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Abide in me - the true vine

(John 15:4) 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.

Abide in me, as I abide in you. "Abide" is not a word we use often in everyday speech now. It calls to mind the old hymn "Abide with me" -- "Abide with me; fast falls the eventide: the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide: when other helpers fail, and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me." You might hesitate to adopt its sentiments as a general guide to living a Christian life. It is a song of devotion for the dying: "Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;"... "Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies: heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me." Not perhaps your way of positively affirming life here and now. Many people feel uncomfortable with too great an emphasis in our faith on what happens when we die. But don't knock it. Some of us are getting old. Many of our friends are gone. It has been a great comfort to many believers to have that deep trust in God in the face of death. The common faith today might be more of a this-worldly faith, and what we believe is certainly not only about eternal life; yet the time will come when most of us will have cause to remember these sentiments and we will be glad to know that promise of comfort in the face of death which is a blessing of belief.

Good though it is, that confidence in the love of God at the time of death is not what this text Abide in me is all about. You can see that immediately when you see what comes next. It is about being fruitful in living the life of a disciple of Jesus: Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. That is about being effective in the mission of Jesus to people living this life with us in this world. It is about being connected to the source of life, which makes it possible for fruit to be borne. To abide in him is to stay in communion with the Lord of life.

The basic idea of the word "abide" is to stay somewhere, to continue in some place or relationship or condition. So we might continue to dwell or live somewhere, or remain constant in a relationship. The sense of continuity in belonging somewhere or with someone is central. In that sense it is about being faithful. In religious terms it is an aspect of faith to remain devoted, to hold to what we believe, to remain in communion. So "abide in me" is a call from Christ to a Christian to continue faithfully, living in a trusting relationship with Christ, as he will continue to be faithful in his commitment to us.

Alienation

Such a faithful trust and continuity of commitment, in which people are happy in their belonging, is the very opposite of alienation in which people feel that they do not belong, that they are no longer at home where they find themselves. When there has been a breach of trust as in a marriage, or other family relationship, people feel alienated one from another. In a different kind of relationship workers whose loyalty to an employer has been unfairly exploited feel alienated from their work. Similarly, if national sentiment is aroused and manipulated in support of sectional interests and unworthy ambitions, people can feel alienated from the country of their citizenship. In the church people can feel alienated from the communion to which they belong when they feel their trust has been betrayed. Betrayal of trust is a terrible thing in any kind of relationship, especially when the relationship has been founded mainly on trust. A breach of trust is a breach of honour, of belonging and identity. Its consequence, experienced as alienation, is the opposite of abiding or staying or continuing to belong. When Jesus called for people to abide in him he was addressing something very basic in who we are and how we live. There is nothing more relevant to modern times, and especially in the post-modern world, than trust and its reverse, alienation.

Alienation is the bane of the post-modern world. It pervades much of Western culture now. There is a widespread feeling that there is nothing worth trusting, out there, at any great distance from oneself. People seek solace in the most intimate relationships, and yet even the most intimate friend or colleague might let you down. A culture of alienation also has an ambiguous feel in regard to knowledge even of oneself: on the one hand people seek to discover and assert a personal identity for themselves, not being content with an identity ascribed by others, but there is a deep uncertainty about who one is. Self hatred and self harm far too often accompany self-assertion and a search for self-satisfaction. There are many outward signs. The self-destructive affects of drug-taking become ever more pervasive; suicide rates are a cause of great concern; apparently random communal violence has been a great problem in some communities. Uncertainty in regard to identity and belonging is nowhere more clearly seen than in the massive confusion we have over sexual relationships, where self-discovery and uncertain identity are often mixed with bitterness, not to mention disease and death. Now social researchers speak of generation X or generation Y as "canny" in their awareness, learning to avoid misplacing their precious trust. They "see through" the various personal, commercial and political deceptions which can follow from too great a trust in anyone or anything. In their way of life, it pays not be too connected! Yet belonging and identity are so keenly sought.

There was an earlier form of it, much less widespread, in the cultural revolution of the nineteensixties and seventies when they said, "Don't trust anyone over thirty!" We who were closer to being young than old then thought it was an expression of youthful enthusiasm for their own ways, and perhaps a little over-confidence in their ability to decide everything for themselves. Certainly I thought then that much of their distrust was justified and most of us had a good deal of confidence in our ability to shape the future. That confidence was not alienation, only disagreement with the established order. In that sense we were far from being alienated from life or our society in general. Many of us welcomed and sought change because we had a basic trust in how things would work out in a time of excitement with new possibilities.

