The Vine Abides

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
John 15:1–17

In the movie The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges plays a character known as the Dude, a slacker extraordinaire who gets embroiled in a convoluted kidnapping plot when he is mistaken for a wealthy businessman who shares his last name of Lebowski. All the Dude really wants to do is to bowl, drink White Russians, and be left alone to live his life in a heightened state of relaxation. Instead, he finds himself in the middle of a preposterous situation that only the Coen brothers could conjure, complete with German nihilists, an avant-garde performance artist, a mysterious cowboy stranger, and a Vietnam veteran friend with severe anger management problems.

The Dude somehow navigates the ins and outs of this complex plot with what can only be described as his “Dudeness” intact, and the movie ends with an exchange between him and the cowboy, who has observed the action of the film from a distance. The final scene takes place, appropriately enough, at the bowling alley, and when the Stranger asks him how things have turned out, the Dude expresses his philosophy concisely when he says, “Oh, you know, strikes and gutters, ups and downs.” Life rolls off the Dude like water off a duck’s back.

As the Dude heads back to his game, the Stranger says, “Take it easy, Dude,” then adds, “I know you will.” The Dude pauses, shrugs his shoulders, and says, “Yeah, well, the Dude abides.” The Stranger then turns to look directly at the camera and says with amused admiration, “The Dude abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good to know he’s out there—the Dude—takin’ it easy for all us sinners.”

We may not agree with all the theological implications of that last statement, but it’s an interesting notion: the Dude abides. As in, things happen, some good, some bad—strikes and gutters, ups and downs—but life goes on, and the Dude remains essentially unaffected by the vagaries of circumstance and the human condition. The Dude, in all his glorious Dudeness, abides.

The word “abide” is not one we hear much anymore. It sounds dated and unfamiliar, but it carries a depth of meaning that many of its synonyms, such as “remain,” “live,” or “stay,” do not. I like “abide” for the same reason I like, for example, “steadfast”: it has a resonance, a weight to it, and its relative foreignness makes us sit up and take notice. What does it mean to say, “The Dude abides,” and what does that communicate that would be lost if he had said merely, “The Dude is still around,” or “The Dude goes on”?

While these are interesting questions for film buffs, we may find it a more fruitful line of inquiry (pun intended) to consider another use of the word “abide,” this one in relation to a figure even more important and compelling than the Dude—Jesus. In today’s passage from the gospel of John, we hear Jesus tell his disciples, “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” (vv. 4–5).

These verses come in the middle of Jesus’s farewell discourse to his disciples the night before his death. In this five-chapter exposition, Jesus seeks to calm their fears regarding his impending departure, promises to remain present with them through the Holy Spirit, and gives them a new commandment: to love one another as he has loved them. Here in chapter 15, he describes his relationship with them using an extended metaphor known as a mashal. It represents Jesus’s effort to clarify for his followers how they will continue to relate to him even after his death. And he does it through the metaphor of a grapevine and the notion of abiding.

Jesus starts the mashal by saying, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” This in itself is a bold statement, because the grapevine or vineyard is one of the foundational metaphors in the Old Testament for the nation of Israel. Jesus says that he is taking the place of Israel—that God is starting a new thing in him and his followers. We should not be too surprised at this, however, because Jesus has been saying similar things all throughout the gospel of John. He declares himself to be greater than Jacob, greater than Moses, greater even than Father Abraham. He doesn’t stop there, though. He goes on to claim a special relationship with God, saying in John 10:30, “The Father and I are one.”

In the mashal of the vine, John proclaims Jesus as the new expression of God’s relationship with God’s people. Mark, Matthew, and Luke say something similar in their tellings of this final night of Jesus’s earthly life. As he institutes the Lord’s Supper, Luke’s Jesus refers to the cup of wine as “the new covenant in my blood.” This captures the idea that the community Jesus began to establish during his ministry and that grew and spread with astonishing speed after his resurrection was something unprecedented. God had established a new covenant, a new means of relating with the world. Here in John 15, Jesus fleshes out what that relationship looks like.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.... 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” (vv. 1–2, 4). Jesus makes a rather commonplace horticultural observation, but a profound spiritual one, when he says a branch disconnected from the vine cannot produce fruit. Just as the vine must remain rooted in the soil, from which it receives water and nutrients, so must a branch remain rooted in the vine so the life-giving sap can flow through it and allow it to produce fruit.

We must remain rooted in Christ in order for God’s love and grace to flow through us and produce the fruit of goodness, joy, and peace in our lives. We do this by practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer, contemplation, and study. By serving others. By engaging in worship, both personal and corporate, and cultivating relationships with others who are seeking to abide in Christ. We remain rooted in Christ by following the example of Brother Lawrence, who learned how to “practice the presence of God” in both the profound and mundane moments of his life.

