Text Study for John 15:9-17 (Pt. 2); 6 Easter B 2021

For contemporary Americans, friendship is usually a relationship between relative social equals. That is not the case in the ancient Greco-Roman world. D. K. Eng frames the idea of “friendship” in John 15 within the social constructs of the patronage system in Greco-Roman culture.

Eng argues that “friend” here “describes a subordinate relationship defined by obligation.” John’s Gospel has been used to illustrate how the ancient systems of honor and shame, and of patron/client hierarchy, work in and through the social world of the New Testament. I have often relied, for example, on the work of Malina and Rohrbaugh in this regard.

The patron was superior to the client in terms of social status. That status was key to the resources of honor and shame as well as access to good and services and the network of power and influence. Clients asked for favors. Patrons might grant those requests. When that happened a relationship of mutuality was created where the clients owed the patrons honor and the patrons were responsible to act on behalf of the clients.

Photo by Cleverson Amaro on Pexels.com

Since the term “client” was regarded as a demeaning label, patrons often referred to their clients as “friends.” Eng argues that the Farewell Discourse has the following elements: that the disciples are Jesus’ subordinates; that the move from “slave” to “friend” is part of the patron/client system; that Jesus functions as a “broker” between the disciples and God; and that Jesus is, in fact, a “royal patron” who appoints regents in his stead and who, by giving his life for his friends, outdoes the greatest patron in the world of the time, Caesar.

The image of the Vine and the Branches is one example of the superior/subordinate relationship in the Discourse. The branches are dependent on the vine for life and can do nothing without the Vine. As subordinates they are obliged to obey their teacher and lord. Eng points to Jesus’ words about the move from slaves to friends as further evidence of the hierarchical relationship in Jesus’ description.

The relationship between the freed person and the former master involved continuing obedience to the former master and a heightened involvement in the life and affairs of the master. “Jesus gives them full disclosure of what he has heard from the Father,” Eng notes, “elevating them from slave status. While they are expected to obey, they do so with revelation. With an understanding of the affairs of Jesus and the Father, they are not mere extensions of a master.”

O’Day comments on this dimension as well. Friends could expect to engage in “frank speech,” plain talking, with friends – even when those friends were social superiors. “According to Hellenistic philosophers,” O’Day writes, “to be someone’s friend was to speak frankly and honestly to them and to hold nothing back.” Jesus no longer calls the disciples “slaves” (he never did, really, but for his purposes of teaching, the image works), instead he calls them “friends” – “because I have made everything known to you that I have heard from the Father.

This “frank speech” is a mark of genuine friendship in the ancient Mediterranean world. It is also, as O’Day points out, a source of the disciples’ capacity to be friends with Jesus and with one another. “Jesus’ openness is a model of how we are to treat one another,” O’Day writes, “but is also provides the well-spring that makes our acts of friendship possible” (2008, page 26).

In this time when truth is subordinated to power, when paranoia is a practical strategy, and when friendship is sacrificed on the altar of political allegiance, the plain-speaking confidence of friendship described here is a radical idea, empowered and called forth by Jesus’ friendship with disciples.

O’Day points to the “promotion” from “slaves” to “friends” as the gift of partnership with Jesus in the mission of the gospel and “the source of the disciples’ capacity for friendship” (2008, page 26). Moreover, this gift and capacity equip us to regard all others as “friends” in Christ. She suggests that such friendship “assumes that everyone with whom we speak is our partner and companion.”

Such open speech can be transformative for both parties in the communication “because in holding nothing back, the speaker acts in the intimacy and trust of transformative love. The speaker risks herself in the speaking,” she concludes, “the listener risks himself in the hearing” (2008, page 27).

Eng wants us to see this language of friendship in a “royal” context. The Farewell Discourse comes after the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The disciples are called into friendship with the “king.” This discussion of friendship comes after the Good Shepherd imagery which, as we noted in discussing that text, contains royal imagery. The “shepherd” was a standard picture of ancient Israelite kings. Eng notes that “friend of the king” is a typical label in much of the ancient world for a loyal subordinate.

