Our Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday of Easter, John 15:1-8, reaches back to the Last Supper and Jesus’ final discourse to the apostles, a conversation only recorded in the Gospel of John. Chapters 13 to 16 of John retell the events of the Last Supper, as John remembered them. In this year’s Palm Sunday reading, Mark’s Gospel told us that the residents of Jerusalem threw fresh “branches” on the road to celebrate the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem.
In this passage, the Gospel author refines an Old Testament theme that suggests that the Messiah is the “branch,” or “stump” of Jesse. Jesus, the Messiah, is not merely a branch of the House of David. He is the true vine, more closely associated with God than with David. In this Johannine reading, Jesus explains his theology of the true vine, where God is the vine dresser, Jesus the vine, and his disciples the branches.
A Vine Branch is Pruned by the Word
Jesus tells us that God is the vine grower, or the one who dresses the vineyard. God prunes the vine, removing those branches that do not bear fruit, and pruning those branches that do. The analogy is profound, because anyone who knows viticulture can tell you that grape vines can grow to be quite extensive. They can develop a deep, almost impossible to remove root network, and can live for a hundred years, or more. A grape-vine indeed needs to be pruned repeatedly, so that it bears fruit rather than becoming overgrown.
According to Jesus, we are pruned by the “Word,” which can refer to both Scripture and God himself. Jesus tells us that disciples pruned by the Word bear more fruit. In other words, or work in ministry is made effective only by our devotion to the Word, and our relationship with Jesus, the Word.
Remain in Me
Jesus uses some unusual language in John 15. He tells his disciples to remain in him. This is not the first time that John’s Gospel employs highly unusual language to explain Jesus’ relationship with his disciples. In John 6, Jesus called himself the bread of life, (6:35) telling his disciples that unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (6:53). Jesus uses the term remain in me, to emphasize a close relationship between God and man. The Greek term is μένω (meno, Strong’s 3306). This word means to stay or to remain.
Jesus emphasizes that the relationship between him and the believer is very close. So close, in fact, that the believer is asked to abide in Christ. By this, Jesus implies many things. He asks us to trust to him, to place our confidence in him, to rely on him more than our own judgment or our own friends, to live in him, and to depend on him for everything. The relationship between Jesus and the disciples is so close, in fact, that he is like the vine, and we are like its branches.
Without Me, You Can Do Nothing
Jesus says, without me, you can do nothing. This echoes Psalm 127, unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. And also James 1:17, Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above. Or to put it another way, all good things come from God, including our own success. A vine branch cut from the vine will wither and die. By the same token, if we are cut off from Jesus, our ministry will fail.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me
will be thrown out like a branch and wither;
people will gather them and throw them into a fire
and they will be burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”