XXIV. THE VINE AND THE BRANCHES.
[Lincoln's Inn, 9th Sunday after Trinity, July 20, 1856.]
St. John XV. 1.
I am the true Vine, and my Father is the Husbandman.
The words, 'Arise, let us go hence,' with which the 14th chapter concludes, have been taken by some to indicate that our Lord was about to lead His disciples into a higher region of thought and of hope than they had yet visited. The feeling is a very natural one that everything in these conversations must have a sublime sense, that no words can be used in them in their common earthly sense. But it is not an altogether healthy feeling. It may lead us to forget that the disciples were sitting in an actual room, at an actual supper; it may give us the notion that we have been transported into some fantastical world. That is a heavy price to pay for a refined or spiritual interpretation. It may make the whole life of the Son of Man unintelligible to us.
From the beginning of the 13th chapter, our Lord has been preparing them to 'arise and go hence.' He has been leading them towards that Father's house, where He is going and to which He is the way. We might say that He reaches the mountain summit, in His prayer in the 17th chapter; yet even that must be said with caution, because His death and ascension were yet to come, and the Spirit had not yet been poured upon them. But though nothing which He ever spoke is deeper, or has had a mightier effect on mankind, than the passage of which I am about to speak, we do not conceive of it rightly if we describe it as a departure from earthly facts or earthly images. We are about to be told of the discipline which is necessary for those who are upon earth fighting, not transfigured, and how the discipline will be administered. The old form of speaking by parables, which the disciples might easily have thought was intended only for the multitude, and might be discarded in the more advanced stages of their education, is resorted to again. The forms of earth are still claimed as interpreters of the kingdom of heaven.
I think it is better, therefore, to take the words in their simplest sense, — to suppose that our Lord and His disciples did arise from the supper as He spoke, and that the first object which they saw as they walked towards the Mount of Olives was a vine. That tree had been the old lesson-book of Prophets. They had watched its growth; had wondered at the life which circulated through its branches; had thought of the care which was needful in the choice of a place to plant it in; of the incessant vigilance which must be presented as an honor upon it after it had grown. 'You have brought,' they said in their songs, 'a vine out of Egypt, and planted it.' 'The house of Israel,' they said in their discourses, 'is the Lord's vineyard, and Judah His pleasant plant.' Then the question arose, 'Why does it bring forth wild grapes? Will it never fill the land?' Which led to the other deeper questions, 'How is it that these comparisons must be true in spite of all experience which seems to prove them deceitful? What makes our nation one, — what gives it life, though we seem a mere set of loose, wretched, dead sticks, trying to be separate?'
Here was the answer, 'I am the true Vine.' As the words, 'I am the good Shepherd,' explained all the previous uses of that symbol, and showed why they were not fictitious, so this sentence interprets all the passages of the Old Testament which connect the life of trees with the life of man. 'You have been told that you were the branches of a vine; that God was pruning you, and lopping off dead boughs from you. Now, look into the heart of this mystery. In me you have been made one; from me you have drawn life. My Father Himself has been, and is, the Husbandman. It was over His own Son that He was watching. It was the branches in ME which were not bearing fruit that He was taking away. It was every branch in ME that bears fruit which He was purging, that it might bring forth more fruit.' Here was the interpretation of the unity of the nation; for here is the interpretation of the unity of man. We shall find no wider, or deeper, or more practical one. The more we apply it to all the circumstances of our lives, and to all the problems of history, the more satisfactory it will appear to us. But first, as always, Christ Himself applies it to the persons immediately before Him.
'Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can you, except you abide in me. I am the Vine, you are the branches. He that abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.' The words in the 13th chapter, 'You are clean, but not all,' led me to anticipate what I should say about these, 'You are clean through the word which I have spoken to you.' I said that He treated them as a pure and holy body, and that the unclean person was he who would not belong to the body, but chose to dwell in his own isolation. What is added to that statement here is, that Christ's word was that which purified them. They had no unity of their own, or purity of their own. He spoke to them in their inmost hearts, claimed them as His. That quickening, uniting, purifying word, going forth from Him, was the source of their life, their purity, their unity. What they had to do was not to put forth self-willed efforts for the sake of making themselves better, or wiser, or more united, but simply to abide in Him, to believe that they were His, to act as if they were. I resort to other forms of expression, as if I hoped to make that which He chose clearer; but, in fact, that is immeasurably plainer, and fuller, and deeper, than any I can imagine. 'Abide in me' at once recals the natural analogy, while it is in strictness appropriate only to the condition of a voluntary being. It implies a possible separation, an act of adhesion; and yet it implies that this separation is altogether monstrous and anomalous; that this adhesion is merely the refusal to break a cord of love with which God is actually binding us. 'Abide in me' is doubtless a command; but it is supported by the other clause, 'and I in you.' 'Rest in me as if you were united to me; and a living power shall go forth from me to sustain and quicken you. And all this that you may bear fruit.' That part of the symbol is never for a moment lost sight of. The relation of the branch to the stem implies the passage of a productive life from one into the other. The secret processes within are tending to a result which shall be visible. Christ tells them that they can bear nothing, that they will be utterly barren and dry, unless they retain their attachment to Him, unless He communicates a sap to them continually. He is not satisfied with the comparison; He again puts the doctrine into a more direct form, as if to assure them that He was not using metaphors, that He was taking the most direct method of bringing before them that which was not real but the reality, not a fact, but the fact of their existence. 'I am the Vine, you are the branches.' 'The energies and powers within you, when I quicken them, shall bring forth thoughts, deeds, words, that shall be living, and shall spread life. Without me all is dead.'
The last clause has brought the law home to the disciples themselves; but the former was more general: 'He that abides in me, and I in him.' And so is the 6th verse: 'Except a man' (any one) 'abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.' That 'any one' gives the sentence a fearful significance. Let us think well of it. Have we never felt as if, though no voice had cut us off from the fellowship of our brethren, we had cut ourselves off? Have we never felt an internal withering, as if the springs of life in us were all dried up? What was the secret of this condition, which we could trace to no outward violence? Or do we ask, 'What is the cure? How may that separation be put an end to before it becomes fixed and everlasting? How may that secret withering be arrested before it ends in absolute death?' The evil is traced to its source when we are told that we have not abided in Him; the remedy lies in that command, and in no other. The dead sticks are gathered into a bundle and burnt. But the sap has not gone out of the Vine; that may still make the bough to sprout and bud.
The next verses take us a step further. 'If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask what you will, and it shall be done to you. Herein is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit; so shall you be my disciples.' He had said, 'Whatsoever you shall ask in my name, I will do it.' He can now give the words, 'in my name,' their full force. It is not the name of one who may have power with Him to whom they are pleading, but who is far from them. It is the name of Him in whom they are actually dwelling, in whom they are one. And His words are the expression of His Father's will. So far, then, as those words dwell in them, and ascend up from them in prayer to God, so far they are asking according to His will, and He is doing that will in granting them their petitions. Not merely, as we render the passage, 'It shall be done for you,' but 'It shall become to you.' God's will shall work with your will, which it is moulding to itself. And so God is glorified in the fruit which you bring forth. The more rich you are in love and good works, the more is He Himself manifested in you, the more are you Christ's disciples.
Thus we are brought back to the ultimate ground of this relation between Christ and human beings. 'As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you: abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you shall abide in my love; as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in His love.' This is the continually recurring burden of this divine song. The love of the Father is at the root of all. The Son can do nothing but in obedience to that. He believes it, obeys it, and so lives in it. The law of the disciples' being is the same. They are to believe in the love which is the manifestation and reflection of this love, to obey it, to live in it.