He goes on to note that the title “friend of Caesar” was well-known in the first century imperial system. It is even mentioned later in John, when Pilate is threatened with the idea that he might “be no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12). To be a “friend of Caesar,” therefore, was not merely to be a loyal subordinate. In fact, if Pilate is a model, such “friends” were empowered to act on behalf of the ruler as regents. Once again, as in the case of the frank speech, we see that this friendship is about partnership in the ruling enterprise as well as companionship.

Eng discusses how Jesus hands the authority of this partnership over to the disciples during the Farewell Discourse. That is precisely one of the themes of the discourse. The disciples “are no longer slaves, but friends. The disciples are expected to respond by fulfilling their commission to love one another and bear fruit. Their loyalty is to Jesus in his absence,” Eng writes, “in the same way that Pilate’s loyalty is expected by Caesar in his absence.”

Caesar is described, therefore, as an imitation of and antitype to Jesus. His disciples are the real “friends of the king” and are commissioned to act on his behalf. “Jesus declares the disciples are to act as his loyal client-kings or emissaries,” Eng writes. “His prediction of his departure and commissioning of his disciples to obedience point to the same type of relationship that Pilate has with Caesar. They are to act in place of Jesus, not as slaves,” he concludes, “but as honored friends.”

What does it mean to be “slaves” in the ancient Mediterranean? In Greek philosophy, a slave is not a person.  Orlando Patterson (1982) made it clear that to become a slave is to suffer “social death.”  He describes this in detail.  “Perhaps the most distinctive attribute of the slave’s powerlessness,” he writes in Enslavement and Social Death, “was that it always originated (or was conceived of as having originated) as a substitute for death, usually a violent death.”  The cultural rationale was that if the person had not been enslaved, the person would be dead.  “Archetypically,” Patterson continues, “enslavement was a substitute for death in war. But almost as frequently, the death commuted was punishment for some capital offense, or death from exposure or starvation.”

Since the enslaved person had died—in principle or theory, at least—the slave could then be treated as having died the death that mattered.  “Because the slave had no socially recognized existence outside his master,” Patterson concludes, “he became a social nonperson.”  So, enslaved persons in the ancient world are regarded as “bodies” rather than people.  Enslaved persons by definition do not have an inner life or what Greek philosophers might regard as a “soul.”  Enslaved persons are “animated tools” but have no independent existence.  Enslaved persons are regarded as relatively intelligent livestock—“cattle on two feet,” as the Greeks put it.

J. B. Harrill notes some development of this idea in Roman law and philosophy.  Romans believed that enslaved persons had some measure of interior life, but it was not independent of the wishes and needs of the master.  “The Roman notion of mastery,” he writes, “defined the ideal slave not in terms of obedience to individual commands of the master but in terms of having accepted the master’s wishes so fully that the slave’s innermost self could anticipate the master’s wishes and take the initiative. Romans,” he concludes, “did not want automatons for their enslaved persons.”  They did not, however, want them to be full-fledged persons either.

Jesus, in John 15, moves disciples from social death of slaves to life as regents of the Divine Realm! And he describes this as the definition of the mission of disciples in the world. But what about this dying business? More on that in the next post.

References and Resources.

deSilva, David A. “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament.” https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/31-1_032.pdf.

Eng, D. K. (2021). ‘I Call You Friends’: Jesus as Patron in John 15,  Themelios 46.1 (2021), 55-69. Themelios, 46(1), 55–69. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/i-call-you-friends-jesus-as-patron-in-john-15/.

O’Day, Gail R. “I Have Called You Friends.” Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2008. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/61118.pdf.

Stamper, Meda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-159-17-3.

Rodriguez, William. “Love and Friendship in Toy Story 3.” Journal of Religion and Film 14:1 (April 2010). https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1480&context=jrf.

