by James Nieman
1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.
2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunesa to make it bear more fruit.
3 You have already been cleansedb by the word that I have spoken to you.
4 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.
5 I 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.
6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
As my third academic year at our school nears its close, I have concluded that springtime means frenzy at LSTC. In my first year, this insight was just a solitary point. After two years, it still only traced a line. Now with three year’s perspective, I can say with confidence that frenzy is our vernal trend. I don’t just mean the typical overwork to which we are addicted, the papers and reports, reading and writing that consume our days and nights. I don’t just mean the vast time spent on urgent meetings, intense conversation, impassioned debate. No, I mean how our lives now overflow with anxiety and complaint, hurt feelings and strong opinions, claims and counterclaims, demands that I or we or somebody for Pete’s sake just do something. And while the issues often matter deeply, it’s the frenzy I want you to see, the drama of it all – as if at any moment the wheels might fall off the LSTC wagon and then, well, then what? Isn’t it all up to us to make it better? Nieman, isn’t it all up to you to make it better?
So the joke is not lost on me that, when our Lord speaks to his disciples in today’s gospel, he urges not the decisive action we crave but something else entirely. The instruction repeated most often in this reading, seven times over and twice more implied, is the deceptively modest verb μένω. Our version translates it “abide,” but when did you last use that word in ordinary conversation? And it’s so much richer besides, a stream of meanings so at odds with our frenzy. Over and over, Jesus pleads μένω – remain, dwell, persist, live. Really? That’s it? And note that the image to which he connects this plea seems equally tepid. At dinner one evening, Jesus declares that he is a vine, his followers are branches, and so they should μένω – remain, dwell, persist, live – in him. Good grief, even last week’s gospel that portrayed us as stupid sheep sounds more exciting! Simply to be branches of a fixed and stable vine? To abide ever and only in that? Surely we need to do something! Where’s the drama?
Well, let me tell you where. In an ancient and odd quirk of the lectionary, during days long after Easter we return to the gospel stories just before Easter. It’s as if the lectionary anticipates our fatigue with the formulaic exchange, “Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Perhaps in sync with our sinking spirits, we return now to less giddy days, the night of Jesus’ betrayal, the night before he died. So where exactly is Jesus when he tells his disciples, as branches, to abide in him, the vine? He is at table with them. No sooner is the meal over than Jesus dramatically washes their feet. Judas then flees to betray him while Peter learns he will deny him. Dismayed that his own followers still don’t know who he is, Jesus warns of the hardship soon to come. And that’s all just before today’s reading. After these verses, Jesus details the danger that will envelop them all and how they will all abandon him in the end. So picture this: with frenzy and drama all around, with betrayal and denial over here and violent harm over there, amidst it all, at his last supper, Jesus tells his friends μένω – abide. At a time like this, it’s just not what you expect! Prepare, resist, fight, panic, do something – yes. But just abide?
Ahhh, but my weary friends, that’s the difference between so-called living that depends on us and life grafted onto Christ. And be clear about this: Jesus does not urge servile passivity. He instead names a source for hope beyond the foreshortened horizon of our own frantic ways. Lasting life is secured in the true vine, as branches of that vine, branches that finally, freely, gratefully μένω in Christ. All else, everything we think we can attain by our efforts alone, is fruitless, withered, empty. I know – our whole culture teaches otherwise, that your life depends upon trying harder, working longer, being better, doing more. But amidst such frenzied failure and deadly drama, Jesus speaks a countercultural truth – that to abide in him is genuine hope, his call simply to remain, dwell, persist, live.
And lest you find this too inactive, notice why Jesus bids his friends to abide – so they can bear fruit. To bear – φéρω – the second most common verb Jesus says to his disciples at table. The whole reason to remain in him is to bear up others, carry others, be fruitful for others. And this bearing and carrying and fruitfulness is not a self-generated achievement. It simply cannot happen without first being rooted in, grafted to, aligned with the vine of Christ. From a humble Lutheran perspective, you might even say that this seemingly inactive, almost pathetic image of vine and branches shows the right relation between God’s grace and our works. Because we first μένω in Christ – we remain, dwell, persist, live in him – therefore we φéρω in Christ as well – we bear up, carry, are fruitful for others. And if along the way a holy vinedresser prunes us to be more fruitful still, all the better. Cut clean of whatever deceives and distorts and deters us, then we are re-formed to abide in Christ, bear fruit through Christ, witness to Christ in a world longing for good news. My God, isn’t that why you came here in the first place – not for all the frenzy and drama, but to learn to tell this truth?
I know this isn’t a calm time for many of you, and for good reason. For some, today is the lull before leaving, only one more paper and four more nights before hurtling toward a vibrant ministry long awaited. For others, you are pausing at the door that opens onto a new vocation or season in life, feelings bittersweet with joy and uncertainty. And for still others, this is but a brief respite before an impending storm of nagging tasks and overdue work, gathering strength for what still lies ahead. For each of us here, plenty of frenzy and drama await.
Since we cannot prevent this but still long to be fruitful, let us heed our Lord’s invitation and just abide, abide here a moment more. Before we move on, like fruitful branches let us first grow to abide. On the night of his betrayal, with a frenzied drama ahead, Jesus called his own to abide in the true vine. So also on this blessed day, at this holy table, through this simple meal, let us once more abide. Christ’s life is poured out so we may live, that in our living we might be fruitful for others. This is the resurrection gift in which we now μένω – invited like dear friends by the abiding word to remain, to dwell, to persist – at last to live.