And now another gift is presented as an honor which we expect less, on this night of sorrow, than even that gift of peace of which I spoke last Sunday. 'These things have I said to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full' (or fulfilled). Remember that this was spoken after He had been 'troubled in spirit' at the thought of His betrayal, not long before He was to pass through the agony. If any one says to himself, — who has not said it to himself? — 'What is joy to me? how can I ever be partaker of that?' let him think thus. 'Christ knew, as none of us ever have known or shall know, what the death and extinction of all joy means; what it is to be alone; what it is to feel deserted of men and deserted of God. And yet He spoke of His joy, and of communicating that joy to the disciples. Where came it? What was it? How could it be communicated? It was obedience to His Father's commands. It came from His submitting to those commands, though they brought Him to suffering, and desertion, and death. It is communicated to men along with that same power of obedience and endurance. His joy was to do a will which He knew to be a loving will, into whatsoever heights or depths it might bring Him. That obedience with all its consequences, He says, He will impart to us if we will receive it.'
Therefore He goes on: 'This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you. From now onI call you not servants; for the servant knows not what his Lord does. But I have called you friends; for all things which I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you.'
You see how earnestly He repeats those words which to many of us have such a paradoxical sound. 'I command you to love.' 'Just the thing,' we say in our hearts, 'which cannot be commanded, which must come from choice.' 'Just that,' He answers, 'which cannot come from choice, which must come from submission.' If a loving Being were not the Lord of our wills, were not the Lord of the universe, we might make mighty efforts to love, supposing we had been taught by some visitant from another region what love was; and every such effort would be a rebellious struggle against our Master and our destiny. If there is a perfect Love creating and sustaining all things, if men have a Father, then such efforts cannot be rebellious, must be in conformity to this law: 'Love as I have loved you.' I have said this before, while dwelling on another part of this discourse; but I must say it again and again, for it is the principle which underlies the whole of it, and upon which the distinction that is made here between servants and friends entirely depends. Christ manifests the greatest love which, He says, can be manifested. The love which He manifests is His Father's. He lays down His life in submission to that. They become His friends by yielding to that love, by confessing it, by allowing it to have dominion over them. He calls them no longer servants, but friends, because servants only know what they are to do, without knowing why they are to do it; whereas He has told them the very secret of His Father's mind, the ground on which His acts and His precepts rest. It is not that the friend is less under authority than the servant. It is not that the one does what He is bidden, and the other may do what he likes. It is that the friend enters into the very nature of the command, — that it is a command which is addressed to his will, and which moulds his will to its own likeness.
In strict consistency with this language, He goes on: 'You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and have ordained you, that you should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, He may give it you.' All sectarianism, all self-seeking and self-willed religion, is based upon the idea, 'We have chosen Him. By an act of faith, or an act of love, we have entered into a relation with Him, which but for that act would not be.' And the whole Gospel turns upon the opposite maxim to this: 'I have chosen you.' 'You are merely obeying a call. You are merely confessing a relation, with the making of which you had nothing to do.' Even when this doctrine of election has taken a narrow form, — even when it has been recognised chiefly as exclusive, — it has had a mighty power over the hearts of men. They have given themselves up, as they never could do when they thought they had selected their own Master, or were going upon errands of their own. But when it takes the form which it has here; when Christ, who has loved them to the death, commands them to love others as He has loved; when He tells them that He has placed them in their different circumstances that they may go and bring forth fruit, — that fruit being the men whom they shall persuade that they too belong to a race for which Christ has died, and which the Father loves; — there cannot be any principle which is at once so humbling and so elevating, which so takes away all notion from the disciple that there is any worth in his own deeds or words, which gives him so confident an assurance that God's word, spoken through him or through any man, will not return to Him void. And that, if I am not mistaken, is the reason why the promise, that whatever is asked of the Father in Christ's name shall be granted, is again introduced here with the variation, 'He may give it,' instead of 'I will do it.' A man who feels that he is called to a work, does not therefore feel power to accomplish it. He may feel — as Moses did, and as Jeremiah did — an increased feebleness, an utter childishness; but he understands that he may ask the Father, whose will he is called to do, that that will may be done; so he wins a strength which is and is not his own.
