John 15:11

[see also the DoNotDepart page about this verse]

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be full.

This is a reassuring close to this set of verses. Having these verses inside me, especially speaking them to myself, is having the joy of Jesus, the life of Christ inside me.

Speaking Jesus’ words to myself is a calming and “safe” way to hear the word. And it’s more than that: in a very small way it feels like “being” Jesus, acting out a small part of his life, putting my mind into his place to speak those words.

Learning these verses has been exciting. It’s also been a bit tiring I think, and it’s certainly taken up a large part of my “God” time. So, I’m going to bail out of the learning John 15 project at DoNotDepart – although I shall keep and treasure these 11 verses.

It’s also given me the idea to read again through the Gospels, looking for verses that I can use in this way (like the James verses), to find, select and learn part of the Word for myself!

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John 15:9-10

[see also the DoNotDepart page about these verses]

9. As the father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.

Jesus already has been loving us and is loving us still. The challenge is not to earn love or to be loved, but to “abide” in that love. The love is there for us to draw on.

I have started saying that phrase to myself — “Abide in my love” — when I feel myself tempted to turn to sin. I need something ‘more attractive’ than the sin, and the idea of abiding in the love of Jesus is very attractive. The image has life and energy and even sensuality in a way that the image of ‘residing in the presence of God’ doesn’t.

10. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, as I have kept my father’s commandments, and abide in his love.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love

I interpret this not as a reward for a good deed (“If you do this, I’ll give you a sweetie”), but as a kind of paraphrase or equality (I wonder if the Greek construction is a kind of subjunctive). Something like, keeping the commandments is a way of abiding in Jesus’ love.

For me, what is normative is Jesus’ life: his life is the “law” we must follow. So in a way I think of an implicit commandment from Jesus, “be like me”. The corny Christian slogan “What Would Jesus Do?” is actually fairly accurate.

Then there are Jesus’ two explicit commandments: love God, and love each other

Everything else is informative, not normative. So even the Gospels, treasure that they are, are only informative, in that they are our best documentary evidence for his life. I should explore more along these lines. I am very interested in the early church, before the New Testament was put together. That might be my next reading.

as I have kept my father’s commandments, and abide in his love

Jesus is limited just like we are. Jesus is an aspect of God, not the whole of God. I think of Jesus as human perfection.

John 15:7

Writing from the hip again. For preamble see my post on John 15:7-8 and the DoNotDepart page on the same verses.

7. If you abide in me, and my word abides in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

If this were in the letters or the Old Testament, I’d happily ignore it. However, even though I know the Gospels are the same kind of text as the letters (e.g., Luke’s Gospel explicitly states that it is a report written by one normal person to be read by another normal person), I treat them specially.

For me, the life of Christ is what is normative — that life is my “Law”, along with his two commandments — and the Gospels are the only window I have on that life. They are especially precious, and I read them — use them — specially.

So, although I could explain this verse away — this kind of claim about prayer is a common motif in religious texts — or discard it, I want this verse to “make sense” to me in a way that is satisfying to me as part of a window on the life of Christ and on the kind of life I want to lead.

One interpretation that smoothes everything out is that if I have the reciprocal abiding, then I would only pray for the “right” things, that could be always granted, for example “ever closer harmony with God”. Praying for a new house is just proof that I am not fully abiding in Jesus.

To a hostile audience no doubt this would sound like a fudge, but my aim is to make this verse useful as a window on a life. This interpretation invites me to imagine, “What would I be like, if I did abide fully in Jesus? What kind of things would I wish for?” I don’t mean as a stick to beat myself with. I mean more like a compass.

Separately, I thought about how this verse relates to how I pray. I really enjoy praying, it’s such a treat, it’s an almost guilty pleasure. I don’t always ask for something (although my pattern is a thank you, a confession and a question). When I do, and especially when the effect is strongest, the question seems to bubble up of its own accord, and it’s whatever I need most. I ask the question completely naively, “as if” just asking, just praying could make it happen.

For me, praying is above all about being in a certain state, and this state includes being completely open and trusting. Praying has a definite effect on my mental health, but I can’t approach it instrumentally.

Perhaps praying is a kind of abiding in Jesus and inviting him to abide in me. Certainly the company is what I most yearn for when I pray.

So, in a way this verse is a description of how I pray.

John 15:7-8

[see also the DoNotDepart page about these verses]

7. If you abide in me, and my word abides in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

This motif comes up several times in the gospels and the letters: ask for whatever you like and God will magic it up. On a naive reading it just sounds silly, and obviously not true. For example, I’m currently reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He seems to have been a sincere fervent and faithful Christian. It’s not difficult to imagine that at least some of his prayed requests went unmet.

Responses along the lines of, “if you don’t get what you ask for, that shows you didn’t have enough faith, weren’t abiding in Jesus enough, didn’t ask properly, etc.” are weak too.

I’m baffled as to why this kind of thing is said, unless it’s a motif that is expected in any religious text.

Any Christian readers: I’d be interested in your interpretations of this verse.

