Focusing on the Sunday lectionary Gospel reading, John 15.1-8, this week’s lectionary blog also draws briefly Acts 8.26-40, 1 John 4.7-21 and this week’s selected psalm portion, Psalm 22.25-31
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One of the features of the Gospel of John is Jesus’ regular use of the words ‘I am’, in Greek ego eimi, to describe himself. It is widely, and I am sure rightly, assumed, that in using this phrase as a self-description Jesus is claiming some form of identity with the God who, in Exodus 3.14, discloses himself as ‘I am who I am’.
Quite a number of these ‘I am’ sayings in John are linked to what I call a ‘predicate’ – a phrase that ‘explains’ the initial verb. So we get predicates such as ‘Bread of Life’, ‘Resurrection and the Life’, ‘Light of the World’ etc. There are however also in addition quite a number of ‘I am’ sayings in the Gospel that do not have such a predicate, and therefore get half-hidden by the English translation (for example, there are two such instances in John 8.24, 28).
Although it is not the last ‘I am’ saying in the Gospel (which comes during Jesus’ arrest in John 18.5, 6, 8) The last* ‘I am with a predicate’ saying is here in this week’s lectionary Gospel reading, ‘I am the true vine’ (John 15.1).
(* Challenge to blog readers: which is the first ‘I am’ saying in John’s Gospel? It is a question I often ask people when I am leading Bible study sessions, and rarely does anyone get it right! Do you know? No cheating – but the answer is given at the bottom of this week’s blog post, below.)
I do find it intriguing and important that ‘I am the true vine’ should be the final ‘I am with a predicate’ saying in the Gospel, and therefore in a sense the ‘I am’ statement which all the earlier examples are leading up to.
The reason for this is that it is the one point in the Gospel when the expression ‘I am’ is linked to something that is clearly and intentionally corporate. The Gospel makes this explicit, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’ (John 15.5). ‘You’ – we – are ‘the branches’, which are an essential part of the vine. The vine cannot really exist without its branches – certainly it cannot be fruitful without them. Conversely the branches cannot continue to flourish without the central stem which holds them together and roots them in the life of God. None of the earlier instances of ‘I am’ have quite this sense.
So in effect we are being told, by the placing of this ‘I am’ statement as the Gospel’s final ‘predicate’ example – that this is the goal which all those earlier attributes of Jesus and all the parts of his story – his incarnation, his ministry, his death, his resurrection – are pointing us towards. Jesus has offered himself as the bread of life for us, he has shone as the light of the world for us, he is our door and good shepherd, he has pointed us on the way, the truth and the life, and he has pledged us resurrection and life – all so that, as part of this fruitful vine, we can be intimately related , as he is, to the ‘I am’, the divine life-giver whose overriding promise throughout the whole of the Bible is ‘I am with you’.
I have titled this week’s reflection: ‘I am the true Vine: the “end” of Easter’. There is a deliberate double-entendre in these words. We are reading this Gospel near the ‘end’ of the Easter season, as first Ascensiontide and then Pentecost draws very close. But to describe Jesus Christ in this way as the ‘vine’ is also the ‘end’ of Easter, in the sense of being the goal and purpose of the Easter story. For, as all the Gospels suggest in their different and varied ways, the death and resurrection of Christ means that now it is the responsibility of the Christian community, individually and corporately, to continue Jesus’ ministry of being ‘I am’ for our own place and time. The one is now become many.
So there is a fundamental relationship between the words of John’s Gospel, ‘I am the true vine’ and the lovely prayer ascribed to St Teresa of Avila, ‘Christ now has no hands but yours…’
I am not sure what was in the minds of the lectionary compilers for this week, but with a certain amount of serendipity the readings from Acts and I John, and the selected portion of the Psalms, all complement the Gospel as they each touch on the relationship between the individual and the community in the purposes of God. The meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8.26-40,centres round the Ethiopian’s attempt to understand the meaning of some verses from one of the Servant Songs found in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 52.13-53.12 – the actual verses quoted are Isaiah 53.7-8).
But one of the fascinating aspects of the Servant Songs is that it is not clear whether the ‘Servant’ is an individual, or a community, perhaps part of the people of Israel. At some points in Isaiah the Servant appears to be one person, at other times a group from within the people of Israel (see and compare for example Isaiah 49.3, 5). Over the years I have reflected on the message of Isaiah 40-55 I have come to believe that perhaps it is not either/or but rather both/and. So the mission of the Servant perhaps may originate in the life and suffering of an individual, but the task is precisely to encourage others to join in and share that ministry of servanthood – enabling the circle to grow wider and wider – until eventually it encompasses the whole world.
Psalm 22.25-31 conveys a similar expanding movement. I find it remarkable to notice how this psalm which begins with a solitary and lonely individual (My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Psalm 22.1), from verses 22 onwards, shift into summoning more and more people to join into a circle of praise, which by verse 31, the end of the psalm, includes not only ‘the ends of the earth’, but also the human community of the past and the future.
From a slightly different perspective the Epistle, I John 4.7-21, explores a closely related issue, namely the relationship between our love for God, and our love for our fellow human brothers and sisters. The intimate relationship between God and our fellow Christians requires us to discover the face of God in these, our brothers and sisters. That is actually the corollary of John’s affirmation that we are the branches of the true vine.
The picture used at the head of this week’s blog is especially dear to me. It is an ‘icon’ of Christ the True Vine which hangs in the entrance salon at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, near Geneva, the residential educational institute of the World Council of Churches, where I was privileged to work for most of the last decade. Traditional icons of Christ the True Vine depict the branches populated with the apostles, or sometimes bishops, and occasionally also the Virgin Mary. The Bossey ‘icon’ though includes a very different selection of people on its branches. As you can see they represent a wide variety of places, contexts and times – and both male and female. Because of this difference it cannot formally be considered an authorised religious icon. Yet it is a profound witness to the way that the message of Easter assures us how even the most unlikely people have a vital role to play in the ecumenical economy of God.
*Jesus’ first ‘I am’ statement in the Gospel of John comes in John 4.26, during the course of Jesus’ discussion with the woman at the well of Samaria. Jesus says to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’. I find it immensely powerful that the first time in the Gospel that Jesus discloses this divine identity, he does so to a woman, a foreigner, and someone who was probably an ‘outsider’ even in her own community. Additionally, though not generally recognised as such, it is actually an ‘I am with a predicate’. The predicate here is ‘the one speaking to you’. So just as Jesus elsewhere defines himself as e.g. ‘the light of the world’, so here he defines himself as the one who is in conversation with humanity. This suggests that the fundamental nature of God is as a God who communicates with us. It makes sense really, given that the Gospel of John begins by introducing Christ as ‘the Word’.