Bear with me on this one. I want to tell a story about how I came to a new understanding of this passage from John's Gospel
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no 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.
All clergy are expected to take a retreat each year as a way of stepping back from ministry for a time that is more concentrated on prayer and listening, and so towards the end of April I was on retreat in Norfolk. I tended to divide my time up between walking and sitting by a river bank in the same spot each day, just reading, pausing, listening, musing and writing.
I find that places have an ability to be the means through which God shows me new truths or helps me rediscover old ones, and so it was with my spot by the river. I was struck by the attitude taken by those motoring by on their boats. They were visitors, like me, yet most seemed strangely detached from it all. Just passing through, with either binoculars, a glass of wine or a radio at hand, watching the entertainment. But by stopping in the one place, so my own experience of what felt like a sacred space seemed to deepen. Initially it was clearly a sense of being a visitor, but as the time progressed I felt like I was being drawn into being first a deep observer, and finally a participant.
What became so clear to me was the community of that part of the river and the different characters of its residents. I watched a playful crow come out of nowhere and fly up in between a pair of terns as they hunted, seemingly being deliberate in a moment of trickster mischief. I watched the same pair of terns flying up and down that stretch of the river, day after day, with their highly successful skills of getting a fish at almost every dive. I watched a duck plaintively call out out for company as the night fell, and heard the change in its quack to a sound of relief as other ducks returned to roost with it. Even the very trees bent their branches towards the water as if in concentration on this, the main focus of their existence. It all seemed so different from our attitude.
We humans have a tendency to walk through nature rather than dwelling within it as a part of it. We seem to think of nature as something other than us, when actually we are also a part of it, and for those few days I felt drawn to dwell in that place with as much of myself as I could muster. Or in other words I felt called to abide there.
And the thing that most came through was the dependency of the different species primarily on the river, but also on each other. This was a community. An odd one by human standards I grant you, but they needed each other and primarily they needed the river. It was a fully formed ecosystem. It worked because all the residents abided there, and so the fruit which one bore was enjoyed by the others who depended upon it.
It is this concept of abiding, and of the dependency that comes with that, which Jesus speaks of in this Gospel reading. That word, 'abide', is repeated over and over again. 'Abide in me, and I will abide in you'. The whole passage is about this abiding. Yet apart from when we sing 'Abide with me', abide is not a word we use much in common language. So what does it mean?
It has a sense of place about it, and a sense of the dedication of energy and effort to being in that place to the extent that the place gets under your skin and becomes a part of you just as you become a part of it. There is a sense of belonging there, of being utterly connected to it in a way that transcends description to someone else who doesn't understand.
All of these models seem to tie in to what Jesus is saying here about the vine and branches. We are to dwell with him and within him in such a way that he feels utterly a part of who we are, and that we feel utterly a part of who he is. We become dependent upon him. And this is one of those places where the message of the Gospel is completely counter-cultural, because dependency is not something that is valued in 21st century Britain. Our education, our government policies, the ways in which we bring up our children, are all geared up to making people completely resilient and independent. But Jesus says something different. He tells us that if we are going to bear fruit, then we must depend upon him. Who we are to be, and what we are to do can only take place within a dependent relationship. The tern depends on the river for fish. Stick it in a high rise block and it will die. We depend on Christ and without him we can do nothing.
For me there are two things which grow out of this teaching that we should abide in Christ. The first one is a question. Jesus talks about the necessity of abiding in him in order to grow fruit, but what does he mean by fruit? A large part of the answer to that comes from Galatians 5:22 which says this:
...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Do please take note that the word St. Paul uses for fruit is singular. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control together form one fruit, and as we grow in the Spirit so this collective fruit should grow. So in part this is what Jesus means, but I say in part because those are all qualities that we hope to see grow within us as individuals.
The other side of this is to do with the fruit you grow with the gifts and talents you have been given, maybe your organisation skills, or your ability to befriend and care, or an eye for detail, or whatever. But once again let me draw your attention to the model which Jesus portrays which is that we can only bear fruit in him, with he in us. What I mean by that is that we have to put our gifts at his disposal to be used in service to others.
But sometimes it goes wrong...
I have been taking part in an on-line discussion about abuses of power within the church. It is something that I look very carefully for in terms of people offering their talents in church as to whether they are being offered in Christ or as a means to further their own plans. Show me a church where there have been abuses of power and I'll show you a church where there are prominent people who are doing what they want for their own reasons. We would all do well to remember the warning that Jesus makes; “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
Sometimes we need to take his warnings very seriously and ask ourselves if our motivations match up to his calling for us to serve. This is a hard but necessary teaching.
The one other part of this teaching which I think we sometimes miss is the community of a vine. Going back to the river, all of the species resident were there because of the river, but they were also there because of each other. The same is true of us, just as it is of the branches on the vine; we are a community. We depend on the vine grower, but we grow together, not separately. This is one of the reasons why I try to encourage people to stick with it when church becomes difficult. We need each other to grow because we are all part of the vine. I have seen friends who have left churches for various reasons, often very good ones, always saying that they will continue in their faith on their own, only to gradually watch the vibrancy of that faith dissipate. Branches grow together, all attached to the one true vine. We need the vine, the vine grower and each other. I am because he is and we are.