Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, speak your word to us, cleanse us by your word, and draw us to you that we may abide in Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.
I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the Gospel of John. John 15:1-17. John is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Today is Palm Sunday. The children already reminded us that this Sunday we remember when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna – “Lord, Save us!” Palm Sunday is also the beginning of Holy Week, where Jesus will head to the cross, the grave, and the empty tomb. Our passage this morning comes from late Thursday night of that week. Jesus has eaten the supper with his disciples and Judas has gone out to betray him. Jesus speaks with his disciples a few final words on discipleship before he heads to the cross. It’s John 15:1-17.
Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
I am the true vine and my Father is the winegrower. He removes every branch in me that does not bear fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers, such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am give you these commands so that you may love one another.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Abide in the Vine
Repetition in the Bible is God’s way of telling us to pay attention. When the same word shows up over and over again in a passage, we should pause and take a closer look. I hope you heard it in this morning’s passage: abide, abide, abide, abide. Abide in me as I abide in you. Abide in my love. Abide. Abide. Abide. When Jesus talks to his disciples about what it means for them to be disciples, the first and more repeated word we have in this passage is ‘abide.’
But what does that mean? ‘Abide’ is not a normal, everyday word – at least for me. The greek word translated into English as ‘abide’ is meno. Meno means ‘to remain or to stay.’ Another way to say it is to endure or remain steadfast. The Hebrew word for this in the Old Testament usually refers to God, God’s promises, or God’s word. “the grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of the Lord ________ forever” (endures). While other things change, God remains steadfast, God abides. While humans will grow old and die, flowers will wither, monuments will eventually crumble, and even the greatest empires will fall, God endures, God abides. His promises do not fade, but remain. His word will not fail, but endures forever.
Abide is an image of stability, not movement. Abide says ‘stay,’ not ‘go.’ Abide says ‘remain,’ not ‘leave.’ We live in a world of ever-increasing movement. We live in a world of ‘go.’ We are taught that if you aren’t moving forward, you are moving backward. If you are not preparing for the next thing, you are failing. We are told we have to study now to pass the next test, to get right grade, to get into the right school, to get the right job. Move, move, move, move. We are told to be more productive, to make more progress, to push the boundaries. Go, go, go. Move, move, move.
But these are not the words of Jesus. Instead, he says ‘abide, abide, abide.’ ‘stay, stay, stay.’ Remain steadfast, endure. The first word of being a disciple of Jesus is not ‘go,’ but ‘abide.’
Jesus illustrates the sense and significance of ‘abiding’ with the image of the vine. It’s verse 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. A gardener or a farmer plants a vine, like the grape vine Jesus is talking about here, so that it will bear fruit. This fruit is a blessing to others. Grapes are delicious. They can be preserved as raisins or made into wine. The fruit also produces seeds so that other vines can be planted. This is how God made plants. If you look through the creation account in Genesis 1, God is very specific in making plants that bear fruit with seeds in them. This is part of the purpose of cultivating plants, to harvest their fruit for nourishment, blessing, and to produce seeds for more plants.
However, there will be no grapes on a branch if it is not connected to the vine. The branch draws life from the vine and is only living when it is attached to the vine. That branch, if it is connected to the vine, will produce leaves and flowers which, when pollinated, will bring forth grapes. But if that branch is cut off or removed, or even if it still appears to be attached, but has lost its living connection to the vine, it withers and dies. As Jesus says, a branch by itself does not bear fruit, but only when it is connected to the vine.
So the branch must remain attached to the vine if it is going to bear fruit. It must ‘abide’ – stay, endure, remain steadfast. It must have that living connection to the vine. The same is true of disciples with Jesus.
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. 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.
Abide in Christ
The first word of discipleship is ‘abide’ – endure, stay, remain steadfast. It is a word not of movement, but of stability. But the call of Jesus is very specific. We are to abide, to remain in Jesus Christ. And also, according to verse 9, we are to abide in his love. The call to ‘abide’ or ‘remain’ is not to remain where you are, but to remain in Christ. This is not generic advice to pause before action or to be rooted and ‘grow where you are planted.’ It is the specific call of Christ to discipleship “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” But the path of discipleship with Jesus is not first movement, but abiding, remaining, staying. It is staying with Jesus.
Disciples of Jesus are to remain in living connection to Jesus Christ. Unlike the flowers which fade, our connection to Jesus Christ must endure. Like the vine, we are to draw life from him. Who we are, our identity, our calling, our hope, our future, all of this are found in him and can only come from him. Do you know of the Heidelberg Catechism, that series of 129 questions and answers that have been used for generations to teach children and converts the basics of the Christian faith? I think it captures what Jesus is talking about when he calls us to abide in him in its very first question: What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. The first word of discipleship is to abide in Jesus Christ, to remain in Jesus Christ, to stay in living connection to Jesus Christ, to draw our life from him, our only comfort from belonging to him.
