Sixth Sunday of Easter
John 15:1-8 (extended to verse 11)
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, May 14, 2023
Last week, we heard the chapter before today’s gospel passage in which Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to prepare dwelling places for them. When they ask where he is going, he reveals himself as the way, the truth, and the life, and says that those who know him will know his Father also. In other words, he responds not by pulling out a map and showing a location, but rather by giving us himself. It’s about relationship, not a place.
The same is true in today’s reading about the vine, the vinedresser, and the branches. Jesus uses the word “abide” nine times again not referring to a place, but rather a relationship. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” he says.
This passage is often seen as a launching point for the preacher to give you three ways in which you can abide in Jesus (for example by prayer, reading the Bible, being generous, and so on). The problem is that “abiding” isn’t something to do. Abide is a passive verb in Greek. It’s not something you do, it’s who you are. In this metaphor, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. What do branches do? Work really hard to stay connected to the vine? No, branches simply exist as part of the overall vine.
All you have to do is be a branch. If you’re worried you aren’t abiding, you are abiding, because a person who is not abiding isn’t worried about this at all. Whoever does not abide in Jesus is apparently thrown into the fire and burned. Jesus isn’t saying, “You’d better abide or else! This is a description of being.
The vine was a common image used in the Hebrew Bible to speak of Israel as God’s people and conveyed the ideas of divine love and divine judgment. And it was a common image in the minds the disciples as they listened to Jesus speak these words as the Jewish Temple was surrounded by a giant golden vine. The vinedresser here is still God, but the vine is not Israel, but Jesus. The branches are part of the vine, that is, part of Jesus’ mystical body, the Church. Through the waters of baptism, we are grafted into Christ’s body, the Church, not because of our own works, but by the unmerited grace of God. All of the baptized make up the branches of the vine, with God the Father pruning and cleaning so that we all may bear good fruit.
Like last week, this passage is all about relationship, not a list of rules. That said, branches only exist as part of the greater vine, not in isolation. This was somewhat of a new concept to me coming out of the Southern Baptist worldview. For many evangelicals, the only requirement to abide in Jesus is to pray and read the Bible at home. In this view, church attendance and corporate worship and being involved in the wider body of Christ is viewed as helpful and highly recommended, but not essential. On the other hand, you have the Roman Catholic Church with its notion of “holy obligation” which states that the faithful are required to attend Mass on Sundays and certain other high feast days, unless impeded by sickness or other serious reason; the failure to go to Mass on these days is said to be a grave sin that, under certain conditions, can send you to hell unless you go to private confession first. The Episcopal Church is, like you might expect, sort of in the middle. Title II, Canon 1, of the 2022 Canons of the Episcopal Church says, “All persons within this Church shall celebrate and keep the Lord’s Day, commonly called Sunday, by regular participation in the public worship of the Church, by hearing the Word of God read and taught, and by other acts of devotion and works of charity, using all godly and sober conversation.” This expectation is not issued as an edit under pain of eternal damnation, it’s a description of who we are as Christian people. Rather than “holy obligation,” I prefer the term “holy opportunity.”
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says.
When I say that Christianity isn’t all about the rules, it’s about relationship, don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the Church has no expectations of the faithful. We do. There are expectations, formal and informal, in every relationship. But I don’t think of these expectations as a list of things to get done on a checklist to avoid the pains of hell. The simple expectation to come to church on Sundays and major feasts is more a description of the foundational practice of all Christians – what it means to be a branch on the vine.
The branches are fed and nourished by being part of the vine; we are fed and nourished with spiritual food and drink in the Sacraments of the Church. Baptism is how we become branches, and it is in the bread and wine of Holy Communion – especially on Sundays and major feasts – that we are nourished, and pruned, and even made clean by the vinedresser. At the breaking of the bread, we offer and present to the Lord our whole selves, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice to him, asking the Father that we may be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.
Each of us – each branch on the vine – is part of the greater whole, but we, of course, maintain our individuality and come to this place with our individual struggles and joys. The vinedresser prunes every branch that bears fruit, that it may bear more fruit. I remember seeing a recently pruned vineyard while on a winery tour in Northern California and thinking that the vine had been pruned back so much that it looked dead! The Christian life is not all fun and games. Sometimes it can be brutal, and sometimes it is joyful. But God is at work in each of our lives, whether we’re bearing fruit right now or are so pruned back that we couldn’t bear the weight of even one, small grape.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love…These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!