As we approach the most significant point in the Christian calendar – the weekend where we remember the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus, our saviour – it is good to return to some of the core truths that he taught about himself whilst on earth. I've been struck recently in particular by one of the last things Jesus says to his disciples as he prepares for death, in John 15:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes [or ‘cleans’] so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:1-8)
These are wonderful, powerful, and rather scary words for any Christian. In one stroke Jesus has declared himself the fulfilment of all the promises God made to Israel in the Old Testament (he is the ‘true vine’, where Israel had been an unfaithful one), and thus set himself up as the foundation of a new Israel that overrides all racial or cultural boundaries; he has affirmed the disciples’ continued dependence on him even as he tells them he is leaving them (ever reflected on how strange it is for Jesus to command them to ‘remain in me’, just a few verses after saying that he is going somewhere they cannot come?); and he has established unity and mutual support as a foundational value for His church. It’s a passage well worth further reflection in these days before Easter. In the meantime, a few brief thoughts about what this might mean for us as Christians working in the academy:
- Jesus is our identity. The question of identity is central to much contemporary academic discourse (particularly at a time of great division within wider society). It’s easy to get drawn rapidly into debates about what kind of people we are – with the implication that this tells people whose side we will be on. Sometimes (often!) these debates rely on false binaries or other oversimplifications; with our identity secure in Jesus (as we ‘remain in him’), we should feel free to challenge these.
- We are called to unity. Sometimes it can be difficult to know exactly where we fit within the church as academics; there’s a risk that we can feel our own interests are too niche or obscure to be of value to others, or particular aspects of our own intellectual practice can leave us feeling alienated from the Christian mainstream (as someone who loves fairly ‘difficult’ modern music, I have some experience of this!). Yet Jesus’ words here emphasise that our unity within the church comes from him. So we don’t have to all like the same things or hold the same opinions to be united! It is Jesus who unites us.
- Our fruit is a product of grace. This passage is a powerful antidote to the destructive patterns of overwork and self-reliance that are rife within academia (as they are within broader society). Jesus’ image here is pointed: a vine produces fruit not by hard work, but as an inevitable consequence of its situation, its nutrition, and the careful pruning of the gardener. So too with us: if we get our position in Jesus right, and let him sustain us through prayer, worship and his word, our actions will bear fruit in the long term (and God as the gardener will help us prune away things that detract from this fruitfulness). Of course there’ll be work involved, but it will be work on God’s terms, not our own.
Hopefully this is an encouragement as we head towards Good Friday and Easter.