In what may have been an addition to the original Gospel, the writer states unequivocally that Jesus is the true, real vine, and God is the vine-grower/farmer. Throughout the Old Testament, the vine and the vineyard refer to the land and the people of Israel. (Psalm 80; Hosea 10:1-2; Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 27:2-6; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 15:1-6, 17, Ezekiel 19:10-14). Whenever the people turn away from God’s demand for radical fairness (justice-compassion; righteousness), God threatens to either cut off the vine or burn the vineyard. Ezekiel and Jeremiah assumed the Babylonian Exile was the result of the failure of the people to produce the fruit of God’s justice. Because of the refusal of the Judeans to accept Jesus as the Anointed One, John implies that Moses and the people of Israel have been overthrown as chosen and favored by God (cf Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel and Epistles of John, pp. 82-83; see also Harper Collins Study Bible (NRSV) note 15:1-6, p. 2033).
The Elves avoid the implied anti-Semitism by attempting to change the subject to love whenever these passages are read as part of the Year B Easter season. The Revised Common Lectionary pairs 1 John 4:7-21 with the Gospel reading of 15:1-8, softening the declaration that “I am the real vine.” In the Epistle John writes, “Everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God, for God is love.” But the reading from the Epistle is also conveniently cherry-picked. The Elves ignore the first 6 verses of chapter 4, which deal with “testing the spirits” to discern the “anti-Christ” that exists in the world among those who do not “listen to us” – i.e., those who believe in Jesus. If the canon is to have any integrity at all, these contradictions must be dealt with.
Chapter 15 contains some of the most beloved words in Christian scripture: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (NRSV). Pairing these words with the Epistle reading seems to universalize the message: “Everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God, for God is love,” John’s letter explains. But John wasn’t talking about everyone; he was talking about the community of people who accepted Jesus as the Messiah – or, in contemporary conservative language – those who accept Jesus as Lord.
Those who do not accept Jesus as Lord John describes in the very next paragraph as “the world”: “If the world hates you, don’t forget that it hated me first. . . . I have chosen you out of the world; that’s why the world hates you.” This is an exclusive, defensive, and dangerous foundation for a religion, and it is the grounding language for the fundamental conviction that drives contemporary, 21st century, conservative Christians to claim persecution on the part of “liberals,” and threat to their freedom on the part of secular, humanitarian government. Jesus concludes, “they hated me for no reason,” and it was God’s plan from the beginning. “This has happened so the saying in their Law would be fulfilled – they hated me for no reason” (Psalms 35:19 and 69:4).
Once again, progressive practitioners of liberal religions – especially Christians – are confronted with the dilemma of whether to reclaim and reframe the theology and Christology of John’s Gospel. The insights of liberal scholarship provide exiles from traditional doctrine the means for reinventing a Christianity that speaks to social justice based on the synoptics and the sayings gospel of Thomas. But doing so weakens the liberal/progressive argument in two ways: First, what might be called the “spiritual high ground” is ceded to the fundamentalists. By focusing on the nuts-and-bolts practicalities of transforming human life from fear and greed to love and sharing (homeless shelters, feeding programs, lobbying Congress), the mystic-minded are left to fend for themselves when it comes to extra-rational activities such as prayer, revelation, vision, and other numinous experiences.
Second, unless the Gospel of John is embraced, understood, and reframed, liberal/progressive religions will continue to write-off as deranged or irrelevant people who take the gospel literally. The result is 21st century human progress held hostage to an anachronistic, irrelevant, erroneous 1st century cosmology. We have only to look at how close the current Republican primary electoral process has come to selecting an anti-Semitic, Dominionist associate of Opus Dei as their candidate for the next president of the United States.
