We are studying John 15:4-17 for Sunday, November 8. The text includes Jesus’s discourse on the vine and the branches, and also his reminder that no one has greater love than the one who lays down his life for his friends.
We studied this text several years ago. Those notes on the text, from 2017, are here, and a meditation on the text (because that’s what I was doing back then) is here. [Some questions on the text are here.]
Those notes from three years ago looked very thorough to me, but as you know, the Bible is constantly new – so the few notes below are what strikes me as new this time around.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Our text is right in the middle of Jesus’s long final discourse with the disciples, before his betrayal, arrest, and passion. Since we are trying to read our texts through the thematic lens of love this quarter, we’ll probably particularly notice how central “love” is to this entire discourse. Jesus keeps circling back around to love. Last week we read how he demonstrates the important meaning of love as washing one another’s feet.
Jesus continues with the text in chapter 14 – familiar to many as a text for funerals, about “many mansions” and “going to prepare a place for you,” but also about knowing and seeing the Father, and sending the Holy Spirit, and “if you love me you will keep my commandments” (which we may feel we heard, implicitly, last week, and which we’ll hear explicitly again this week).
Then we come to our text: “the vine and the branches,” we might have learned to call it. Then, more declaration of going to the Father, which the disciples greet with an exclamation “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech!”
[And I admit, this statement always makes me laugh, because by this point in John I, myself, generally feel like Jesus is not speaking plainly at all and I don’t understand anything.] Then Jesus’s prayer for the disciples. Including Jesus’s final declaration of purpose, “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
The comment on figures of speech may make a reference to our text for the week, which uses that central figure of speech, a metaphor of vine, vinegrower, and branches. So part of our challenge will be to see that figure of speech as plainly as the disciples reportedly do by the end of chapter 16.
The text is in the lectionary as two separate readings, one on Easter (verses 1-8) and the other on the sixth Sunday of Easter (verses 9-17), in year B – Easter being a season in which the lectionary emphasizes readings from John, which doesn’t have “it’s own year” in the three-year cycle of readings.
CLOSER READING: Jesus’s language about “abiding” strikes me on this reading as genuinely obscure and needing some extended and honest thought. It is probably clear to us what it means for grape vine branches to “abide” in a grape vine. Even if we have never seen a grape vine, we have probably seen other vines, and we have also seen other plants that have branches, and we know what happens to branches that are separated from their plants.
But we are not actually plants. Assuming we identify ourselves with the disciples here, which raises a whole other issue, that makes the question for us how our own metaphorical vine-branch-iness translates into less metaphorical human terms, and what it means in those literal, human terms to abide in Jesus. How we answer that question will presumably matter. I think we often answer it by falling back on one of the church-y slogans available to us, like “belonging to the church,” “taking Jesus as our personal savior,” “following Jesus’s teachings,” or whatever. It seems worth considering whether any of those available slogans captures what Jesus is saying to us here.
More literally, Jesus commands the disciples, chooses them, and appoints them – a word that in most contexts is simply the verb for putting, setting out, like we would with plant starts – to go and bear fruit [more metaphor], so that the Father will honor their requests in Jesus’s name. That is, in verses 12-17 Jesus asserts tremendous authority vis-à-vis the disciples. It seems worth asking ourselves how that squares with our own experience of Jesus.
Jesus gives the standard for love as laying down one’s life for one’s friends. That’s the standard.
[And because grading is what’s mostly on my mind at the moment, I immediately think of the rubric that might be attached to a standard like this … “lays down life for friends”: proficient – consistently and cheerfully; well-developed – meets the standard in most cases; ongoing – recognizes the standard, makes efforts to achieve it; beginning – aware of the standard … ? LOL – I hope.]
When Jesus explicitly says he “no longer” calls the disciples servants, but now names them friends, it makes me wonder when exactly he ever called them servants – that is, what that appellation specifically refers to, because it is not clear that it refers to anything Jesus says in the gospel of John. [John 13:16, maybe? And that’s by implication.] So perhaps it refers to something else.