Un-Self-Made — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

John 15:1-8; 5 Easter B 2021

“I am the Vine, and you are the branches,” Jesus tells his disciples. “The one who abides in me and I in that one, that one bears much fruit…” So far, so good. Now comes one of the most “un-American” statements in the Christian scriptures. When we abide in Jesus, the Valid Vine, we will bear much fruit “because apart from me, you are unable to do anything” (John 15:5).

“America” has often been described as more of an idea than a country. In fact, the idea of America is filled with myths and useful half-truths as well as a great deal of real history. One of those myths is the “Story of the Self-made Man.”

Wikipedia notes that the phrase was first uttered in official records “on February 2, 1842 by Henry Clay in the United States Senate, to describe individuals whose success lay within the individuals themselves, not with outside conditions.” Clay was holding forth on the values and virtues of American industry and wealth in a “free market” system.  He argued that government should protect the ability of such industry to be “self-made.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-made_man).

Perhaps you see the irony already.

Photo by Henri Guu00e9rin on Pexels.com

It is an interesting turn of phrase to come from Clay’s mouth. He was the inheritor of slaves, land, and some social position. Even though his family fell on hard times briefly, his widowed mother remarried well. That second marriage increased Clay’s access to wealth, privilege, and – most of all – political power and connections. Clay certainly made the most of what he received and served the national government honorably and well.

The myth of the self-made man, however, is the very essence of the system of white, male supremacy and inherited privilege.

Even though the phrase was coined in the 1840’s, it was in the 1930’s to the 1950’s that the myth really took hold. Just at the time when white American men received more outside help than at any other time in history, the mythology of the self-made man came to greatest prominence.

In the age of Depression-era jobs programs, the GI Bill, federal encouragement of white, male, home ownership, and postwar protection of jobs for white men, the very same men asserted with vehemence and violence that they owed nothing to no one (the double negative is in the Greek of John 15:5 and works in Greek even if it doesn’t in “standard” English).

Apart from me, you are unable to do anything,” Jesus says. The clash with the mythology of the self-made man is obvious and therefore must be suppressed.

This mythology is part of the “America” to which Donald Trump longed to return in his slogan “Make America Great Again.” It was more than a desire to make America “white again,” although that is certainly part of it. It was more than a desire to make American “male again,” although that is also certainly part of it.

It is the desire to make un-white and un-male America the invisible and unnamed basis for claims to white, male self-sufficiency. Claims to the contrary are attacked with vehemence and violence. After all, that is another part of what it means to “make America great again.” We witnessed that part of supposed American “greatness” on January 6, 2021, in the United States capitol.

Why is this myth so seductive? And why does challenging that myth produce such a violent and vitriolic response? First, the myth of the self-made man means that I get the credit for any and all successes. And I don’t have to share that credit with anyone. After all, “I did it my way.” The Paul Anka lyrics have served as propaganda for presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Trump.

The myth can’t be sustained, of course. No one is a self-made anything. But the more it becomes clear that we didn’t do it all on our own, the louder we say we did.

It’s no accident that Rick Santorum assumes the Doctrine of Discovery (the theological and political background of the self-made myth) in remarks to an audience at the Young Americans Foundation. If there was nothing here when “we” arrived, then by golly we must have built it all ourselves! Hurrah for us (white, land-owning, men)!

“We came here and created a blank slate,” he told his audience. “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here.” History has a way of calling stupidity into question, so Santorum tried to qualify his comment, only to make it even worse. “I mean, yes we have Native Americans,” he admitted, “but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

The price of the myth of the self-made man (and the self-made country) is twofold. On the one hand, others matter only if they are useful commodities – like Africans who were enslaved by the self-made. On the other hand, those who refuse to be useful must be erased from history, memory, and moral calculus.

This is the story of white, male treatment of Native Americans. When Santorum says we “created a blank slate,” he was actually quite right. The “slate” wasn’t “blank” until Native Americans were removed and erased from the frame.