That’s what it means to abide. It means to remain connected to the source of life. Grapes only grow on healthy branches with unobstructed access to the central vine from which they get their nutrients. When such a connection exists, the fruit grows as a matter of course. A branch does not have to bear down or strain to produce fruit; it merely has to remain connected to the sap—to abide in the vine. Trees do what trees do and vines do what vines do. As Yoda would say, “There is no try."

The life of discipleship works the same way … or should. If we simply abide in Christ, the fruit of good works, justice, and compassion will grow in our lives by virtue of that connection. We don’t need to try to force it. I am surprised, though I shouldn’t be, at how often when I pray in the morning for God to give me opportunities to do good that day, that those opportunities present themselves. When I am faithful in prayer, in practicing the presence of God, I experience freedom from the anxiety of wanting to do something but not knowing what, or the guilt of feeling that I am failing in my responsibilities. Instead, I have a sense of peace that allows me to go through my day with no agenda except to listen for God’s voice, with the result that the fruit grows and ripens.

When we abide in Christ, when we remain connected to the vine, one of the results will be generosity. When we understand that the power at work in us does not come from our own efforts, but rather flows through us simply by virtue of that connection, we will be free of the anxiety that comes from seeing the world through a lens of scarcity. When we realize that it is not we but God who produces the fruit, we can let go of a sense of ownership that might make us greedy or miserly. When we take to heart what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, that God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field in beauty, we can take his further advice not to worry about mundane things such as clothing and food, because we know that God is trustworthy, and values us more highly than the birds and flowers. That relationship of trust is what enables us to become what Paul calls cheerful givers.

In fact, if we may be allowed to take a small liberty with the text, we can go a step further. The Greek word in 2 Corinthians 9:7 that the NRSV translates as “cheerful” is hilaron, from which we get the English word “hilarious.” Taking that liberty, verse 7 would then read, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a hilarious giver” (emphasis added). That creates a different image, doesn’t it? “Cheerful” is good, but “hilarious” takes us to another level. It paints a picture of someone with his head thrown back in laughter. It has connotations of rapturous joy, of recklessness, of openhandedness almost to the point of folly. A hilarious giver is one who throws caution to the wind and, ignoring her mother’s admonitions that she will ruin her appetite, eats her dessert first. Our rootedness assures us that more sap is always available, so we need not be parsimonious and produce raisins. Instead, we can push out big, heavy, juicy grapes that will become fine, rich wine.

Of course, if I may indulge in a mixed metaphor, the vineyard is not always a rose garden. Sometimes, for one reason or another, the sap doesn’t seem to flow as freely as it ought. Sometimes our connection to the central vine gets obstructed in some way, and nothing seems to be happening. But even then fruit may be growing. When we see a shoot push through the soil, or a grape appear on the vine, we’re not seeing the beginning of the process. For a long time before any visible evidence presents itself, the seeds and root systems have been doing their work in secret. Flower, leaf, and fruit cannot appear, in fact, until this hidden work is done. We all have fallow times in our lives—times when we feel far from God, spiritually arid, or alienated—when nothing worthwhile seems to be happening. In times like these, it may be all we can do just to go through the motions: go to church and mumble along with the hymns; pray the same words to the same prayer, even when the words taste like dust on our tongues; read the Bible when each verse is more confounding and indecipherable than the last; treat people with respect and kindness, only to have them take advantage of us or turn on us in anger.

When we do experience these fallow times, when we feel as if we are only going through the motions, it is important for us to be faithful in going through the motions. You may feel like a hypocrite, but go to church anyway. You may imagine your soul as a sin-scalded, wart-covered, hideous thing, but go on praying anyway. You might sooner smash someone’s face in than to help that ungrateful slob again, but go on serving and forgiving and doing good anyway. Even the fallow times come to an end eventually, and the hilarity returns. When it does, we may look back and find that something was happening all that time after all, and that we have made strides in our spiritual lives that would not have been possible if we had chosen to give up and not go through the motions.

The last thing I want to say about this metaphor of branches abiding in the vine is that we do not have an exclusive relationship with Jesus. Every branch that is connected to the central trunk of the vine is also connected to every other branch. We are the body of Christ, and just because a toenail is far removed from an eyelash, it doesn’t follow that they are unrelated. We are all connected through our dependence on Jesus, which means that we are all interdependent and inseparable from one another. We need each other. Church is not an optional accessory for a Christian, like power windows or a rear spoiler. It is as essential as the fuel pump or transmission. When we abide in the vine, Christ abides in us, and we abide in one another. Our lives are interconnected, and each of us is diminished when any other branches fall away from the vine.

So let us abide in Jesus, and abide in each other, and let the sap of the Holy Spirit enable us to bear much fruit. Like the Dude, love abides. The vine abides. Take comfort in that.

Robert Turner