May 2, 2021
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: John 15:1-8, The Message or John 15:1-8, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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As much as I find myself often arguing against or puzzled by what John is writing, Chapter 15 of the Gospel according to John is currently one of my personal favourites.
In this passage, we learn a lot about:
- the kind of relationship we are to have with Jesus -
I am the Vine you are the branches;
- how we must maintain that relationship -
abiding in Jesus and following his commandments; and,
- what will result from that relationship -
bearing fruit and experiencing joy.
The focus of the text is on love, and today I want to very briefly offer a few reflections on love.
Catherine and I were talking the other day about what sort of a verb “love” is. Even though Catherine is a high school English teacher, she’s not particularly big on grammar. Yet we realized that the grammar of the verb love is highly instructive.
For example, “love” can be either a transitive or intransitive verb.
An intransitive verb is one where the subject is also the object of the verb. So for example, if someone says, “I love pizza” they are describing how they feel about pizza, and not what the pizza is experiencing from them.
In the same way, when someone says, "I love you," they may in fact only be talking about their own experience. They are really saying, “I am experiencing feelings of love for you,” but you, on the other hand, may not be feeling much love from them. This kind of loving is really a kind of ego trip. “I” am in love.
In order for love to be a transitive verb, the one who is loved must experience the love. “I love you” ought to mean that I am behaving in ways that give you the experience of being loved.
Just as “I feed you” ought to mean that I am giving you something that feeds you, so “I love you” ought to mean I am giving you something that nurtures you. This is what John means when he says that words without deeds are empty lies. Love expresses itself in behaviour that indeed is experienced by the other as love. Catherine and I make a point of remembering to say, “Thanks for loving me,” as much as we say, “I love you.”
However, loving someone is not the same as feeding them. When we feed someone, we usually give them something they don’t have. But when we love someone, we don’t give them something they don’t have. Rather, we connect with something that is already in them.
Jesus kind of alludes to this when he talks about us abiding in him as he abides in God and God abides in him and he in us. This is not about giving us something we don’t have, but is about connecting a circuit; connecting a flow of energy, purpose and life.
Actually, for John, "love" is not so much a feeling as it is a relationship of total trust, a bond of total loyalty. This is the way Jesus loves us: total commitment and loyalty.
When Jesus says, “I have come that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete,” he is trying to connect his joy with the joy that is already in us; to awaken our joy; to heal our joy; to give our joy new hope, a wider horizon, and a deeper grounding.
When we love one another as Jesus loves us, we first learn from Jesus what love is. And having experienced being loved by Jesus – had that love heal, restore and renew the loving that was already in us – we then love others the same way.
Today is Mother’s Day. For some, today will be an day of unfettered thanks. For some, today will be a day of grief and loss; of unrealized hopes. And for some, it will be a day of resentment and anger. All our human attempts at loving will be frail and faulty.
So today is not about guilt for not being perfect. Rather it is a day to open ourselves once again to the active, transitive, and transforming love that abides in us through Jesus as we abide in him.
God is what love is. Love abides in Jesus, and Jesus abides in us. Let us be open to the Love which abides in Jesus; let it abide in us; that being transformed ourselves, we may in turn love as we have been loved.
Thanks be to God for the transforming love lived in and through Jesus. This is good news for today.
A postscript about Verse 6.
In John's context where the followers of Jesus were being throwing to the lions, you were either completely in, completely committed and wholly part of the group - or you were completely out. However, since none of us ever achieve that purity individually - ALL have fallen short, ALL are saved by God's grace - this passage needs some further reflection.
Suppose we shift the language just a wee bit. And say, "WHATever does not abide in me is thrown away ..." instead of "WHOever."
Now that makes more sense. Personally, I'd welcome some of that kind of pruning in this lifetime: "Lord, prune away whatever in me is not abiding in you."
As one of my personal favourite saints, Mr. Rogers, often said, "Even people who are bad most of the time, are good some of the time. And even people who are good most of the time, are bad some of the time."
My conviction is that in the life to come, God prunes away the bad in all of us and brings us to wholly abide in him so that our joy is complete.
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, pages 233-234; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See below.
John 15:1-8 (NRSV)
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 prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed 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.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
John 15:1-8 (The Message)
1 "I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. 2 He cuts off every branch of me that doesn't bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. 3 You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.
4 "Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can't bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can't bear fruit unless you are joined with me.
5 "I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you're joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can't produce a thing. 6 Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. 7 But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. 8 This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.