John 15:1-17

The Farewell Discourse – Part 2

The narrative setting of interactive (though stylised) dialogue would change to become an extended monologue where Jesus would address the disciples, largely without interruption on their part.

Themes already raised in the Discourse would be revisited, confirmed, newly expressed and, sometimes, expanded.

John 15:1-17     The Vine and the Branches

1 “I am the true vine,

Jesus would use an extended metaphor. He was not telling a parable in order to puzzle, and thereby stimulate the disciples’ questioning, but using an image to illustrate and clarify his message.

This would not be the last of Jesus’ “I am….” statements in the Gospel. By this stage, readers would be familiar with the context of risen reality and the authority that it evoked.

Jesus’ use of the vine image was not original. It had already been used frequently in the tradition. Jesus tailored the image to suit his purposes.

… and my Father is the landholder. 

Jesus was unswerving in his insistence that his whole meaning and activity were determined by his relationship with the Father who had sent him into the world.

2 He cuts off any branch of mine that does not bear fruit,
and prunes every branch that does bear fruit
so that it will bear more.

The focus moved from Jesus to the activity of the Father, and introduced the further idea of branches. The complementary, yet contrasting, actions of the landholder in cutting off or pruning were more colourfully accentuated in the original Greek, and perhaps could have been better translated by saying that while branches that bear no fruit are “cut off”, those that bear fruit are “cut clean”.

God does not prune in the sense that God causes pain; yet neither does God necessarily protect disciples from the pain inflicted on them by the often-sinful behaviour of others. It is usually from within the context of adversity that growth happens best. In such contexts, God is present as the source that empowers growth, and enables them to let go of all within them that does not truly lead to life. Disciples grow as they learn to enter into such pain, allow it to be and, in that sense, deliberately suffer it as the price of loving.

3 You are already cleaned by the word I have spoken to you. 

The “cutting clean” image was taken up again. In the foot washing scene that prefaced the solemn meal [13:10], Jesus had already said of the disciples that they were cleaned – cut clean. Here, the text made additional mention of the instrument of cleaning, the word that Jesus had spoken; it omitted the exclusion of Judas from the cleaning effect, since Judas had already left the scene. Jesus' word cleans in the sense that it invites disciples to embrace the discipline involved in all unconditional and non-selective love.

4 Remain in me, and I in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit by itself,
unless it remains on the vine,
neither can you if you do not remain in me.

Jesus made explicit the response that he had invited and confirmed so frequently before: remain in me and I in you. (Depending on context, the translation had often used other words [stay, abide, be with, dwell, etc.] to translate the one Greek word.) It picked up, in a suitably undefined way, the intimate reality of discipleship.

Jesus attached to the experience of remaining the concept of fruitfulness. Bearing fruit would depend on remaining.

5 I am the vine;
you are the branches.
Those who remain in me, and I in them,
bear a lot of fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.

Jesus’ comment simply served to make explicit what the image had already implied; the branches were the community. The point of the image was not to distinguish branches from trunk. Vine referred to the plant as a whole, of which the branches, along with trunk and roots, were parts. The community – the branches – remained in Jesus in an intimate interpenetration and identification. Only through their unity with Jesus and with one another could branches flourish. The community’s impact on the world would be the outcome of their loving unity as community, rather than of the isolated actions, however gifted, of individual members.

From reflection on the life of Jesus, it is clear that the fruitfulness of which he spoke did not mean success, however such success might be measured, but a mutuality of love that remained undiminished and steadfast in a context even of failure.

Fruit as Justice and Righteousness

The image of the vine recalled a passage from the prophet Isaiah, which served to give context to the uselessness of vines that did not bear fruit, and which clearly understood fruit to be love – active love expressed in justice and righteousness:

… My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
… he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes. 
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry! [Isaiah 5:1-7]

6 If people do not remain in me,
like branches they are thrown out
and dry and then are gathered together
and thrown on the fire and burnt.

The warning was made, not to the world (which had never abided in Jesus), but to “unfruitful” disciples. The comment meant, simply, that they were useless and dispensable. It prescinded from questions about their final destiny.

7 If you do remain in me,
and my words remain in you,
ask for what you want
and it will happen.
8 in this way my Father is glorified
that you bear plenty of fruit
and that you be disciples of mine. 

The message was, essentially, a message for the community, and a directive for the community’s prayer. The focus of the community’s prayer would be the outcome of their careful discernment.

