I often say I have a love/hate relationship with the gospel according to John, but that’s not strictly true. If I’m being honest, I have a reluctant-tolerance/hate relationship with John. My mature Christian faith owes a great deal to historical-Jesus scholarship––I probably wouldn’t be a churchgoer at all if not for a college class with a member of the Jesus Seminar––so I tend to place greater weight on the synoptic gospels since scholars believe they are closer to the historical Jesus.
The distance between John’s Jesus and the synoptic Jesus has always troubled me. The density of John’s symbolic world often baffles me. When I preach on John, I have to spend so much of my sermon explaining the symbolism to a modern audience that there’s hardly time to reflect on what the gospel means for us today. And I find John’s relentless focus on belief exhausting and discouraging. There are days when I struggle to believe, and John suggests I have no place in the kingdom of God on those days. Worse yet are the implications of John for interfaith relationships. I find it hard to accept that a loving God could condemn entire swaths of humankind because they happened never to have encountered Christianity. On the whole, I’d rather ignore John.
My spiritual director, on the other hand, loves John. She studied with the Johannine scholar Sandra Schneiders while she was in seminary, and everyone who takes a Schneiders class seems to love John. My spiritual director especially likes John’s concept of discipleship as abiding in Jesus. “You don’t have to do anything, you just have to abide,” she says. I usually point out that when I have trouble believing, I prefer the synoptic tradition of discipleship, where you just have to follow Jesus, and belief doesn’t matter so much. Our conversations often go like this, with her mentioning the good news in John, and me offering some anti-John, pro-synoptic rejoinder, only grudgingly acknowledging that John might have something to say to me.
Over the last couple of years, my personal spiritual growth has been focused on the Orthodox concept of theosis. I’m trying to let go of my ego and my own will so that I may draw ever closer to the will of God. It’s hard work. My ego doesn’t really want to be let go, and even after a couple of years, the desire to do my will instead of God’s is often strong. It takes constant prayer and attentiveness to make any progress at all. So it comes up regularly in spiritual direction.
We were reflecting on this together when my spiritual director reminded me of John’s image of Jesus the true vine, whose branches are pruned by his Father the vinegrower to make him bear more fruit. She is an avid gardener and has a few grapevines behind her house. She said that grapevines have to be pruned frequently; they’re not like most plants that are pruned once a year, then allowed to grow freely. Commercial growers cut back dead branches constantly. They also trim branches that are producing fruit so that all the plant’s energy is channeled into bearing still more fruit. I picked up her point right away: as a vinegrower is continually cutting back the vines to increase the growth of grapes, so God is continually pruning me so that I may bear even more fruit. She suggested I might try praying with the image of the true vine in John 15. For once, I didn’t offer some synoptic counter-example, perhaps because the pruning metaphor had really grabbed me. I nodded and agreed to give it a go.
What followed were some unusually rich prayer experiences. Verse 3 struck me: “You have already been pruned by the word that I have spoken to you.” Even before I began consciously letting go of my ego, Jesus’ words had already been at work in me, trimming back the branches that bear no fruit. All the growth I’d experienced through the ordination process and seminary and ordained ministry had come through Jesus’ careful pruning. Now I was simply aligning myself with Jesus, pointing out the dead branches and asking his help in pruning them. Like a well-pruned grapevine, I sought to channel all my energy into bearing fruit, fruit that will last. And, as verse 5 said, it was possible only if I stayed closely linked to Jesus, as connected as a branch is to the vine. Without him, if I depend only on myself, I can do nothing, but if I abide in him, whatever I wish will be done for me. John’s gospel so perfectly described where I was and where I hoped to go with Jesus that I positively looked forward to praying with it. I actually found myself looking up John 15 in a reverse lectionary, eager to find out when I’d get to preach on it.
I’m not a John fangirl, and I may never be. I still grumble every time he comes up in the lectionary. But I complain less than I used to. And that image of the vine and the branches stays with me. I try to follow Jesus, and I try to abide in him. With him, my life bears much fruit.