This brings us to the second reason why this myth is so seductive. If I am self-made, then I have permission to simply not give a shit about anyone else. Especially, I am permitted – no, required – to ignore anyone who might need some help to get ahead. After all, I did on my own, right? Why can’t you?

Perhaps the myth of the self-made man goes all the way back to Cain. Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper? The myth says, no – of course not. Hebrew and Christian scriptures beg to differ.

So, the myth of the self-made man is binary and dualistic. It is the war of all against all. Others are at best commodities to be consumed. Others are most likely enemies to be erased.

Apart from me,” Jesus says, “you are unable to do anything.” In our American mythology, this is bad news. But in the Christian worldview, this is the best news possible. Remember, Jesus first says, “I am the Vine, and you are the branches.”

We don’t have to do anything apart from Jesus. He is the Vine, and we are the branches. When we abide in him, we will bear much fruit.

For those who don’t think this connection to Jesus matters, I probably don’t have much of any interest to share. You may wish to listen further out of curiosity. Or not. But I have a bit more to say.

We Christians have some elementary sense of what we think Jesus does for us. Through Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, God has defeated the powers of sin, death, and evil. The battles are not done, but the outcome of the struggle is not in doubt. As a Jesus follower, I receive the benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation (of course, I believe that everyone else gets those benefits too).

That’s what Jesus does for us. Many Christians never go further than that. I’m so glad, they think, that God has had the good sense to rescue me and preserve my life for eternity. I’m glad (at least in theory) to share that good news with others. That being said, please let me get on with my self-making project.

If that’s all that’s happening, then it’s not really good news for anyone else. But the for part is only half the gospel.

The other half is what Jesus does through us. That’s what is really at stake in this image of the Vine and the branches. God works in us and through us to give abundant life to the world in the here and now. The life we receive in Jesus empowers us to pass that life on. In fact, passing it on is what “abundant life” really means! So I should ask myself each day — How am I being good news for others?

That’s not just a metaphor or a nice idea. It’s how we do church. I am not a self-made Christian. My parents and the generations before them have given me the gift of faith and tradition, piety and practice, that make me in large part what I am. People have gone out of their way to help me accomplish things in life. I’d like to take credit for this life, but I can’t. Naming and thanking all the people who have made me would take more time and space than this meditation!

Self-made is not “God-made.” The best we can do on our own is to produce lives that are knock-offs, cheap imitations of the Abundant Life. The best we can do is produce a life that looks like cut flowers – pretty for a while but destined for death in the end.

Apart from me,” Jesus says, “you are unable to do anything.” For us as Jesus followers, that’s the good news.

My experience of being filled with Jesus’ life is that I end up doing things I never thought possible. Rarely do I do those things alone. Never do I do those things without help. But that makes them no less valuable. The corollary of Jesus’ words here is Paul’s statement in his letter to the Philippians – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

When we are abiding together on the Vine – when we are helping one another to flourish and grow and be fruitful – that’s when we are most like Jesus. When we have the opportunity to help another, we should jump at the chance. It’s another opportunity to live the Abundant Life. When we have the opportunity to be helped by another, we should jump at the chance. That’s the Abundant Life flowing through the Vine as well.

The call today is to be Unself Made. That’s where the real Life is.

Text Study for John 15:1-11 (Pt. 3); 5 Easter B 2021

I will always remember the wondering of an ex-offender who came to faith in Christ and was enthusiastically baptized. Not long after, he came to me with a question that troubled him. He was worried about “backsliding” and falling away from the faith. He was tempted by his old ways of life and didn’t want to risk losing out on salvation. Wouldn’t it be better, he wondered, if the Lord took us to heaven right after we were baptized? After all, why risk anything further?

That question represents the hidden wondering, I suspect, of many western Christians. Once we get past Holy Week and Easter, what’s the rest of it for? Now that Jesus has done the important stuff, perhaps all that comes after is sort of beside the point. Is Jesus good for anything more now than a label for our particular club and the Divine signature on our eternal life policy?

