“Remain in me and I will remain in you.”
These are Jesus’ words to his disciples as he prepares to be arrested. They are words of farewell but also of encouragement and comfort. For the last couple of years, the disciples have followed Jesus, learned from him, and depended on his guidance and wisdom. What are they to do in his absence? Of course, the gospel of John records that after Jesus died, the disciples hid. They feared how their association with Jesus might get them arrested and possibly killed as well. What has piqued my interest, is the way Jesus offers comfort in his farewell discourse. He says to his followers, “remain in me and I will remain in you.” How are the disciples to experience this kind of presence without Jesus being physically with them? To answer this question, let’s look at Jesus’ farewell discourse more closely.
In John chapter 15 Jesus identifies himself as the true grapevine. This has special significance for the disciples and ancient Israel. Israel was depicted as the vine that God had planted. To represent this, a golden vine was placed around the doorway to the Holy Place. Wealthy Ancient Israelite families would donate golden leaves and clusters of grapes to the vine. Here is a description of the temple written by Josephus.
“The temple had doors also at the entrance, and lintels over them, of the same height with the temple itself. They were adorned with embroidered veils, with their flowers of purple, and pillars interwoven; and over these, but under the crown-work, was spread out a golden vine, with its branches hanging down from a great height, the largeness and fine workmanship of which was a surprising sight to the spectators, to see what vast materials there were, and with what great skill the workmanship was done.”1
As Jesus senses the end of his time with the disciples, he reminds them of their intimate connection. Jesus begins by identifying himself with God’s covenant people saying, “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener (John 15:1).” This metaphor functions in three ways. First, it harkens back to God long standing relationship with ancient Israel. God referred to Israel as a vine that was planted to bear good fruit. Unfortunately, this imagery is only used in the negative in the Tanakh. God’s covenant people had a difficult time living as those called to reveal God’s character. So often the metaphor looks like this:
“How prosperous Israel is— a luxuriant vine loaded with fruit. But the richer the people get, the more pagan altars they build.” (Hosea 10:1-2)
“But I was the one who planted you, choosing a vine of the purest stock—the very best. How did you grow into this corrupt wild vine? No amount of soap or lye can make you clean. I still see the stain of your guilt.” (Jeremiah 2:21-22a)
Nevertheless, Israel was planted to reveal God to the world. By identifying himself as the true vine, Jesus has connected himself to the long-standing mission of God in the world. What the ancient Israelites were called to do, Jesus himself fulfills.
Second but connected to this, is the idea that Jesus as the true vine stands in both solidarity with and contrast to God’s covenant people. Jesus seems to always find a way to join us in whatever situation we are in. By identifying himself as the vine, Jesus is connecting himself with an identity that the ancient Israelites struggled to embody. Jesus joins them as the “vine” just as Jesus joins all those who believe in him. Yet at the same time he is the “true vine” because Jesus perfectly fulfills God’s mission in the world. He bears the good fruit that God hoped for when he planted to vine.
The third aspect present in the metaphor is Jesus acting as the source of life and nourishment that is given to the branches. All life comes from a common source. It all comes from Christ who is planted by God the Father. In this third aspect of the vine metaphor, we can understand clearly why Jesus is telling the disciples to remain in him, and he will remain with them. A branch receives nourishment from the vine. Remaining in Christ is about staying connected to the source of life. The result is that Christ continues to nourish the disciples even after his death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus remains present with his disciples through his Spirit that is our source of life.
Jesus continues in John 15, to describe how staying connected to him means that his disciples will bear good fruit. For now, I want to linger on this connection that Christians have to Christ. Jesus is the source of life for all of us, and when we remain in him, he will remain in us. This reminds me of a hymn from the 18th century that begins,
“Jesu, delight of every heart,
Thou font of life, Thou source of light,
Earth can no joy so real impart,
No soul can form a hope so bright.
Abide with us, O Lord, we pray,
And cause Thy heavenly light to glow;
Drive from our minds the clouds away,
And let the world Thy sweetness know.”2
Whatever trial or struggle we might endure, Jesus joins us, and is the source of life that helps us get through whatever life throws at us. For the Twelve, Jesus wanted them to remember that even he was going to be killed, Jesus would still be with them. Jesus is also our source of life. He comforts us through any trial. We need only remember that life comes from the vine.
1Josephus, Ant. 15.395.
2JESU, DULCEDO CORDIUM, accessed on 05/25/2021, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/44039/44039-h/44039-h.htm#c8