In the meantime what am I to do with it? Turning my nose up at it feels like being a spoilsport. I don’t just mean in the sense of hurting other people’s feelings, I also mean in the sense of spoiling what I’m doing myself.

ask whatever you wish

While I was learning these lines I read this blog post about someone’s anxiety over what to pray. It’s a very good piece. This phrase gives the faithful permission to be completely frank and open. There are no formulas, no right ways to pray or right things to ask for. Reading that post I thought: ‘Why not ask for all those bad things? Pray for all the things you want, “ask whatever you wish”: I wish we had a new house, I wish I had a better job, I’d like a walk-in wardrobe full of lovely dresses, … it might lead you somewhere interesting.’

it will be done for you

No. This part of praying has never made sense to me. Comments welcome.

8. By this my father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.

This I like :). By doing our thing and bearing fruit — children, works of art or science or engineering — we glorify God.

John 15:5-6

[see also the DoNotDepart page on these verses]

This is grim.

5. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

  • apart from me …: “apart”, not “without. You are physically cut off from your roots
  • … you can do nothing: If you cut yourself off from Jesus you are like an inanimate object. You have needs and desires, like an animal or a robot, and you follow these desires blindly. You might have algorithms to choose between competing desires, but these algorithms will hit a “glass ceiling”. That glass ceiling is where you cut yourself off. You chase your desires but you are not “active” (in Spinoza’s sense), you are passive. You are not human.

6. If anyone does not abide in me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burnt.

  • The present tense is used. This is not a warning of punishment in the afterlife. This is happening here and now, on Earth.
  • a branch … the branches. Suddenly, but very quietly — without even needing to be mentioned — you are no longer an individual thing. “The branches” is all there is. And soon not even that: “burnt” not “burned”, as in “burnt away”.

This all reminds me of Beckett’s Trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable) a thoroughly harrowing exploration of humanity with all the humanity removed.

John 15:3-4

[see also the DoNotDepart page on these verses]

3. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.

That “that” feels superfluous, and I would never use it. In early learning I would forget it. But having it there slows me down, and makes me think about what I’m saying, think about what I’m thinking instead of just churning it out.

Each step towards Jesus is a fresh start. I don’t have to think of all the ways I’ve gone wrong in my life (I used to do that: my life was a ribbon encrusted and interlaced with shit. Each piece of shit something I’d done wrong. I would start at the far end of the ribbon, considering each piece in turn, hoping to imagine the ribbon clean). I am clean and this step I am making now is all that matters. Jesus has arrived and brought me this fresh start.

Everything about Jesus as the word and the word of God and the word made flesh, I love (quel surprise).

4. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

“Abide” is an old-fashioned word, like “dwell”. I think these words are old-fashioned partly because we don’t do it any more. I like the idea: it sounds intimate and un-alienated — even more intimate by using “in” instead of “with”.

We can’t bear fruit without Jesus — without being “really Christians”, and signing up to a bunch of rules from some church … that might be one way of interpreting this.

Paul said (I think, somewhere) that the Gentiles were a law unto themselves, and had the law in their hearts even though they didn’t follow the written law. I think someone could love God and follow Jesus without realising it. When I was younger several people told me that’s what I was doing — which exasperated me of course.

The new thing that excites me now is the idea that being Good is being human. Following Jesus is not denying myself, it’s being truer to myself, to what I really am.

John 15:1-2

At the beginning of the month, the people at Do Not Depart started a project to learn John 15. Last week I learnt a few lines from the letter of James. Saying I enjoyed it feels a bit limp. I find it ridiculously exciting — having the word inside me.

On twitter I found some posts from @LadyPuppetess showing how she does bible study:

I’d love to do all that. It’s not going to happen though as this is all secret. So this blog will have to do. I’ll write up each verse or pair of verses as I learn them. I’d like to catch up with the Do Not Depart project (oh, here’s their page on John 15:1-2)

1. I am the true vine, and my father is the vinekeeper

I am the true vine

I know Jesus is speaking here, and talking about himself, but having learnt it, and having it inside me, speaking those words silently myself, I am using “I” as I, speaking as myself. Myself as Jesus.

That feels strong and uplifting, enobling. And God is my father too.

When I sin, I don’t just push myself down. I pull Jesus down with me. I pull everyone down. I reduce everybody. Sin is a kind of crime against humanity. (although I think of sin as a kind of error or weakness or disease; conscious turning against God is different and I call that evil).

“I am the true vine”

I use that to remind me now, when sin tugs at me. It reminds me who I really am. I kind of take a step up and freshen myself.

2. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.

Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away

When I was first learning this I often had “any” as the quantifier here. The meaning is kind of the same, but “every” is more definite. An almost automatic process. This is how I think of God a lot of the time: a grim, merciless force. Jesus redeems God as well as people.

Being taken away like rubbish. That’s the end of the story. There’s nothing of interest to these fruitless branches.

every branch that does bear fruit he prunes

Being pruned doesn’t sound very pleasant either! The pruning cuts are the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. So far this chapter is very much how I imagine God.

… that it may bear more fruit.

Bearing fruit is what we are here to do. Children obviously. Progress, ideas, literature. Or just enjoying life, being human.

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