St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
Sunday, April 26, 2015
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Weekly Bible Study
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Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Background and general observations
The image of the people of God as a vine or vineyard is a common image in the Hebrew Bible. God’s message to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah is, “I have planted you as a choice vine.” (Jeremiah 2:21) Other prophets use a similar image, and in the Psalms we read, “You brought a vine out of Egypt.” (Psalm 80:8). So, in this lesson, Jesus is appropriating an image that would be well-known to his Jewish audience.
Interestingly, though, the Old Testament use of the vine as an image for the people of God is almost always negative. That is, the vine has grown wild and out of control. It has not been cultivated and pruned, so it does not bear fruit. And the wood of a vine is useless. It is too soft to be of any use and is not even suitable to be brought to the temple to be burned for altar sacrifices. A fruitless vine, therefore, is good for nothing except to be thrown away or heaped onto a bonfire.
Jesus takes this image of the vine that is so often used negatively in the Hebrew Bible and gives it a new twist. That is, Jesus is the vine. And we are fruitful to the extent that we remain connected to Him and “abide” in Him. One has the impression that it is the vine’s relationship to the vinegrower that makes the vine fruitful. In other words, Jesus stays in constant contact with the Father (dwells in the Father), which makes Jesus who He is. And when we remain in such a relationship with Jesus, we are fruitful.
The problem is that some of the branches do not bear fruit, and these are pruned, so that the useless branches do not drain life away from the rest of the vine and branches. But those that bear fruit bring glory to God. That is, those that bear fruit attract the attention of others who want to be fruitful also, and they turn to God, in order to become like the fruitful branches they admire.
Ideas for discussing the application of this lesson to our daily lives
1. What has been pruned out of your life in the past, with the result that you became more fruitful in love? What in your life needs pruning now? What is stifling the flow of God’s life and energy into you and preventing fruitfulness?
2. How do you see our parish church community being pruned, in order for us to bear more fruit as a community?
3. Jesus made a point of regularly staying in touch with God, removing himself to a lonely place for prayer and quiet communion with God. This constant contact with God (dwelling in God) is what made Jesus who He was. How do you attempt to stay in constant contact with the vine? When have you attempted to go it alone, only to discover over time that you were withering, like a branch that has been cut off from the vine?
4. Consider what it means to “abide” in another person, and for another person to “abide” in you.
Who has been such a powerful influence that he or she has “abided” in you? Do you have a sense that you “abide” in someone else? How do we cultivate such abiding presences? Photographs, letters, phone calls, outings with one another….
Now consider what Jesus might have meant about us abiding in Him. How do we cultivate Jesus’ abiding presence in us?
5. Think of a time when you fell to temptation and your life seemed to spiral downward. Was there someone who reached out to you and rescued you? Did you have a sense that as long as you stayed close to this person (“abided” with that person), you were being healed or coming back to life?
Consider how our lives are shaped for the better by staying connected to certain people or groups. A mentor, for example, reminds you of what it means to be a good person, so you keep a picture of that person in your home or office. That person “abides” with you and in you. Or, consider how an alcoholic sometimes feels as if he or she can stay sober and healthy as long as he or she stays connected to an AA group, as long as he or she “abides” in AA.
We might say that our lives remain lovely, as long as we stay close to loveliness or abide in loveliness. Our lives remain healthy and strong, as long as we stay connected to others who are healthy and strong.
Where must you “abide,” or who must “abide” in you, in order for you to stay healthy and whole? Do you have a sense that your life can be the sort of life that others want to keep close or remember or “abide” in, so that they can stay healthy?
6. When this passage is read in the context of the chapters which immediately precede it (Chapter 14, which emphasizes loving Jesus, and chapter 13, which emphasizes loving each other), one gets the impression that love is the fruit which is expected of the branches. In other words, our true life is a life that is connected to and draws its energy and growth from love. We know that the First Epistle of John says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:7, 16)
Does this amplify the image of the vine and branches for you? Have you had the experience of “dwelling” in love (not momentary romantic love, but a more mature, self-giving and self-forgetful love) and sensed the presence of God in this experience? How can one remain connected to that kind of love?
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