The "Don't trust" theme was appealing when dressed in the common clothes of freedom; but it became clear later that the image of casual informality declaring the value of personal freedom, while fairly harmless in a superficial personal sense, was a political and commercial disguise behind which lay a form of aggression that people since have sometimes sensed without being able to say just what it was. The point of power in this don't-trust-the-older-generation was the deliberate promotion of a process of separation in which people were cut off from their roots and made susceptible to manipulation. The anchors could no longer hold. Indeed the old things that bound us - the anchors - they seemed pointless, and just drifting along might even appeal, so that "dropping out" became of way of life for some. People who were separated from their origins, who had lost their roots, and were seeking new identities, were highly vulnerable to exploitation. Political revolutionaries were well aware of what they were doing in that respect and commercial entrepreneurs were later even more deliberate and systematic in their exploitation and reinforcement of that separation of the young from their cultural roots. This was the time when people drifted away from the church in great numbers.

At the time of the Vietnam War, when there were genuine and ultimately most important social movements not only in regard to that war but for civil rights and other forms of liberation, the young people in the vanguard of social change then had good reason to distrust their elders. The war was an issue in itself, but the emotions it aroused combined with a deeply felt need for other changes in a society which had left too many wrongs in place for too long - think race, poverty, gender. Despite all the new evidence of alienation it was also an heroic time. There was real hope and people were prepared to commit themselves to practical action. We had a cultural revolution in the 1960s and 70s and it was not without some benefits..

Things are different now, a generation or two later. There is much less confidence that social and political action will make a difference. Cynicism is more common. This is at least partly due the fact that when revolutions happen change can become an end in itself. No one dare stand in the way of "progress". More is destroyed than was intended. The baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Once the connections with one's roots are cut it is very difficult to recover what was worth keeping in the tradition. There is a barrier to rediscovery. Minds are closed. That is especially so in the attitudes of popular culture to the church. Mainstream Christianity is the last place many people will look even when they genuinely seek goodness and truth. - They might even seek God without being able to name him.

Alienation from the church is constantly reinforced in Western countries by the media and entertainment industries, often for their own commercial advantage and ideological ends, more so perhaps in Australia than almost anywhere else, as secular humanism has become more or less an established ideology, if not an alternate religion. But there is alienation from all sorts of institutions, not only the churches; and it comes not only from those outside, but from the inside, among the members. Once the trust is broken and confidence is lost, there no secure centre and everyone is vulnerable. Alienation is a social sickness going far beyond healthy questioning and struggles between competing causes. At depth, alienation means that the questions are not worth asking, there is no point to the differences. So no one and no thing deserves allegiance. -- Well I must stop this. You will be starting to think I am nothing but an old grouch! But you do see the point. We have felt it for years. Alienation is the very opposite of faith and a blight on our Western ways of life.

The Gospel reading today is a call to turn from these negative thoughts and look to Jesus, the true vine, and see what John was telling us about him. In John 15:1-8 (and the following verses) Jesus himself is the true vine, the source of life: belonging to him we are connected with that source of life, and bear fruit to his glory. Connection replaces separation. Trust overcomes alienation. But, if we fail to keep that connection we become dead and useless, fit only to be cut off, and burnt in the fire like prunings from a plant that is being prepared for a new and frutiful season. Without connection to the vine we are alienated and good for nothing except to be renewed. The Christian alternative to alienation is communion, spiritual belonging, sharing the new life of God, dwelling in him, abiding in his love by belonging to Christ, the true vine. But we abide in him, dwell in him, draw our life from him, not simply by sentiment, but in our actions also.

Old Testament background

Jesus taught about himself and his early followers understood him against the background of the Old Testament. We have had reason to remember this in the Easter season. Jesus taught about himself by reference to the Hebrew scriptures to help the disciples understand the meaning of his death and resurrection.

The vine with its many branches which belong to Christ is an image of the church, even to the extent of accepting judgment upon its unfruitful branches and the constant reminder of the source of our life with which we must stay connected. The church is sometimes called the new Israel. When Jesus spoke of himself as the true vine people would still remember that the nation of Israel had previously been likened to a vine. For example: in Psalm 80:8-15 Israel is described as a vine brought from Egypt and planted in a new land. It spreads widely, and bears fruit that many enjoy, but it was allowed to fall into ruin, a result of the people forgetting their origins.