The Vine and the Branches can allow us to think a bit about this question. It may seem that we’re going to engage in some theological mumbo-jumbo, but we need that clear and disciplined thinking to make sense out of this. We can talk for a bit about the “Person” and the “Work” of Jesus Christ and what that means for our life as people of the Spirit-filled Resurrection. What happens “after Easter” seems like a good topic for reflection and proclamation this week.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

Many Protestant Christians know a fair bit about the “work” of Christ. The Work of Christ refers primarily the justification of sinners which God brings about through the victory over death won by Christ on his cross and in his resurrection.

In a simple sense, the Work of Christ is what God does in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit for us. In that Work, God sets us right with God and one another so we can be in right relationship with God, with one another, and with the whole cosmos.

We tend to think less about the “person” of Christ. The Person of Christ refers to the presence of the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in the cosmos and in each creature. Again, in a simple sense, the Person of Christ is what God does in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in us and through us.

In classical (and over-simplified) Lutheran terms, the Work of Christ is justification. The Person of Christ is about sanctification. We can debate about this description, as Lutherans have for 500 years. But it’s close enough for our purposes here.

The figure of speech we know as “The Vine and the Branches” is more about the Person of Christ than it is about the Work of Christ. It is more about sanctification than it is about justification. It is more about being “right” (righteous, whole, fully human) than getting “right” (righteous, whole, fully human). The figure of speech is more about how the Vine works in us and less about what the Vine does for us.

That in-dwelling, especially in John’s gospel, is always a mutual relationship. Christ dwells/abides/remains in me, and I dwell/abide/remain in Christ. That mutual relationship can produce some convoluted sentences to try to describe the connections.

In fact, the image of the Vine and the Branches conveys the relationship far better than the prose descriptions in John (which tend to sound like theological word salad in English). And that image reminds us that our mutual indwelling with Christ mirrors the mutual indwelling between the Father and the Son (and, by implication, the Spirit).

As I have noted in other contexts, I find the work of Tuomo Mannermaa and his Finnish school of Luther interpretation both helpful and exciting in this regard. Mannermaa points to Luther’s assertion that Christ is present in the justified sinner by faith.

I am not only “declared righteous” (thank God, that is most certainly true). In addition, and as a result, I am being “made righteous” as Christ works in me by the power of the Spirit (thank God, that is also most certainly true). In language that our Eastern siblings would well understand, we are both saved once and for all, and being saved day by day.

Mannermaa points to Luther’s 1535 commentary on Galatians as one of many locations for this line of thought. “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God,” Paul writes in Galatians 2:19. The outcome of this death is that “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh,” Paul concludes, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Mannermaa describes this as “Christ present in faith.” He doesn’t mean a symbolic or metaphorical presence but rather a real, ontological presence. That’s important for the discussion here. “Christ in me” isn’t merely a symbol or a metaphor. It isn’t something I accomplish through devotion or thinking or imagination. That’s what actually happens when we are baptized into Christ.

The “I” of sin, of being curved in on oneself, is put to death in the cross of Christ. That “I” is being replaced with Christ who lives in me. Paul doesn’t mean that, somehow, I am obliterated as a person. Rather, he means that through the presence of Christ, I am being made into the fully human person I was created to be. The fully human person I was created to be is made for union with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

Mannermaa puts it this way. “It is important to appreciate that the conquest of the forces of sin and destruction takes place within Christ’s own person. He won the battle between righteousness and sin ‘in himself,’” Mannermaa declares. “Sin, death, and curse are first conquered in the person of Christ, and ‘thereafter’ the whole of creation is to be transformed through his person. Salvation is participation in the person of Christ” (Kindle Locations 317-319, my emphasis).

My righteousness is certainly a declarative (“forensic”) justification. It is also, Mannermaa asserts, a performative (“ontological”) justification. Luther often talks about this reality as the “Wonderful Exchange.” Christ takes the powers of sin, death, and the devil that live in me and absorbs them into himself. There, those powers are defeated. In exchange, I receive forgiveness, life, and salvation for Jesus’ sake and through his presence.

