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 Preaching John 15:1-8

 

Located in Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples, chapter 15 introduces a new metaphor by which the disciples might view their relationship with Jesus even in the face of his absence. The preacher should keep in mind that next week’s Gospel lesson continues further into chapter 15 and is based on verses 1-8. Obviously, these two pericopes are related, and having in view both will certainly yield hermeneutical and homiletical benefit. When chapters and verses were added to biblical texts, clearly this new image of the vine dictated a new chapter for the Gospel of John, much like the break between chapters 9 and 10. The image of the vine, however, answers the question intimated in 14:31, “do as the Father commanded me.” “What commandment?” the disciples are surely wondering, what might that be and how do we do it? The commandment is first and primarily to bear fruit, but at the same time the image of the vine offers a picture by which the disciples may see themselves as able to do as commanded because of their connection to the vine.

The image of the vine introduces the last “I am” statement with a predicate nominative in the Gospel of John. Twice Jesus will identify himself as the vine, first, as the true vine (15:1) and then as “I am the vine” (15:5). The image begins as a way for Jesus to describe his relationship with the Father before he moves to how the image might portray his relationship with the disciples. This relationship is the key for the mutual abiding at stake between Jesus, the Father, and the disciples. Jesus is the vine; “my Father” is the vine grower. Like any good vine grower, the Father tends the vines with care, pruning where necessary so that they bear as much fruit as possible (15:16). At the forefront of this image is the theme of mutual dependence. The vine needs the vine grower as much as the vine grower needs the vine. The vine depends on the vine grower for its optimal growth and production. It will produce more fruit, fruit in abundance, if cared for. The vine grower needs the vine to produce, to make abundance possible for sustenance and life. There is a mutuality in this image critical at this point in the Gospel. It is the last “I am” of its kind in the Gospel and focuses on mutuality and dependence.

Verse 4 calls upon the language already used in the Gospel to describe relationship: to abide. Throughout the Fourth Gospel, menĊ has been the central concept to describe a relationship with Jesus. The image of the vine affords another means by which the concept of abiding might be understood. As a result, all previous references to abiding in Jesus, and the results of that abiding, should be fully present in the interpretation and preaching of the image of the vine. The reason for the breadth of imagery in the Fourth Gospel, particularly in the predicate nominative “I am” statements, is to provide accessible common pictures meant to relay a fundamentally complicated theological truth. How can we make sense of what it means to abide in Jesus? The imagery assists in this understanding. Furthermore, that the images are directly connected to Jesus himself by the use of the predicate nominative “I am” statements undergirds their primary premise of denoting relationship, intimacy, and dependence. We might compare Jesus’ means of communicating in the Synoptic Gospels, for example, “the kingdom of heaven is like.” For the Fourth Gospel, everything is predicated on relationship so that a third person description of what God is up to in Jesus will not suffice.

Jesus first describes his own relationship with God (1:18) by concentrating on the vine grower and the vine, then adds the branches. The entirety of this image is meant to offer a way for the disciples to understand the intimacy between the Father, Jesus, and the disciples. It is frequently at this point that a preacher begins to wonder how many times and in how many ways does this idea of intimacy in the Gospel of John need repeating, and how many sermons can I really preach on the topic? First, it bears repeating because of the location in the story. This is a pastoral moment. This is the hour, and everything will change for the disciples shortly. Second, the repetition of this theme of the unity of the Father, Son, and believer is meant to be a narrative way to emphasize what is being said theologically. If it were only stated once or twice, would one really believe its importance? Third, the community for whom this was written, who have been thrown out of their synagogue for believing in Jesus, who have been separated from their community and everything community means, now hear of an intimacy with God that they thought had been lost.

The dependent relationship of the branches on the vine has two possible meanings for the disciples and for preaching. First, as noted above, their connection to the vine makes following Jesus’ commandments conceivable and probable. Greater works than these are possible because the disciples are not alone and rely on both the vine and the vine grower (14:12). Second, this image pulls together the themes of dependence, provision, and sustenance that have been present throughout the Gospel and that are rooted in 1:18. Verse 6 is not condemnation because that is not what Jesus came to do. It is a statement of life. Without connection to a life source, abundant life is not possible. Verses 7-8, rather than sounding like “ask and it will be done for you,” should be heard within the framework of the dependent relationship already established. The disciples may ask for whatever they wish. Jesus knows that they will have many needs, requests, and wants in his absence. This is an invitation to ask. It is an assumption of reliance and dependence. This is not any wish, but these are wishes and needs grounded in relationship.

Rev. Karoline M. Lewis, Ph.D.
Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Homiletics
Treasurer, Academy of Homiletics
Regional Coordinator, Upper Midwest Region, Society of Biblical Literature
Luther Seminary
St. Paul, MN

Karoline Lewis is Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching and The Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Homiletics. Karoline has authored articles for The Christian Century, Feasting on the Word, Lutheran Forum and Word & World.

She is a contributing writer to WorkingPreacher.org and co-host of the site’s weekly podcast, Sermon Brainwave. She has recently published a new book entitiled John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries as part of Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries series.

 

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