Stick Around!

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On November 13, 2022, we sat at table with (most of) the disciples and heard Jesus’s last such pronouncement: “I am the true vine…” Our scripture references included John 15:1-17 as well as Galatians 5:22-23.

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If you were to ask me about another person, and I were to reply, “Oh, he’s a nice guy, I guess, but he’s kind of a stick-in-the-mud…”, would you know what I meant by that?  That phrase is used to describe someone who is boring, or perhaps dull and old-fashioned.  It dates back to the early 1700’s, when it was used to describe someone whose wagon wouldn’t move, no matter how hard anyone tried, because it was mired in the clay and silt.  A “stick-in-the-mud” is also understood to be someone who is alone or aloof.

Needless to say, I’ve never heard “stick-in-the-mud” used as a compliment.  Quite the contrary, it calls to mind a sad and even pathetic image, which, if we were to take literally, would be a stark contrast to today’s gospel reading.  A stick – a dead branch, removed from the tree and jammed into the ground where it remains solitary, unconnected, and unrooted.  A stick in the mud is not going anywhere, ever – it’s not growing, it’s not changing…it’s just there.

In contrast, the passage from John is bursting with life.  Jesus begins this passage by uttering his final “I am” statement of the fourth Gospel.  As we consider this text, I’ll remind you of what we’ve said in previous weeks: in using the words “I am” Jesus was doing much more than offering simple self-reflection or self-disclosure.  Jesus was certainly trying to remind his hearers of the conversation that is recorded in Exodus chapter 3.  There, Moses asks God, “Who are you?”, and the Almighty responds by saying, “YHWH.  I am what I am… or I am who I will be.”  And that phrase in Hebrew, YWHW, is pronounced ego eimi in Greek.  And as we’ve seen in recent weeks, Jesus sought to explain who and what he was to the people closest to him by using a series of metaphors: I am the bread of life, or the Good Shepherd, or the gate, or the way, or, today, the “true vine”.

What do you know about vines?

Webster’s dictionary tells us that a vine is “a plant whose stem requires support and which climbs by tendrils or twining or creeps along the ground”.[1]  But I suspect that you know that.  You’ve seen the wild grapevines that cover the trees here in Crafton Heights.  Maybe you’ve driven past the acres and acres of carefully tended vineyards that grow along the shores of Lake Erie, two hours north of here.

Whatever you think you know or don’t know about vines, I’m here to tell you that the people in Jesus’ day knew plenty!  Vineyards were the cultural and economic basis of life in the Judean hillsides.  In fact, the grapevine is mentioned more often than any other plant in the entire Bible.  So, yeah, when Jesus said he was the vine, people got a mental image really quickly.

But more than being simply an agricultural specimen, vines are used as a symbol for God’s people throughout the Old Testament.  In Genesis 49:11, we see vines used as a symbol for the tribe of Judah.  In Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, vines are used as an image to refer to God’s people who were carefully planted and tended, and yet grew wild and eventually stopped bearing fruit.  Rather than following the trellises and guides that were meant to give them shape, they eventually became lost in the underbrush that surrounded them.  Many times, when the prophets talked about vines, they did so in order to discuss the ways in which God’s people had left the best of God’s intentions behind.  The vines strayed until they just fizzled out…

So when Jesus says, Ego eimi…not just “the vine”, but “the true vine”, he is not only suggesting that he is one with God (the great I AM); he is also saying that he is the faithful one of Israel.  He is the real deal, the true vine, not the vine that has grown wild and become fruitless.

And, unlike the stick in the mud with which this message began, this vine is deeply rooted and carefully tended.  Why is this the case?  Because the Gardener expects to grow fruit.  And, as Jesus makes clear in his narrative, not just “any” fruit or “some” fruit, but “more fruit”, “much fruit”, and “fruit that will last.”  And, as Jesus points out (and as everyone in his audience would have known), the fruit is borne not on the main vine itself, but on the branches that are supported by and connected to the vine.