Mannermaa writes, “What takes place here between Christ and the believer is a kind of communication of attributes: Christ, the divine righteousness, truth, peace, joy, love, power, and life, gives himself to the Christian. At the same time,” he notes, “Christ ‘absorbs’ the believer’s sin, death, and curse into himself” (Kindle Locations 329-330).

I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus tells his disciples. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). It is hard to articulate a closer actual and physical connection than that between the vine and the branches.

The branches draw their life from the vine. In a physical, as well as theological and spiritual, sense, the vine is present in each and all of the branches. This is the relationship Jesus promises, offers, and creates in all who follow him.

Therefore, according to Luther, the Wonderful Exchange is not only a removal of sin, death, and the devil, to be replaced by forgiveness, life, and salvation. What happens is, in fact, a “communication of attributes.” This is a technical theological term that up until Luther was typically applied to the relationships between members of the Trinity. But for Luther, it describes what happens to us when we mutually indwell with Christ in faith.

“It is precisely the Christ present in justifying faith who communicates God’s saving attributes to the believer in the ‘happy exchange,’” Mannermaa writes. “God is righteousness, and in faith the human being participates in righteousness; God is joy, and in faith the human being participates in joy; God is life, and in faith the human being participates in life; God is power, and in faith the human being participates in power, and so forth” (Kindle Locations 397-400).

This understanding of our relationship with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit helps me to hear “The Vine and the Branches” as sweet gospel rather than merely an opaque metaphor. Jesus makes this promise of himself to the first disciples and to all disciples who come after.

The Father tends the Vine in order to give life to the Vine, and in that life, we branches find and have our life as well. We are invited to abide in the Valid Vine as Beloved Branches, to remain connected and nourished and growing in him. With that mutual exchange of life and love, we can bear fruit. We can become all that God created us to be from the beginning. Why would we wish for anything else?

I wish I had come across the work of the Finns sooner, but I’m glad to find it now. The presence and power of the Messiah is present in us and in me by the power of the Life-giving Spirit. We draw our abundant life from the Vine.

We are made of the “same stuff” as the Vine as well! For Mannermaa, this means that Luther’s view was relatively close to the Eastern view of salvation as theosis, becoming more and more like Christ (“divinized”) in our union with him.

What is our life after justification good for? The Love of God is poured into us. But it is also poured out through us. That’s why we’re here – to be fruitful branches. In that fruit-bearing, we find more and more of the abundant life promised to us.

Life on the Vine (there’s a sermon title for you — no extra charge) is intensely personal and intimate. It is also of necessity communal. Jesus doesn’t say I am the vine, and you (singular) are a branch. We are branches together.

I can tell you that the last thirteen months of pandemic piety have confirmed both realities in me. I have been nourished as a branch through deeper study, reflection, and prayer. I have been reminded that life as a solo branch cannot be enough to sustain me for the long haul. We are branches together.

You can certainly use the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as an illustration of what happens when we’re brought into Life on the Vine. The second reading has some great lines as well to flesh this out (pun intended) further.

References and Resources

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-151-8-5.

Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. Kingsley Books. Kindle Edition.

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.

Lewis, Karoline. “On Withering” (April 23, 2018)  https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-withering.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification.  Kindle Edition.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-151-8-4.

Text Study for John 15:1-17 (Pt. 2); 5 Easter B 2021

“I am the Valid Vine,” Jesus declares to his disciples, “and my Father is the Vinedresser.” Various forms of the Greek word for “truth” are found in John’s gospel – some thirty-five instances in all. These instances are especially associated with Jesus’ assertions of identity as the One who descends from and ascends to the Father. The Hebrew word for “truth” is transliterated as “Emeth” and deserves some attention.

“Truth” in the contemporary sense is primarily accordance with facts or accepted reality. It is often regarded as something which is either the case as an axiom or can be empirically verified. This is the “correspondence” view of the nature of truth. If we limit ourselves only to the correspondence view of truth, we will go off the tracks in our reading and interpretation of John’s gospel and of the Christian scriptures in general.

