Today’s feature is for all of you botanists and green thumbs out there. I, unfortunately, can’t count myself in either category: with only a couple proud exceptions, just about every flower or plant I’ve tried to care for, including the mini twist bamboo plant from Ikea that once sat on my desk at work, has eventually shriveled up and died.
Thankfully, “I am the true Vine,” Jesus says, with the implication that his followers are “the branches” (John 15:1-8).
Jesus in the Gospel of John spends a lot of time telling his followers who He is, and this is one of those times. ”I am the Bread of Life.” ”I am The Way, The Truth and The Life.” ”I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
I sometimes try to picture what it would have been like to be one of Jesus’ disciples. Somewhere along the way to the cross, with Jesus leading them there, they would have stopped next to some unsuspecting vineyard owner’s field, surveying the lines of grape vines, maybe speculating on their vintage. Then, maybe motioning his followers to come around, Jesus would have gestured to one of these vines, its long, circular tendrils going every which way, its clusters of grapes hanging so delicately, and then and there Jesus would have said, “I am the true Vine.”
It is possible that in those moments Jesus’ words may have at once resounded with familiar cadences of the “I AM” statements of ancient Israel’s God; it’s possible that the imagery of the vine, a familiar metaphor from Hebrew Scripture used to describe God’s chosen people, Israel, would have evoked an immediate framework for understanding Jesus’ meaning here. It’s also possible that even so, or maybe precisely because of these associations, this declaration would have sounded strange, bold, and even offensively arrogant.
“I am the true Vine,” Jesus says. In other words, “where Israel failed, where Israel proved untrustworthy, I am the totally reliable Son of God.” So, “remain in me, and I will remain in you! (John 15:4).”
This invitation is the kind that only God can make, and it is a hard one to accept. In just a short time, the Vine will be not just pruned but cut down, and the branches will come undone and scattered. God Himself will appear to have failed on a cross at Golgotha, and God’s promise of a kingdom where wholeness, healing and peace (shalom ) reign, a sick, elaborate hoax.
But the pain and travail of that death poured out on a cross will mysteriously precede the flowering of new life and the fulfillment of this promise that God really is true- that God is both true for us and in us.
And, the fulfillment of this promise means that all our other attachments in this world, as good or praiseworthy as they might be in themselves, are not themselves trustworthy enough to merit our abiding faith. Only God Himself is.
Your children or marriage.
Your good causes.
Even your church.
These things, good as they might be, will let you down. They’ll fail you. Only Jesus, as the one, true Vine, warrants our all; only Jesus deserves our abiding faith. Maybe this is how the apostle Paul can declare his resolve “to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)- not, Christ crucified and the church, not Christ crucified and American consumerism. Christ crucified, only.
Jesus wants us to know that union with Christ will not be an escape route from suffering, but the way our sufferings can be transformed into the stuff of God’s pruning; and, the Gardener of our souls, we can be assured, is the consummate Green Thumb.