“The True Vine”, by Kathrin Burleson (contemporary)

So here’s what’s happening in this reading of John: Jesus, looking at the people that he has known and loved best; the people who have walked with him and questioned him and witnessed him more than anyone else – Jesus looks at those people and says, “Pay attention!  I am the heart of God, and I am the model of humanity – and you are in me; as you are connected to me, you will bear incredible fruit!  If you remain in me, you will fulfill your purpose and bring joy to the Gardener.”

I hope you caught that!  What is the strategy that leads to fruit?  “Remain in me.”

Jesus does not say to his followers, “If you try harder…”, or “if you clean up your act a little bit…”, or “if you pray the right way for the right things…”, or “If you believe the right stuff about me…”  Nope.  None of that. “If you remain in me.”  It would seem as though fruitfulness – whatever that is – is the natural result of being where we are intended to be.  It comes from a conscious choice to remain, or abide, or dwell.  There seems to be a direct correlation between bearing fruit and sticking with Jesus.

This passage from the Gospel is a description of an intimate, organic relationship.  It talks of a closeness between Jesus and his followers – a relationship that, in fact, mirrors the one that exists between Jesus and his Father in heaven.  This relationship is rooted in a promise of love and joy and, as has been said, leads to much fruit.

But this week as I studied in preparation for this message, I noticed something – a detail that had escaped my notice before.  I don’t suspect that many of you have your bibles open on your laps, but what do you think: to whom is Jesus speaking here in John 15?  To his disciples?  How many of them are there?

You might say “twelve”, because that’s almost always the right answer… but there are now only eleven in the room.  In John 13:30, we learned that after he’d had his part in the Last Supper, Judas left the room to go and meet the religious leaders and to begin the process of the betrayal that would lead to Jesus’ death.

So, if we assume, as did John and the other Gospel writers, that Jesus knew what was going to happen when Judas left the table…  If we assume, as we said last week, that Jesus knew that this would be the last meal he’d ever share with his disciples…

If we assume those things, then I think that it’s also fair to assume that what Jesus is doing here is of ultimate significance.  This is Jesus’ last crack at these guys, and what is he saying?  “Stick around.  Choose to be here.  Stay.”  And he says this even as one of them has already left.

Further, he punctuates this teaching with an expression of his deep love for them and with a plea for them – us – to love one another. In doing so, he acknowledges that the love to which he calls us carries with it a risk: “greater love has no on than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

This is the truth, beloved: Jesus’ last, and I believe his most emphatic request to his friends was to recognize the danger of loving someone else and to go ahead and do it anyway.  To be like him in this way.

Listen: Jesus knows the truth.  We might fail.  We might bail on him.  But he asks us – not to try harder or to be holier, but to stay.  And as we stay, he says, we will bear fruit.  As we remain, we will be those who find, share, live, and even demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So as we contemplate this last discourse of Jesus, beloved, let me ask you to consider what it means for you to be connected with Jesus.  What does it mean for you to remain in him?  How are you drawing nourishment from the roots he’s sent down?  Where are you growing in the ways that he’s taught you?

And as you contemplate these questions, let me offer you a gentle reminder that nowhere in this passage or indeed at any point in his ministry does Jesus seem to allow for a reality in which his disciples could be intimately connected with him and yet unrelated to and unconcerned for one another.  The only way for us to be as he wants and expects us to be is to grow closer to him by staying next to each other.

And again, I’ll emphasize that this notion of “remaining” and “abiding” is not anything like the unfruitful, dead, stick in the mud we’ve mentioned earlier.  Rather this is a living faith, a reality which, like a vine, is constantly reaching, exploring, and twisting as it seeks even more light; a vine that blossoms with love and bears fruit that brings life to the place in which it is planted.  Do not think, dear ones, that you are alone and untended; do not fear that you have been forgotten.  Rather, know and remember that you are, now and always, invited to remain in the place where growth and cultivation occurs and where fruit is expected and shared.  Thanks be to the God who invites us to stick around and become the people that we are meant to be, through the love and grace of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

[1]  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vine

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