Our abiding, our enduring, our remaining must be rooted in Jesus Christ. We are not to remain as we are, but to remain in him. We are called out of who we are into who he has made us to be in him. We are not left as we were, but made new by our living connection with Jesus Christ, by our abiding in him.
The amazing thing is that this abiding goes both ways. Abide in me as I abide in you. Jesus promises to endure in us, to remain steadfast in us. Just as we are called to remain in him in order, like a vine, to draw life from him, he will remain in us so that we can draw life from him. We are to live dependent upon him and he promises to be dependable. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit. As we are called to be united with Christ, to be in Christ, he promises to unite himself to us, to be in us.
By this point, you might be thinking: I get the vine and branches analogy. ‘Abide in Christ’ But how do we do this? How do we remain, abide, or endure in Christ? I think verse 7 gives us two connected ways: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. We abide in Christ as his words abide in us. As branches, we draw life from the vine, Jesus Christ, as we allow his Word to dwell in us. As we read, wrestle with, and meditate on God’s Word – the Bible – we will abide deeper in Jesus Christ. We will be enlivened and strengthened in our living connection to him. But this will not be comfortable. Jesus promises that it will be involve pruning. Verses 2-3: Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. The word pruning and cleansed in these verses are the exact same in Greek. Christ’s disciples are to have his words abide in them, but we will be pruned by those words. When we abide in Christ, he removes those things in our lives that inhibit us from being more fruitful for him. Parts of our life, even things that look good on the surface, may need to reprioritized, rearranged, or even removed in order to make way for the fruit God has planned in our lives.
So the first way we abide in Christ is by having his word abide in us. The second is prayer. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. In prayer, we seek the face of Christ, seek his will, and place our hearts and desires before him. Prayer is not only how we speak our needs and desires to God asking for him to answer, but it is also one of the key ways we are given to draw near to the Triune God. In prayer, we come before the throne of God, not just to make our requests, but to be in the presence of the king. So, one of the ways we abide in the vine, draw our life from the vine, is to come regularly into this presence in prayer.
In a world of ‘go, go, go’ ‘move, move, move,’ the first word of discipleship to Jesus is ‘abide, abide, abide.’ We are called to be in living connection to Jesus Christ, to remain and endure in him, just as he remains steadfast in us. We can do this by letting his word abide in us and by coming before him regularly in prayer. We are like branches on a vine. Only as we remain in Jesus and draw our life from him will we be able to live the life we intended to live.
Abiding -> Love
After the call to abide that saturates verses 1-11, there is the commandment in verses 12-17. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Out of the living relationship between the vine and the branches, there can be the fruit of love. The order matters, though. It is important that it is only after Jesus tells us eleven times that we must abide in him, that we can only live and be fruitful if we are connected with him, that the only way to glorify the Father is when we bear fruit that is only possible through abiding in Christ- only after all of that has been said and said again, does Jesus give us a commandment. What Jesus says in verse 5 still holds true when we hear his commandments to love one another: I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
Friends, there is much to do in the Christian life, but none of it is possible, none of it makes sense if we do not abide in Jesus. Apart from him we can do nothing. Apart from Christ, all the commands, all the doing, all the ‘go, go, go’ of the Christian life, even the ‘go and make disciples’, will only be bad news and disappointment. Apart from Christ we can do nothing. Apart from him, all the commands to love – love God, love neighbor, love enemy, love one another – will just be like another weight around our neck dragging us down. In a word, without the gospel, there is only law. A law we cannot keep and whose failure will only condemn us. However, if we remain in Christ, trusting in his righteousness, in his life for us, then the commands of Scripture take on a wholly different character. There are, by one count, 1050 commands in the New Testament, but apart from Christ we cannot keep them. The first call of the Christian life is to abide, stay, remain. Before we act, we must abide.
If we skip to verse 12 before hearing 1-11, it is only bad news and discouragement. However, when we abide in Christ, then we can begin to love one another, even laying down our lives for each other. When, out our living relationship with Jesus Christ, we begin to love one another as Christ loved us, we find ourselves abiding in the love of Christ. We find ourselves drawn deeper, more firmly rooted in the love of Christ for us. The result of that, Jesus tells us, is joy. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
First, we must abide – stay, remain steadfast in Jesus Christ. Only then, in Christ, do we begin to love. May you abide in Jesus Christ, abide in his love, let his word abide in you, and may you go forth to love one another and so taste the joy of Christ and find your joy full. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.