Jesus’ promise was conditional on the disciples having learnt the mind and heart of Jesus – that his words remain in them. Like the prayer made in the name of Jesus [14:13-14], the prayer of disciples who were enlightened by Jesus’ words would obviously express the desires of Jesus’ heart, who, in turn, was concerned to live only the dreams and hopes of his Father. Father, Jesus and disciples were all caught up in the one desire: that love grow, and that disciples bear much fruit.

The issue of asking would be raised again [16:16; 16:23-34].

Ask for What You Want

Although Jesus’ comments were directed, primarily, to the community, they are relevant, also, to individuals.

People’s desires determine where they direct their energies. When their desires are clear and strongly felt, their action is determined and persistent. People develop their desires from observation of other people. Jesus was clearly interested in fostering the disciples’ desires. Obviously, he hoped their desires would conform to his, and would be educated and nourished as they cherished his “words”. Their learning his heart would be a life-long task; and their insights into his will would necessarily be imperfect at any stage of the process. Perfection would come only as they matured.

Asking. Disciples need to become alert to their desires, if those desires are to become focussed and their energies concentrated. So Jesus encouraged them to ask for what they wanted, whatever it might be. 

Problems can arise. One problem is that growth can begin only from where people are. Growth does not happen if people are not real. Little is served by their pretending to want what they only think they should want. Many formal prayers do not express the true desires of people’s hearts.

Another problem is that, in many cases, people’s learnt desires unknowingly reflect more a lack of trust in Jesus’ providential care than enlightened insight. Sometimes, they reflect self-interest, rather than disinterested love, and people can feel too ashamed to ask for such things. Yet, if that is what they honestly want, that is what they should ask for.  

Persistence. Insistent asking stimulates their desiring; persistent asking can educate them. Persistence in the face of delay can have the effect of challenging them to look more deeply into themselves. Only when triggered by their contact with Jesus, can their deepest heart desires come to light. The more they come to know their true self, the more they discover the values and hopes that informed the heart of Jesus. By listening to his “word”, they become increasingly aware of their own truest desires, and able to draw on the energy bound up with them.

In short, because so much energy resides in desires, desires are crucial to living to the full. But so many desires are unrecognised, and run rampant, serving more to destroy than to build up. The process of asking brings desires into awareness, where they can be identified, sorted out and prioritized. The deeper desires hidden beneath the superficial desires can be gradually unearthed, examined and acknowledged. Through the on-going process of “remaining” in Jesus, people slowly recognise his values, notice the extent to which they resonate with their own deepest heart longings; they feel drawn by them, and learn to adopt them deliberately.

Whatever? Consistently throughout the Gospel, the Beloved Disciple expressed his insights forcefully by contrasting opposites. He ignored the “middle ground”. Yet, the “middle ground” is where most disciples find themselves. This still-in-process situation gives rise to the question whether, during the process of disciples’ growing, Jesus would grant requests which reflected more their own insecurities and self-interest than their truer, but still unrecognised, desires.

The Gospel gives no answer. Jesus’ response probably reflects how he reads the relative needs, on the one hand, to encourage disciples to ask by granting their requests, and, on the other hand, to lead them more deeply into their hearts by not answering them.

Empowered for love

9 I have loved you
just as the Father has loved me.  
Remain in my love.

Jesus made explicit what fruitfulness consisted in: the ceaseless interchange of love between Father, Jesus and disciples, the energy of which originated in the Father’s heart. Jesus loved because he knew that God, the source of all being and life, was love; he loved because true life is essentially life lived lovingly; he was able to love because he was empowered to love by the Father’s love which he so readily received and welcomed. He invited disciples to love because only by loving would they indeed live life to the full. His love for them, drawn from the source of all love, the Father, would empower them to love.

That individuals learn to love is difficult. That a community become a loving community is even more challenging. The power of sin is particularly embedded in human communities.  There, the dynamics of personal insecurity, envy, competitiveness and hostility can lurk, hidden but powerful. They need to be unmasked, owned and, somehow, neutralized. The task calls for honesty and courage; and may require suitable and effective structures for sharing, discernment and decision-making.

10 You will remain in my love
if you keep my commands,
just as I have kept my Father’s commands
and remain in his love. 

The Discourse reiterated the frequently expressed theme connecting the community’s love for Jesus with its practical expression in their love for one another, just as Jesus’ love for his Father found practical expression in his love for the disciples. Jesus was ever mindful that he had been sent into the world to express God’s love for the world: God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son [3.16]. For him, as for his disciples, that need was felt as non-negotiable. In that sense, it carried a sense of commandment.