We wonder to find the command which we have heard so often, delivered once more in the 17th verse. But we presently discover that it is as an introduction to a new subject, and that in relation to that subject the old words have a new force. 'These things I command you, that you love one another. If the world hate you, you know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word which I spoke to you, The servant is not greater than his Master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also.' Here the love which He commands them to have for one another — the love which is His own, and which He inspires — is contrasted with the hatred of the world. The one difference which we have already discovered between the world and those whom He chooses out of it, is that they confess a Centre, and that the world confesses none; that they desire to move, each in his own orbit, about this Centre, and that the world acknowledges only a revolution of each man about himself. The world, indeed, cannot realize its own principles. It must have companies, parties, sects, — bodies acknowledging some principle of cohesion, aspiring after a kind of unity. Still, as a world, this is the description of it; and therefore, as a world, it must hate all who say, 'We are a society bound together, not by any law of our own, not by an election of our own, but by God's law and election. And His law is a law of sacrifice. He gives up His Son; His Son gives up Himself. We are to give up ourselves in obedience to His Spirit, that we may do His work.'
As He had so lately called them friends, not servants, we may be surprised that here He gave them the old name again. But the title, servant, is not now a dishonourable title for those whom He has called friends. Since the Master became a servant, His friends must be content to be servants, otherwise they do not know what their Lord does; they cannot enter into His mind. With this service, too, they must take the hatred and persecution of the world as part of their endowment, as one of the treasures which their Lord shares with them. If it does not hate them, they must always fear that they are not loving each other, or loving it as God loves it.
'But all these things will they do to you for my name's sake, because they know not Him that sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin. He that hates me, hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father. But this comes to pass, that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, They hated me without a cause.' These are, perhaps, the most terrible words in the Old or New Testament. No descriptions of divine punishment which are written anywhere, can come the least into comparison with them for awfulness and horror. This gratuitous hatred — this hatred of Christ by men because they hate God, this hatred of God because He has manifested and proved Himself to be love — is something which passes all our conceptions, and yet which would not mean anything to us if our consciences did not bear witness that the possibility of it lies in ourselves. And do not let us put away that thought, brethren, or the other which is closely akin to it, that such hatred is only possible in a nation which, like the Jewish, is full of religious knowledge and of religious profession. There, our Lord tells us Himself, was a hatred of Him and of His Father which could be found nowhere else, — there, among scribes, and Pharisees, and chief priests. Let us ask God, that none of us may say of his brother, 'This crime may be committed by you;' but each of himself: 'God be merciful to me a sinner. Keep me by Your love, abiding in Your love. Help me to keep Christ's commandment of loving my brother as well as You; else, if I am left to myself, I may sink into such a hell of hatred, as would be worse than all other hells that men have ever feared to think of.'
Let us pray this prayer, and then our Lord's last words in this chapter will come to us as the most wonderful relief, as the very answer which we long for. 'But when the Comforter shall come, whom I will send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth which proceeds from the Father, He shall testify of me: and you also shall bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.' To have the Comforter, the Paraclete, with us, this is the security that the spirit of hatred shall not overcome us. To have the Spirit of truth with us, this is the security that we shall not be brought to believe a lie, or to disbelieve in the God of truth. To have Him testifying of Christ, the Son of Man and the Son of God, is the security that we shall abide in Him who has given the greatest proof of love that can be given, by laying down His life for His friends. To be able to testify of Him because we have been with Him, even when He was hidden from us, and we did not know how near He was; to testify of Him by our words and our deeds; this is the security that He is using us for His own gracious purpose, and that He will be glorified in the fruits which He will cause us to bring forth.
From the Gospel of St. John by FREDERICK DENISON MAURICE, M.A, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Combridge. Published by MACMILLAN AND CO in 1882; Produced by Charlene Taylor, Julia Neufeld and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
ON THE BOOK SHELF
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