The Gospel text for this week (John 15:1-8) contains another ‘I am’ statement of Jesus. It happens to be the last ‘I am’ statement in the Gospel according to John. And that is saying something significant.
It is significant, perhaps, because people have counted a total of seven ‘I am’ statements in this gospel account. That number should not surprise you. It might be helpful to see the progression within the statements, especially since last week I wrote about the structure of the gospel account’s connection to the Jewish liturgical year rather than to seven so-called ‘signs’.
I have the seven ‘I am’ statements to be as follows: In John 6:35, Jesus is ‘the bread of life’. In John 8:12 and 9:5, Jesus is ‘the light of the world’. In John 10:7 and 9, Jesus is ‘the door of the sheep’. In John 10:11 and 14, Jesus is ‘the good shepherd’. In John 11:25, Jesus is ‘the resurrection and the life’. In John 14:6, Jesus is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’. And, in part of our text for this Sunday, in John 15:1 and 5, Jesus is ‘the true vine’.
To support a coherent structure throughout the work, I think it is important to see, within these seven statements, a connection to the previously mentioned structure of the Jewish liturgical year. The festival of Passover included a special meal to remember Israel’s ‘exodus’ from Egypt, and Jesus talks about being the bread of life. The feast of Tabernacles or Booths reminded Israel of a time of wandering in the wilderness, when they were following Yahweh’s pillar of cloud/fire. And the comparison of Israel to wandering sheep during this time is not unreasonable, and so there is a connection to Jesus being the gate and good shepherd, as well as the light to lead them.
Starting in John 11, Jesus seems to take the ‘I am’ statements to a new level. And the connections to the Jewish year are at an end in the previous chapter (with the Feast of Dedication--of that special temple). So, as Jesus gets closer to his own death and resurrection, it is appropriate to see it in these statements.
So why is his last ‘I am’ statement about him being the true vine? This seems almost as if he takes a step back, that it is something less than him being the resurrection, way, truth, and life.
Reading through the whole of the ‘discourse’, from John 13 to 17, there is a significant emphasis on Jesus’ going away. How he goes away and how he comes back is critical to understanding this text and, I believe, the entire gospel account. And I think that this is at the heart of what this 'I am' statement is getting at.
Jesus' going away was a significant blow to his followers. But we do not remember that by going to church on Thursday, the day of his ascension. We celebrate what he did by usually going to church on Sunday. His death/resurrection was his most important task. And it is important that we not lose our focus.
Jesus as the vine, the true one, is as important a comparison as the rest. He is THAT close to his present-day followers, giving away his gifts to his branches. The giving out of those gifts is as important as the gifts being won.
Anyone who thinks that the Gospel according to John does not reference Holy Baptism or Holy Communion has not done a close reading of the text.