“Emeth” has a basic meaning of “reliability.” The word “is used absolutely to denote a reality which is to be regarded as… ‘firm,’ and therefore ‘solid,’ ‘valid,’ or ‘binding” (Quell, TDNT I:233). It has to do with things that are permanent and continuing. “Emeth” is directly related to “emen” which means “truly.” This term is transliterated in the gospels as “amen” and is used by Jesus – especially in John – as a way to identify a solemn truth spoken by Jesus.

Photo by Balu00e1zs Burju00e1n on Pexels.com

Truth, in this sense, is marked by faithfulness, steadfastness, dependability. The Hebrew scriptures certainly understand that some things are “real” and other things are not. However, truth is more than mere correspondence in the Hebrew scriptures. Truth is reliable. Therefore, truth is “relational.”

This has immediate consequences for understanding the Christian scriptures as well. Truth is the basis for faith, both in Paul’s letters and in John’s gospel. But faith is not some mere intellectual assent to a set of “facts” or axioms. Faith is primarily trust – reliance on the dependability and steadfastness of another, particularly God. Luther understands this, for example when, in his Large Catechism, he defines a god as whatever we rely upon in life and in death.

When we get to the Greek term that conveys the Hebrew sense, we get a word that basically means “non-concealment” ((Bultmann, TDNT I:238). The word is “a-letheia.” The Greek word “lethe” means “forgetfulness.” The River Lethe, in Greek mythology, is the river the dead pass over and begin to forget their embodied lives, for example. So, in literal terms, “truth” is non-forgetting what is there.

For the Greeks, truth represents the actual state of affairs, which can often be covered by false appearances. But the word has less of the sense of reliability and steadfastness found in the Hebrew term. In John, truth is always connected to God, the One who is “really real.” The Word is the Legitimate Light that is coming into the cosmos (John 1:9). The reliable bread comes down from heaven, and Jesus brings it (John 6). Jesus is the reliable way to life in John 14. And he is the Valid Vine in our text.

Why does this matter? When we impose the limited, correspondence definition of “truth” on this and other texts in the Christian scriptures, we will get unreliable results. John is not asserting some factual veracity about Jesus. John is promising that Jesus is the steadfast, reliable, continuing Love of God for the cosmos, dwelling among us. John invites us to “abide” in Jesus as that relational Truth in order to access and continue to have the abundant life which God offers to all.

The limited, correspondence, definition of “truth” makes our text and others like it into a sorting sieve, and “unbelievers” are then found wanting and rejected. This is not what John’s gospel intends. “This is a passage from John,” Karoline Lewis (2018) reminds us. “These are the consequences of separation, not statements about a lack of righteousness. This describes the reality of disconnection,” she argues, “not the determination of who is in and who is out.” Lewis notes that these are words from the Farewell Discourse – words to comfort the disciples as they contemplate Jesus’ departure.

These are not words of condemnation or punishment for unfaithfulness. But they do describe consequences. Disconnection from Jesus means withering and dying. Remaining connected to Jesus means flourishing in the abundant life. The vine and the branches as a figure of speech conveys this message with brilliance and depth.

“Every branch in me which is not bearing fruit,” Jesus says in verse 2, “[the Vinedresser] takes out that one.” Let me illustrate.

We have a couple of older trees in our yard. Some of the branches are budding and leafing out in the spring. Other branches remain bare and brown. Those branches are dead. They are not receiving life from the tree trunk, their only connection to the ground, and water, and nutrients. It will be best for the trees (and for the safety of us who stand under them) for those branches to be removed. When we remove the branches, we are not “punishing” them for being unproductive. We are simply responding to the fact that they are no longer alive. They can no longer depend on the trunk for life.

“And every one which is bearing fruit,” Jesus continues, “[the Vinedresser] cleans up in order that it might bear more fruit.” As I noted in the previous post, there is a word play involving “takes out” and “cleans up.” These are similar actions, John seems to be saying, with quite different results.

