity theology. The saying appears to fascinate the writer, who returns to it again in 15:16 (also in the context of bearing fruit) and in 16:23-24; 16:26. We will receive what we need to be a connected branch bearing fruit. Asking seems another way of opening ourselves to the vine, to the resources.
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