I am the vine. You are the branches.
I wonder how those disciples heard these words when Jesus spoke them. Here they were, an unexpected assortment of back-woods Galileans, drawn together into a messy tangle of community by their common attachment to Jesus. Branches of a vine, indeed. It may have felt like a nice, quaint image for their community—a community of interdependence, but most of all, a community of loyalty to and connection with Jesus. A community that derived its energy and vision from Jesus—the central vine feeding the whole plant. Bearing fruit of righteousness—goodness in their lives and in their world. Making the world a better place. That’s how this passage is often heard nowadays. I’ll admit that in high school I cross-stitched a sampler of this verse with a pretty cluster of grapes in the corner. It’s a lovely image, and that might be how the disciples heard it, too, as they lounged around a table with Jesus, stomach full of good food.
That may have been their first impression, but Jesus wasn’t offering them this image as a quaint expression of connectedness. No, this image comes during the long series of teachings Jesus gives his disciples on the night of his arrest—in the book of John, this passage comes after Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet and shared the last supper with them, but before they go out to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is arrested.
These are not just pretty words to celebrate community. These are words Jesus is offering to the disciples at a moment when he knows that crisis is coming—when he knows that their faith in him and their trust in God will be shaken to the core. And after the crisis of his execution, these disciples will face an event that will overturn their whole understanding of life and death. And after that—after the resurrection, they will find themselves living life—going on without Jesus.
So why would Jesus present to them this image of connectedness—of abiding in him as an essential part of their existence, when his time with them is almost over? Why would he tell them that apart from him they can do nothing—bear no fruit—right before they will be forced to going on without him—apart from him?
I think we get some hints from the larger setting of Jesus’ farewell speech. In chapter 13, Jesus warns the disciples, “33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’” And then in chapter 14 he elaborates, but also becomes more cryptic: 18”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
There is a paradox here—two statements, or truths that seem to be opposing one another, but are both just as true. Jesus will be leaving them, but Jesus will not leave them. Jesus will not be visible, or apparent, but they will see him. They cannot follow, or come to Jesus, but he is coming for them. Jesus will be gone, but Jesus will always be with them.
Absence and presence. Paradox is uncomfortable. Maybe Jesus is giving them some tools for dealing with this paradox.
When they can no longer see Jesus—when he is no longer with them—how will they know that they are still with him? Well, if they are bearing fruit, they are still connected to the vine, because a branch cannot bear fruit if it has been hacked off of the vine, or if the vine has been uprooted and the branches left to wither in the sun. Continuing to discover goodness, righteousness, virtue growing in their lives and community will be confirmation to them that Jesus has not left them. When they can’t see his body they will see his fruit in their lives.
There is also the comfort that God is the vinegrower. The tending and watering, the pruning and trimming—all of this is God’s work, which means that no one and nothing on this earth can separate them from this vine. None of the coming persecution—none of the doubt in their own hearts—none of it will cut them off from the source of life and health that God is tending.
The paradox these disciples were about to begin living is one that we have known all along. We did not follow Jesus’ dusty feet around the Judean country side for three years, sharing meals and stories and leaving a wake of healthy, whole, repaired bodies and souls. No—we have only known the absence and presence—presence-in-absence. The Jesus we do not see, and yet see in unexpected places and mysterious ways. The Jesus we are connected to long before we know it—the source of our life and health, whether we acknowledge it or not.
So maybe this image is meant for us, too—a reminder that we are sustained by a power beyond our own—an assurance that whenever we see spiritual fruit ripening in our lives—kindness and gentleness and generosity—that fruit is a reminder that even when we feel alone, we are not—we are bound to Christ who is present and coming. We are connected to Christ, who is not seen, and yet, who we see—in ourselves and in others.
And just like the branches of a vine, it is not our responsibility to grow and bear fruit—that emerges naturally when the vine—that relationships between branch and vine and root system and soil and air and water is intact. The fruit is the gift—the sign of life—the grace.
I am the vine. You are the branches. Apart from me, you can do nothing.