Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, is our life too: “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.” United with Jesus, his followers are part of an organic unity with him and one another. The vine is united to the branches and lives in them but it does not depend on them. Without the branches’ dependence on the vine, their vascular connection to it, they do not produce fruit. Detached branches are worse than barren; they are dead or dying.
|Acts 8:26-40 • Ps. 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21 • John 15:1-8
How can I abide in you, Lord? How can I stay attached to you? The reading from 1 John unfolds its answer with a dense elaboration of love. Love, love, and more love: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Love is our life, or to extend the metaphor of viniculture a little further, maybe we should say that love is our lifeblood.
Moreover, if love is necessary for life and the medium of our living, that need necessarily moves us toward one other and holds us together. Impelled or attracted, the glue is the same: Love one another. There is no way to abide in Christ without other Christians: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” Hearing this extended riff on love, reservations or questions about “organized religion” sound weird, like discordant interruptions and non-sequiturs. The idea that “faith” can only be compromised or tarnished once it’s shared is foreign and unintelligible in this picture. Christian faith can only exist in the beholden belonging of the branches to the vine. A collection of independent branches is not a purer or more vigorous vine but a pile of yard waste.
A loveless faith is not a living one. I think this is what the Letter of James means when it says, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (James 2.26). The Church Fathers loved to insist that our prayers find a hearing and our sins absolution only through fasting and almsgiving. It sounds strange to ears at all tuned to Reformation sensibilities, but it’s a cliché in ancient preaching. Evidently the Fathers were less worried about works-righteousness than they were about a dead and loveless faith. Workless faith is lifeless not because our works must save us, but because fruitless faith is loveless. “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew. This epistle reading poses a similar conclusion: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Love may be an inner disposition toward our brethren that connects us to the vine, but it should bear fruit in outward works. As last week’s reading put it, “how does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 John 3:16).
Whether only to be pruned or to be cut out altogether, all of us can expect some trimming. “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 Christ, abide in love. But, love one another as if your life depended on it. Because it does.
Look It Up
Read Matt. 7:15-20 and Gal. 5:22-26.
Think About It
What fruits are you bearing? What needs pruning?