Jesus’ practical teachings in the synoptic gospels are the grounding for a change in paradigm from greed to sharing, from fear to love. John’s Jesus is the Cosmic Christ, the genuine light, who enters the world as the divine word and wisdom. John’s Cosmic Christ is the vine, and those who embody the paradigm are the branches – the incarnation of the Cosmic Christ. Theologian Matthew Fox who wrote the book on The Cosmic Christ, puts it this way:
These revelations of “I-am-ness” [the way, the truth, the life; the real vine] challenge us to name (or claim) our lives and beings in a similar fashion. How are we the bread of life or living [water] to each other? How are we the light of the world, the real vine, the resurrection and the life? . . . To struggle to birth one’s own “I am” is also to experience the divine “I am.” . . . Is not the purpose of the incarnation in Jesus to reveal the imminence of the Cosmic Christ in the sufferings and dignity of each creature of the earth? As we discover our own “I am” and the ecstasy and pain of the Divine One in us, we gradually grow into an “I-am-with” others (Emmanuel, “God-with-us”). We grow into compassion and in doing so the divine “I am” takes on flesh once again. Since God alone is the Compassionate One, as we grow into compassion we also grow into our divinity.
The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, pp. 154-155.
John’s Jesus is judgmental throughout chapter 15: “. . . without me you can’t do anything. Those who don’t remain attached to me are thrown away like dead branches; they’re collected and tossed into the fire, and burned. . . . if you obey my commandments you’ll live in my love . . .” These words cannot be taken literally. Instead, the question is, What are the consequences of knowing the truth, but not living it out? Jesus says, “If I hadn’t come and spoken to them, they wouldn’t be guilty of sin but as it is, they have no excuse for their sin. . . If I hadn’t performed these feats . . . they wouldn’t be guilty of sin. But as it is, they have witnessed and come to hate both me and my Father. . . .”
Last week’s commentary cited The Authentic Letters of Paul, for a definition of “sin” (Greek: hamartia). The Westar scholars translate the word as “the corrupting seduction of power,” or the “seductive power of corruption.” Neither John’s Jesus nor the Apostle Paul is talking about rotting corpses. They are talking about the kind of corruption that arises between people, and in government or economic empires that leads to systems of injustice. In that context, John’s Jesus is saying that once anyone is aware of the seductive power of corruption, there is no excuse for continuing to participate in it. Here is the basis for prophetic words from contemporary preachers like Jeremiah Wright; from liberal media such as the New York Times; and from Christians who live out the mandate to love others, such as the Sojourners Community, led by Jim Wallis.
The parallels between Jesus’ words in John 15:18-25 and the 8th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans – written 50 years earlier – are striking (Romans 8:1-11):
. . . For the rule of the spirit of life that was in the Anointed Jesus has liberated you from being ruled by seductive corruption and death. For by sending God’s own “son” – a participant like us, in an earthly life attended by seductive corruption – to deal with that corrupting power, God did what the law of Moses – weakened by the conflicted character of earthly existence – was incapable of doing: God condemned the corrupting power that attends our earthly life so that the just requirement of the Mosaic law might be fulfilled in us who live not according to the ambitions of a self-serving earthly life, but according to God’s purposes and power. . . . To set your minds on worldly things means death, but to set your mind on God’s power and purpose means life and peace . . . It is not possible for those who are pre-occupied with worldly self-advancement to please God . . . If anyone does not have the spirit that was in the Anointed, that one is not one of his. But if the Anointed lives in you, although your body is in the grip of death because of the seductive power of corruption, you spirit is alive because of God’s reliability. And if the power of the One who raised Jesus from among the dead resides in you, the One who raised the Anointed from among the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through the power and presence of God that resides in you. The Authentic Letters of Paul pp.228-229.
Paul is not talking about life after death. Paul is talking about embracing the challenge of distributive justice-compassion –“the great work” – here and now. John’s Jesus assures us that “the spirit of truth will testify on my behalf,” not about the insane claim that he was God, nor about the resuscitation of a corpse. The spirit of truth testifies to the unjust systems that hold sway in the world, and will not let us remain silent. “And you are going to testify because you were with me from the beginning,” Jesus says.
I am the vine, you are the branches. In vino veritas