John 15:1-8, Jesus and the Vine and We

[May 3, 2015] Today is the Fifth Sunday of Easter and we move from Jesus’ “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10 to “I am the Vine” in chapter 15. Jesus’ use of this metaphor occurs in the chiastic center of the Last Supper narrative in John’s gospel (chapters 13—17). Like the gospel itself, this narrative is structured in a cruciform: chapter 15 is at the traverse or cross-joint, where the two beams come together. The foot-washing in chapter 13 form the lower vertical stiles while Jesus’ prayer to the Father constitutes the upper stiles: the earlier speaking of service in humility and the later of unity in glory. Chapters 14 and 16—where Jesus speaks of preparing himself as the Father’s house (to become a place with many abodes) on the one hand, and where he speaks of a child-bearing mother giving birth to himself in resurrection on the other—form the patibulum, right and left of the horizontal beam: in both images Jesus is one and the many, and the many are one. It is therefore interesting that the central image is the vine. It is like the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden of Paradise, in which flows four rivers, rivers of life.

Around the chiastic center of John’s gospel is the feeding of the five thousand on the one side and the Bread of Life discourse on the other. From this center emanates the gospel’s four arms. (At the center is the crossing of the sea, a powerful Passover image, with Jesus revealing himself as the “I am”; it also alludes to the creation of light by the Word on the first day of creation, where the Spirit of God breathed over the waters of the chaos.) Implicit in the Bread of Life discourse, where Jesus speaks of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, are the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine. Wine is the fruit of the vine.

There, wine is poured out blood. As at the wedding of Cana (John 2), wine also speaks of life and joy and satiety. At the wedding of Cana, the vine (wine) and supper are also united—there with a nuptial sense. Jesus is united to his bride—alluding to both the tree of the cross, where his side was pierced and blood and water poured out (John 19:34), and the resurrection. In the wedding of Cana we find Mary of Nazareth and in the garden of the resurrection Mary of Magdala, both speaking in their own way of the inner and verdant life of the people of God. On the one hand the vine alludes to the cross (a tree, the blood), and on the other to the resurrection (its life and joy). We can go further, I think, and say that the wine as an emblem of life and joy speaks of the Spirit who is breathed out by Christ into us on the day of his resurrection. We might be tempted to see the first (the cross) as having a masculine character—Jesus to the fight—and the second (the resurrection) as having a feminine one—with the Lady Holy Spirit being given. That is there, especially in the valor with which Jesus gives himself over to his arrest, and almost takes charge of his trial and execution, but in this gospel Jesus also compares his death to the suffering of a mother giving birth, and otherwise gives his death a feminine significance as well as his resurrection. The blood of Jesus becomes the wine of the Spirit, both a birthing and a nuptial image.

“I am the vine”: the vine as the tree of the cross is where the Tree of Knowledge (via his death) meets the Tree of Life (via his resurrection): where wine poured out on account of our alienation from God, to reconcile us, becomes the wine of the Spirit which unites us to God.

The vine is associated with the wisdom of God in the wisdom genre of the scriptures, and John depicts the Last Supper as a banquet of wisdom where rivers flow out from the vine at the center, where bread and wine become life-giving. The wisdom of God is the (feminine) presence of God in the world, the operation and fruition of the word of God (the masculine “seed”) by which all things come into being. Jesus’ discourse discloses the word and wisdom of God that is the mystery of existence itself as well as God’s way with us.

“I am the vine, you are the branches.” At this point the “I am” statements of Jesus in this gospel reach a certain crescendo, for here it is “explicitly opened to an inhering participation by his disciples,” us (page 129 of Bruno Barnhart, The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center, published by Paulist Press in 1993). In other words, as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit co-inhere, each dwelling in the other, so we, by participating in Jesus through the indwelling the Holy Spirit, are invited into this co-inherence. The branches are no less the vine, even if only branches of the vine.

At the beginning of John’s gospel we read, “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. This one [the incarnate one of whom the gospel speaks] was with God in the beginning. Through this one [who is the Word] all things came into being, [indeed] not one thing came into being except through him. What has come into being in him was life, life that was the light of human beings.”

In other words, the Word is the Tree of Life which was in the world in the beginning, and when humanity sinned at the Tree of Knowledge and alienated itself further and further from God, they were banished from the Word as the life-giving Tree at the center of creation. Yet the spirit of living things is their conscious being. Without consciousness we are dead (even in sleep we are conscious—for we dream; and even in deep sleep there is a kind of awareness). The life of living things is their light—the light of consciousness—and that light is the Word. The light of the Word is their life, and without it they die. Every human being has this light, yet we choose to live not by that light but by the delusions constructed in our minds (by ourselves and by the society that crafted us). Jesus is come into the world—he who is the Word from the beginning—to awaken our spirits to the light, and thus give us new birth.

When Jesus reveals his reality to our spirit, our spirit comes alive from its slumber, and we become witnesses to the truth, to the light, to others. We are not the light but by bearing witness to the light the true light can enlighten others. This is actually our vocation in the world: to bear witness to the Word, which is the truth of creation. We ourselves become branches of the vine, giving life in this way to others, bearing fruit.

So Jesus tells us to abide in him, to root ourselves in him, the vine at the center of creation from which flows the rivers of life. If we abide in him, the life of the vine will flow through us, his wine will flow through us, and we will bear grapes (wine) for others. If we do not abide in him, if we do not root ourselves in him and remain in him, we will be “thrown out” as Adam was thrown out of Paradise. (Interestingly, Eve was not, though she followed her “man” and thus was lorded over by him). Judas was thus cast out.

Judas, as one cast out, becomes an interesting figure in the scriptures, for he represents the human race, and the apostate of Israel, and the apostate church. What will become of those who are cast out? They wither, Jesus tells us. Humanity cannot but wither as long as it remains in denial of its light, the wisdom of God in all things, the Word which brings all into being. And all these withered-up branches will be collected and thrown on the fire and be burnt. There, the Bible tells us, the never-ending fire will consume them completely. Yet though Israel is consumed completely, she survives, again and again, and, the prophets tell us, even the northern kingdom will be restored and united again to the southern kingdom. We have inherited other interpretations besides this one—interpretations which confuse the never-ending fire with never-ending suffering; interpretations that allow no room for restoration. Something is indeed consumed, completely, but there is a self that nevertheless comes through, purged and purified. Well, this is for another discussion.

Jesus the vine is able to include us as his branches in his resurrection when he breathes into us the Holy Spirit. Then, as he abides in us, we abide in him. We need to root ourselves in him and hold fast (be faithful) to him, to this our center, which is the center of the universe, of creation, the place where not only heaven and earth meet, but where divinity and creation meet and enter into union—in his own divinized humanity. If we do this, his wine (life) will flow through us and we will bear fruit. Then the Father, working externally in the arrangements of our lives, prunes us that we may bear more fruit.

“It is the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit and be my disciples.” The word “glory” in these chapters has a specific meaning. It does not refer merely to honor and praise. Glorification is what happens to Jesus in resurrection. The glory of the Father refers to the manifestation of the divine nature in us. We are not divine, but “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4). Within us is the treasure of the divine life. It is imperative that this divine life—the life of Jesus—become manifested in our humanity. This is the sap of new life, our fruit, and our wine.

This is the basic idea. Next Sunday, as we consider the next group of verses in this chapter, we shall perhaps see more clearly what it means for the life of the vine to flow through us to produce its fruit.

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