Every three years this text shows up early in the gardening season. It reminds me how much I hate pruning our garden plants. It’s not the task itself that bothers me. It feels wasteful to me.

As I pinch off one of those sucker branches on a tomato plant, I wonder if that’s the branch that would have produced the most tomatoes. When I remove some lower branches on a cucumber vine, I’m sure I’ve just reduced my total crop (even though I know I haven’t). If I take a few lower stems off the zucchini, I know I’ve opened up a spot for a hungry worm to invade, and I’ll have to watch that spot closely.

It’s not sloth I’m battling. It’s greed – and the fear of scarcity. This is one of my habits of hoarding (though certainly not the only one). I’m sure that because I’m clipping off some branches, there won’t be enough vegetables at the end of the process. I’m sure I’m contributing to the problem. I don’t trust the vine to produce enough unless I leave every last blessed branch.

Of course, if I do so, I’m actually reducing the final yield. Pruning and cleaning are not “punishments” for the plants. Pruning and cleaning leave some small injuries on the stems that will heal just fine if I pay adequate attention. In fact, pruning and cleaning are acts of care. The goal is to improve the harvest – to equip the remaining branches to bear much fruit.

John’s gospel is concerned about Jesus followers who are considering leaving the Jesus movement and staying with their previous faith communities. That’s why John is concerned about “abiding” in the truth of the Messiah, the Son of God, who is Jesus. This is the difference between me and the branches on my tomato plants. Those branches stay put unless I take them off. I can leave the Valid Vine if I so choose and try to find abundant life elsewhere.

Jesus “leaves his disciples with a picture of their relationship that communicates the unquestionable connectedness between them and Jesus, even in the face of Jesus’ absence,” Lewis writes. “It is an image of absolute dependence, certain reliance, and a binding relationship that is severed only when we choose to walk away. The only judgment here is on us,” she concludes, “when we decide to abscond from abiding in Jesus.”

We humans are twice as sensitive to threat as we are to opportunity. We are primed to hear news as bad even when it’s good. That is certainly the case in John 15. Lewis (2018) pleads with us as preachers to hear this text as Gospel rather than Law: “hear these words that are comfort, not condemnation. That are reassurance and not rejection. That are invitation and not abnegation. Without Jesus, being connected to Jesus, to the vine, a life filled with resurrection all around is not possible.”

That being said, I don’t think this text can or should be used to assure ourselves that we Jesus followers have a corner on the Truth market. It’s fruit-bearing that indicates a current connection to the Valid Vine. When I hear the Hebrew word for truth, “Emeth,” I go immediately to the final volume of the Narnia Saga, The Last Battle. C. S. Lewis creates a character in that book named “Emeth.”

Emeth is a soldier for the Other Side. Yet, he finds himself in the New Narnia, Lewis’ imagery for Heaven or the New Creation. Emeth is as surprised as anyone to discover his new location, since he was on the side of the Enemy. Aslan, the Christ figure in the Chronicles, explains the situation to Emeth. “I take to me the services which thou hast done to [the Enemy].  For I and he are of such different kinds,” Aslan continues, “that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him” (page 189).

Seeking the Truth is demonstrated by bearing fruit. And that fruit may appear in the most surprising of places, Lewis seems to say. “Beloved,” Aslan says to Emeth, “unless thy desire had been for me thou would not have sought so long and so truly. For all find,” the Great Lion concludes, “what they truly seek” (page 189).

Jesus is the Valid Vine. Branches connected to that Vine bear much fruit and in that way prove to be his disciples. We should be careful as we read and interpret this text to remember that Jesus chooses the branches, not us. And we should encourage all who seek the Truth.

References and Resources

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-151-8-5.

Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. Kingsley Books. Kindle Edition.

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.

Lewis, Karoline. “On Withering” (April 23, 2018)  https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-withering.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-151-8-4.