The Criterion of “Remaining”

It is important to read carefully what was being said. Jesus had just inferred that his love was totally unconditional, as unconditional as the Father's love for him. He was not saying, therefore, that his love was conditional on people's keeping his commands. Rather, the practical way by which the disciples, on their part, would abide in his love would be by their keeping his commands. The human response to Jesus’ love is the problem: disciples can choose not to abide in his love by their being unwilling to love other persons, and, thereby, to dissociate themselves from the loving Jesus.

Only by remaining in his love, by being saturated and transformed by it, by trusting and surrendering to it, can disciples hope to love indiscriminately. Only love can empower love. Their failure to so love simply indicates the tenuousness of their remaining in him. Their abiding is always a work in progress.

11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy may be complete.

Jesus had already promised the disciples his peace: Peace I leave with you; Peace I leave with you, my own peace I hand on to you [14:27]. Now, he promised them his joy.  The promises revealed something of Jesus’ own inner world: he knew both peace and joy; he attributed their source to his relationship with his Father; and he wished, ardently, to share the experience with those he loved.

12 “This is my command
that you love one another
as I have loved you.

The frequent repetition served to underline the absolute priority of love. By being immersed in the love of the Father, of Jesus and of each other, the disciples would know the peace and joy that Jesus wished for them.

Chosen Friends

13 No one can have greater love than this
that they lay down their life for their friends.

No Greater Love

Jesus did not speak of his death, undertaken out of love for his friends, as a sacrifice. In the religious context, sacrifice has come to be seen as a death required by God, and serving to placate God’s offended honour. The victim’s death is understood to divert God’s retributive justice from striking those who are really guilty.

Jesus did not die to avert God’s anger from sinful humanity. God loved humanity and sent Jesus into the world precisely to save that humanity. The death of Jesus would reveal the love of God, not the anger of God, towards people.

Jesus did see his impending death as somehow bringing about people’s release from their sinfulness – their salvation. How it did so has been the subject of much debate. Many early Christian teachers drew on the language and imagery available in their culture to explore for themselves, and to explain to others, the saving effectiveness of Jesus’ crucifixion. Often, they used the familiar concept of sacrifice; but they so redefined the idea that it barely resembled literal sacrifice as people knew it. By their use of the idea of sacrifice, they intended little more than a death that somehow brought salvation.

14 You are friends of mine
if you do what I command you.
15 No longer do I call you servants,
because servants do not know what their master is doing.
I call you friends
because I have made known to you
everything I have heard from my Father.
16 You have not chosen me.
I have chosen you,

Obviously, friendship spoke of mutuality: friendship is two-way. It spoke of totality. It spoke of equality. Friends relate at similar levels of mutual respect, vulnerability and openness.

Jesus insisted that he loved the disciples as equals: not as master and servant; nor as parent and child (though he had called them “children” not long before [13.33; 14.18]). As proof of that equality, he cited his present willingness to speak with them of his coming death and resurrection, and his trusting, open sharing of his hopes, anxieties, advice and warnings. In sharing these, he shared also what was most precious of his relationship with his Father. His total commitment to love was precisely what he had heard from his Father. His insistence that the disciples not approach his commands as would servants, urged them to understand that the binding force of those commands would arise from their personal recognition of the essential truth they conveyed, rather than from external imposition, even by Jesus himself.

Jesus’ relationship with each of them was deliberate. The initiative had been his. Their encounters had not been fortuitous.

Jesus would make known to the world everything he had learnt from the Father, not so much by his words as by his death. His action of freely and determinedly dying for the world would reveal his deepest insight into the Father’s heart: the Father loved the world without reserve.

The Love of Friends 

Jesus’ mention of friendship introduced a whole new avenue of entry into his heart. Other loves are beautiful, deep and rewarding: the mutual love of parents and children, of spouses, sometimes, of masters and servants (and their modern equivalents). However, a person’s deepest yearning is for the love of another adult, of an equal. Jesus’ declaration showed that he, too, yearned for, chose and enjoyed adult male and female friends.

Liking. Friendship teases out the content of loving by adding the dimension of liking. To be genuinely liked by an adult equal can be a wonderfully freeing experience. Loving, especially when spoken of in terms of commands, can carry overtones of reluctance and of struggle. Other people’s love can be felt, at times, as reforming (even controlling). Masculine love can convey a sense of expectation. It may seem conditional – directed more to what the “loved” ones can become than to what and how they presently are.

But liking carries none of these overtones. It speaks of delight: Jesus’ wish for his disciples was “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete”. Liking seems unconditional, and takes delight in the other as the other is. Liking is not “business-like”. It is nourished less through intense sharing than through time “wasted” together. It can be relaxed into.

