Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 28, 2024

John 15:1-8 Commentary

Do you prefer to translate Jesus’s oft-repeated menō as “remain” or “abide”? Remain surely carries the tone of a command, but Jesus also uses the word descriptively, relating a mutual being together. Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear Jesus say, “Remain in me…” I picture him simultaneously reaching out his arm and gently grasping my toddler-like self to keep me safe and where I should be. But when I hear Jesus say, “…as I abide in you,” instead of that hand of discipline, I see his arms opening wide in a welcoming embrace.

They are the same words in the text, so it may not sit well with you to translate them differently. On the other hand, doing so could help get the difference in meaning between the various parts of speech, like the difference in tone between a command and a subjunctive—or even more significantly, to set apart the way that our abiding or remaining in God is different than the way that God abides or remains with us.

Because when it comes to vines and branches, the vine is the one with the real staying power, isn’t it? We branches can come and go, pruned or completely removed in any season, but the living vine always remains. And yet, it is from the branches, big and small, that the fruit of the vine’s nourishment is cultivated. From the vine that gives, the branches grow and produce.

This passage doesn’t say much about how we have been grafted into Christ the true vine, though it does warn us about what happens when we are separated from him. In other words, this passage is less focused on Christ’s work for our redemption and more about what can happen in our life with him—our discipleship. That’s literally what Jesus says in verse 8!

Instead of Jesus’s works, Jesus points to his words. In verse three he likens our pruning to being “cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you,” using logos for “word.” Then in verse 7, he refers to his words abiding in us with a different Greek word, rhēma; it’s a specific reference to his sayings or a summation of that which he has shared with his disciples.

Of course, in the Gospel of John logos is not a neutral term for communicating words but a theological way of describing Jesus himself: the book opens with “In the beginning was the Word/logos, and the Word/logos was with God, and the Word/logos was God.” And as Eugene Peterson paraphrased verse 14 in chapter 1: “The Word/logos became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.” The word that Jesus tells the disciples has cleansed them is the witness they have of his very life.

Jesus’s disciples have seen and heard from Jesus what the Lord requires of them. Jesus tells them, the branches, that this is their connection to both the vine and the vinegrower: doing as he did, remaining through action in his teachings and way of being. The Father will help us through his Spirit who prunes us as we grow so that more of Christ’s likeness will be borne in our lives.

But if we do not want to have a life known by its abiding in the ways of Christ, then we will suffer from the disconnect. Our lives will suffer and we will be known for ways of being contrary to the Spirit’s fruit (Gal 5.16-26).

So anytime we feel tempted to say, “Jesus’s ways won’t work or aren’t good enough,” we need to ask ourselves what we’re trying to accomplish. Because it surely doesn’t seem like we want to abide with the vine if we reject what he has taught us. If our main aim is to remain with God, it would be enough to ask God for what we think we need and trust in the vinegrower’s pruning (verse 7).

We’ll get to continue with this imagery next week, exploring more concretely the flow of love among the vinegrower, vine, and us as the branches. This week, the lectionary has us end with a picture of how the mutual abiding expands from Jesus the vine to the vinegrower Father. Who wins the awards for the crop? It’s not the vine but the vinegrower. Jesus says that his feeding and the Father’s nurturing pruning leads to such a pristine crop of fruit in our lives as disciples, that the vinegrower himself is praised and his reputation grows. Like the way that Jesus as the logos shows with his life through word and deed, our fruit is a showing of the goodness of God.

Textual Point

As the NRSV Bible I use indicates, the verb for “prunes” in verse 2 and the adjective for “cleansed” in verse 3 share a common root word in Greek. The verb kathairō has a literal meaning to it—chopping vines or sweeping floors—whereas the adjective katharos carries a cultic or religious sense, thus the choice of the word cleansed. Their pairing here reminds us that God’s pruning with Scripture (“the word I have spoken to you”) is a continuous activity leading to a richer bounty of fruit.

Illustration Idea

This spring will see the end of my first experience being pregnant as I give birth to our daughter. To say I have learned a lot about the wonders of God’s creative design of the female anatomy and its abilities is an understatement. Before becoming pregnant, I heard lots of jokes about the baby as a parasite, taking from the mother’s resources and causing all sorts of uncomfortable side effects. Though that last bit is true—no one told me half the weird things that happen to your body when you’re pregnant—the first part isn’t quite the full truth.

Did you know, for instance, that the baby’s blood mixes with the mother’s? That’s why testing the mother’s blood can reveal some information about the fetus. And in the third trimester it dawned on me that this might be my “easiest” period of motherhood as baby and me mutually abide with one another: wherever I go, she goes with me with no tears or tantrums, no dirty diapers, spit up or sleep regressions. She’s automatically fed and nourished in my womb, and she brings me delight and giggles by kicking and elbowing and making my belly move. True, she doesn’t “offer” much in our mutual abiding, and there are consequences for having her remain in me that I look forward to being over. But then again, we don’t really offer much when it comes to our mutual abiding in Christ—except knowing that our abiding as disciples glorifies and delights the Father.

Note from CEP: Chelsey and her husband Chris are the delighted parents of Phoebe, born on March 21.


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