There was danger and destruction, and the messiah is called for (`the one at your right hand').

Often in their history (and in this the children of Israel are not alone) the people of God are disobedient and break away. For Jeremiah, at a time of national crisis, when the future is threatened, Israel is a choice [or true] vine; but becomes wild, useless.

In the words of Ezekiel 19:10-14 at another time of danger, they have a mother like a vine, [the stem like a scepter, that is with the power of a king ... it is plucked up and replanted in a desert, suffers fire and no longer has a strong stem or scepter (or king) and they thus are in need of a new king or Messiah.]

To Isaiah, God loved his vineyard, but it became wild and unproductive and will be allowed to be broken down

Restoration of the abandoned unfruitful old vineyard was the work of God in the coming of the Messiah. Paul compared the new Israel of the Church with the old Israel in the image of an olive tree from which branches are broken off, and new ones grafted

Parables of the vineyard were used to explain the Kingdom

In a similar way Jesus told parables about life in vineyards to teach about life in the kingdom when the Messiah at last came:-

Matthew 20:1-15 Labourers in the vineyard were paid according to God's generosity rather than what they earned.

Matt. 21:28-32 Two were sons told to work in the vineyard; one said he would go and did not and the other said he would not yet went, showing the difference between speech and action, with Jesus commending action.

Mark 12:1-9 [and Matt. 21:33-44, etc.] The wicked tenants killed the son of the owner when he was sent to them after they had dealt badly with earlier messengers from the owner of the vineyard, illustrating the death of the Messiah after the prophets had been rejected.

In these, as in many other ways, Jesus taught what it would mean to be united with himself, the true vine. It is not only about personal devotion, that indwelling certainty of love that comes from knowing the Saviour. True connection with the true vine is indeed about recognizing the Messiah, but believers are joined with him in outward actions as well as inward conviction. There are outwards signs of discipleship in the image of the true vine.

Pruning (or cleansing) makes the vine fruitful

The first main point of teaching in what we have read today, in this parable of Jesus about himself, is that unfruitful branches have no place on the vine

[The same theme follows in further elaboration in verses 6 and 7 of the importance of the connection with the vine in verses 4 and 5:]

Cleansing or pruning, you might say "discipline", is emphasised by reference to the Word which cleanses.

Baptism, by which we are made members of Christ, with the sign of washing, is a symbol of cleaning, and it is by such cleaning that people are brought into relationship with the body of Christ. So discipline, cleaning and belonging go together. There is another notable example of cleaning in John's gospel, which again brings out the importance of outward actions as well as words or inward thoughts in relationship to Jesus. In John 13:10, at the Last Supper Jesus washed the disciples feet, they were then "all clean.". Cleansing was necessary, as Jesus said to Peter.

Cleansing is a discipline that is part of what it means to belong to the vine that is pruned to bear more fruit. Jesus said, "Every branch in me that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit." (John 15:2). They belong by serving others. If Jesus their Lord could wash their feet they must also wash one another. Then will follow the fruit that are signs of service:

These are signs he demonstrated at the Last Supper before introducing the great continuing signs with the bread and the wine - Outward and visible, sacramental signs of belonging in communion.

The Lord's Supper, the Eucharist

Among the "outward and visible signs" of connection with the source of life we have been given the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, with the central symbols of the broken bread and the cup of salvation in the blood of Christ. The cup is filled with the fruit of the vine:

With the true vine goes the true bread: (John 6:32,35,56-58) The true bread comes down from heaven. `I am the bread of life.'

They will "abide in me." That is where the sure connection is found, in the communion of the body and blood. What then does the church offer to an alienated world? A mystery? Yes, indeed. A discipline of worship and service? Why, certainly. Glory to God? Yes,

Back behind it all is communion with the source of life in Christ, the true vine, wherein we have connection with roots deeply embedded in the love of God, a relationship to the life that came out of darkness, from beyond the outside into closest communion -- far from the alienation that is the deepest darkness that could ever come over humanity; we move from death to life, to abide with being itself, sharing the life that is incarnate in Jesus Christ. To commune with him, to abide with him, and in him, is to be connected with the source of life itself

Glory be to him. Amen.

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