I have a relentless curiosity. It motivates me to explore, discover, and learn. It animates my spiritual journey – encouraging me to continually delve into meaning and mystery. I identify with the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson when he writes: “Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.”
Scripture often invites me to lie in wait for insight and wisdom to emerge. A passage captures my attention and evokes my curiosity. I find myself wrestling with it as it urges me to go deeper. I need to allow time for its meaning to become clear and take root in me.
John’s Gospel is adventure land for the curious. It’s loaded with intriguing images that invite us to pause and reflect on them. We join Nicodemus in trying to get our heads around what Jesus means by being born again. (John 3:4) Like the woman at the well, we struggle to grasp the nature of Jesus’ living water. (John 4:11) With the crowd following Jesus, we try to fathom what he means in saying: “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35)
There’s a passage in Jesus’ farewell to his disciples that has evoked my curiosity for some time. It comes at a pivotal moment. Jesus is about to die, leaving his disciples behind. His mission will soon be in their hands, and there’s a lot at stake. Will he be remembered? Are they ready to carry on his ministry? Is he ready to surrender to the suffering that is to come? The challenges loom large, and the future is in doubt.
It’s never easy to say goodbye. Jesus knows he must leave, but there’s a part of him that wants to stay. In the intensity of his last moments with his followers, he gives them an image to remember.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit. . . . Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)
Last words matter. The image of the vine and branches that Jesus gives us in his last words provide guidance and encouragement.
It is a call to intimacy. The disciples’ lives and their ministry depend on staying rooted in him. They need to continue to deepen their life in Christ. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” By staying intimately connected with him, he will continue to be with them and in them.
It is a call to conversion. The vine grower prunes each branch. Anything that is unnecessary and inhibits growth is cut away. Their ego-centric tendencies need to give way to an utter dependence on the vine and the vine grower.
It is a call to be fruitful. Branches depend on the vine for life. They need the vine grower’s pruning to yield abundance. By carefully trimming away what is overgrown and dead, the vine grower allows them to flourish and frees them to bear more abundant fruit.
Jesus’ last words are not just intended for his immediate circle. The Evangelist John clearly intends them for us. The image captures the essence of what it means to be a disciple. Taking the image of the vine and the branches to heart gives us guidance and encouragement for the spiritual journey.
We are called to the intimacy of abiding in Christ. That call urges us to focus intentional effort and energy on cultivating an intimate relationship with God. It reminds us that apart from God we can do nothing. We are branches, and our lives depend on being rooted in the vine of Christ. Unless we abide in that relationship and continually cultivate it, we limit our fruitfulness and risk withering and dying.
We are called to the going conversion of pruning. For those of us who like to call our own shots, opening ourselves to the vine grower is a challenge. It requires that we embrace – or at least accept – ongoing transformation in our thinking, decisions, and actions. The image serves notice on our complacency and comfort. It urges us to let go of all that’s unnecessary as we surrender to the vine grower.
We are called to bear even more abundant fruit. Fruitfulness requires a different lens than productivity. Productivity emphasizes tasks: getting things done, completing projects, checking items off our list of things to do. Fruitfulness focuses on what is most important and enduring. It invites us to think beyond the resume that summarizes our skills to focus on the epitaph that captures the essence of who we are. Fruitfulness urges us to leave a legacy that endures. As fruitfulness becomes a way of life, we grow in our ability to embrace our identity in God, pour out our lives in service of others, and surrender to God’s will.
The images in John’s Gospel invite us to unleash the intensity of our curiosity while lying in wait for insight and wisdom to emerge. It takes time for the meaning of Jesus’ last words about the vine and branches to mature within us. Living out the meaning of the image encourages us to embrace the intimacy of abiding in Christ, to open ourselves to the pruning of ongoing conversion, and to make fruitfulness a way of life. Ultimately, it urges us to surrender ever more fully to God’s will and God’s way.
Questions to Ponder
Here are some questions to ponder as you reflect on the image of the vine and the branches.
- What role does curiosity play in your spiritual journey?
- What is your experience of “lying in wait for every secret?”
- What does the image of the vine and branches mean to you?
- In what ways does the image call you to:
- The intimacy of abiding in Christ?
- The pruning of ongoing conversion?
- Bear even more abundant fruit?
- In what ways does the image invite you to surrender to God’s will and God’s way?