Freedom. Since liking relates to the other just as the other is, it delights in the other’s freedom. It would prefer the other to be free to make honest mistakes than to be bound up, and sometimes paralysed, by the prior need always to feel right.

Jesus’ talk of friendship would seem to carry meanings better served by the term “liking”.

The challenge for modern disciples is to allow themselves to be liked by Jesus as the adult persons they are. Their task is not to approach their relationship burdened by the command to love, but to relax into the delight that Jesus has in them, free to make mistakes in their stumbling efforts to grow in integrity and in mutual closeness. Their friendship with Jesus allows Jesus to relax, too, into their delighting in him, and to feel free to be however he chooses. 

… and set you up
to go and to bear fruit,
and that your fruit will endure,

From the context it is clear enough that Jesus was not talking about practical results or success in the disciples’ mission. In fact, in the whole Gospel, little mention had been made of mission at all (with the exception, perhaps, of 4:35-38). The fruit he had in mind was their growth in mutual love [verse 12], the non-negotiability of which he would again spell out explicitly in his next breath.

 so that the Father might give you
whatever you ask for in my name.
17 This is what I require of you –
that you love one another.

Once drawn into the dynamic of love originating from the Father, every desire of disciples – everything for which they might ask – would itself have been nourished by the Father’s desires for them and for their world. 

Yet, Jesus seemed to presume that disciples would ask; he had mentioned the fact three times already in the Discourse [14:13; 14:14; 15:7], and would repeat it again [16:23-24]. Their conscious asking would serve to focus their desires. These, in turn, would serve to sensitise them, over time, to the desires of the heart of God. Their minds and their hearts would grow through their asking. 

Prayer in the Name of Jesus 

Although the words put into the mouth of Jesus were the Disciple’s composition, he was writing under the inspiration of the Spirit and truly expressing the mind of the risen Christ. His remarks reflected a context of deep, reciprocal love between himself and Jesus. 

Experiencing Desires as Commands. When two people love each other deeply, the slightest wish of one is given the weight of a command by the other; and illustrates the thrust behind the familiar sentiment of two lovers: “Your slightest wish is my command” (usually unreal and beyond their capacity, even if heart-felt and genuine). The Beloved Disciple responded to every wish of Jesus as though it were command, important and non-negotiable. It did not occur to him to consider the desires of Jesus as other than commands.

Equally fascinating was his sense that, since the relationship was reciprocal, Jesus would see as equally important and non-negotiable the desires of those who shared his intimacy. Though the Beloved Disciple did not use the word, the desires of Jesus’ cherished friends would be interpreted as commands by Jesus, who was ready to do whatever they desired.

Perhaps even more challenging was the Beloved Disciple’s confidence in the practical implications of the Father’s love for Jesus’ friends. Like Jesus, the Father would respond to the desires of Jesus’ friends as would Jesus. Given the infinite depth of the Father’s love, the desires of the friends of Jesus would be to God important and non-negotiable – like commands.

In Jesus’ Name. Readers may feel skeptical about the assurance of God’s open-ended readiness to “give whatever you ask him”. The promise runs counter to their experience of unanswered requests.

However, there was a proviso in all that the Beloved Disciple claimed, namely, that disciples ask “in the name of Jesus”. Their ability to ask “in the name of Jesus” would be proportionate to their living “in the name of Jesus”. The expression, unusual to the modern ear, referred to unanimity of mind and heart. The dynamic of every deep love relationship is to lead to such unanimity – a sharing of values, hopes and commitments – lived by both, and expressed in each one’s own unique way.

The friendship between Jesus and disciples would be a friendship of adults, based on a sense of equality: disciples and Jesus shared the same humanity. Yet, Jesus, particularly in his now risen state, had wisdom, insight and capacity to love that immeasurably surpassed that of disciples because of his unique relationship to God. The sharing of values, insights and commitments, common to any true friendship, could only be “one-way” in this relationship. Any true growth would take place only in the lives and hearts of the disciples. This growth “in the name of Jesus” would be a life-time process. To the extent that they “remained” with him, “dwelt” with him, their desires would increasingly reflect those of Jesus. He would give them everything they wanted because what they would come to ask for would be what Jesus himself already wanted.

As disciples grew “in the name of Jesus”, they would share in the inexpressible intimacy between Jesus and the Father. One with Jesus, they would be loved with the same love that the Father bore Jesus. The hopes for humanity, originating within the heart of the Father, and expressed through the life and teachings of Jesus, would increasingly echo in the hearts of disciples who, through love, allowed themselves to be drawn into the possibility of that astonishing intimacy.



Next >> John 15:18-27