In the marketplace of American religion, most people are looking for something practical: a religion that will improve their lives, enable them to become more self-sufficient, or leave a mark on society. Whether it’s getting fit at SoulCycle, becoming more mindful through meditation, or partnering with Jesus to renew all things, Americans love religion because we need to be needed and to make a difference. In his book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, Robert Farrar Capon writes:
Christianity is not a religion; it is the announcement of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things (believing, behaving, worshiping, sacrificing) the human race has ever thought it had to do to get right with God. About those things, Christianity has only two comments to make. The first is that none of them ever had the least chance of doing the trick: the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sins (see the Epistle to the Hebrews) and no effort of ours to keep the law of God can ever succeed (see the Epistle to the Romans). The second is that everything religion tried (and failed) to do has been perfectly done, once and for all, by Jesus in his death and resurrection. For Christians, therefore, the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten.1
In John 15, the disciples sense that the final confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders is about to take place, and it appears that Jesus leaves his disciples with one final “to do” list before they reach Gethsemane. In verse 4, he says, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” In verse 8, Jesus says, “By this [bearing fruit] my father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Finally, in verse 10, he says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept the Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” This is followed by the coup de grâce: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (vv. 12–13). Abiding like me, bearing like me, keeping like me, dying like me—here Jesus seems to upend the entire notion of grace. The Christian reader’s surface-level reaction may be: Who doesn’t want to abide? Maybe there are some practical ways for me to bear more fruit? What about a new discipline to keep Jesus’ commandments? I guess dying for my friends once will make a difference, but what about the second or third time? Contrary to Capon’s statement, John 15 can appear to be not the end of religion but the beginning of a religion—the most impossible religion ever envisioned.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Magic Eye 3D posters were all the rage. When you first looked at the poster, all you could see was a series of shapes that made no sense at all. But if you put your nose right to the paper and allowed your eyes to adjust as you slowly pulled the image away, then you could see an intricate and amazing 3D image: an airplane, a giant ship, the Statue of Liberty, or Big Ben. I would argue that by looking closely at John 15 and allowing our eyes to adjust, we will suddenly observe the profundity of grace alone; instead of a new and impossible religion of works, we will observe the end of religion, as Capon called it.
John 15:1 is the position where we fixate our eyes as we focus on this chapter. Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” The vine had become a sacred symbol of Israel, harkening the people back to the time of the Maccabees. Its image also adorned the top of the temple. In the Old Testament, however, the vine was an image that typically illustrated Israel’s faithlessness or punishment (for example, Ps. 80:8–16; Isa. 5:1–17; Jer. 2:21). Yet, Jesus takes this image of Israel and attaches it to himself. He is the vine and his Father—who is also now, by faith, our Father—is the vinedresser. Although there is no doubt that in John 15 Jesus brings before us the importance of fruitfulness in the Christian life, our hunger for religion naturally causes us to focus on the imperatives in the passage and to miss who is actually doing the work. As Jesus points out in verse 2, it is the Father—not the disciples, or any of us, for that matter—who does the pruning in order to secure the fruitfulness in the branches. This is profoundly important. I have yet to meet a vinedresser who grows vines for the sake of not producing fruit. Branches do not prune themselves, and they are cultivated for a purpose.
The words in Greek for “pruning” found in John 15:2 and “clean” in 15:3 are etymologically related to the same Greek word katharos. In his commentary on John’s Gospel, Leon Morris writes,
For maximum fruitfulness extensive pruning is essential. This is a suggestive figure for the Christian life. The fruit of Christian service is never the result of allowing the natural energies and inclination to run riot. The interest is in what happens with people rather than with vines. The action of the Father is such as to cleanse his people so that they will live fruitful lives.2
Jesus is making the point that we are already clean, and yet we are going to be made clean, by his word, which creates faith to do the Father’s will—namely, belief in Jesus.
The sudden observation of this profound truth—that Jesus and the Father are the protagonists in this chapter, not the disciples—helps the text begin to take its shape. Jesus tells his disciples in verses 4 through 7 to “abide” in him. “Abide” in Greek is the word meno and is difficult to translate directly into English. The implication in translated English is “stay connected to the vine.” If John 15 were a Magic Eye 3D poster, however, we would miss the image the Scripture is attempting to convey. In fact, “abide” in the Greek is much more passive; it actually means to rest, to remain, or to stay. It is to do nothing more than just be. Healthy branches are not told to abide in the vine; it is what they do as healthy branches, whether they are in fact “wild” or pruned and bearing fruit.
This passive yet nuanced sense of the word abide changes the entire meaning of the passage from “the beginning of religion” to what the Magic Eye 3D poster is ready to reveal: an image of an active God working to make his people fruitful. It is an image of grace and, according to Capon’s definition, the actual end of religion.
Rest in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, neither can you, unless you stay in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever rests in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit. (vv. 4-5)
The revelation that Christianity is the end of religion comes more clearly into focus in verse 5 when Jesus reminds his disciples, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus does not give the disciples tips on staying in the vine or better ways to abide. For to abide in Jesus is what the Christian life is all about, although Christians do this not through their own ability. Rather, Christians just abide, because to be Christians means they are resting in Jesus—not doing something to make sure this is the case. If apart from Jesus you can do nothing, then how much can you really do?
Now that our eyes are adjusting, we come upon this seemingly contradictory statement from Jesus in verse 10, “If you keep my commandments [then] you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” This if/then statement appears to be a serious imperative given by Jesus. Surely, keeping the commandments of Jesus is our part of the bargain. However, if we do not read the text closely, we can blink and miss the complete picture found within these verses. There are two parts to verse 10 that help us keep our eyes on the broader picture and accentuate the image of the end of religion. First, the Greek word for “keep” is teresete, which can be understood as “cling to” or “to treasure.” To “cling to” or “to treasure” is a response evoked when something has already been given. When Jesus says “keep” at the front part of verse 10, this can be compared to asking a drowning person to keep a life preserver. No one has to tell the drowning individual to cling to the life preserver! It is what they do. In this case, the disciples—who are about to face sin, death, and the devil—are told to keep Jesus’ commandments. However, the commands of Jesus are different from the commandments of the Father; and in this passage, in order to comprehend the Magic Eye 3D poster in John 15, we need to grasp this distinction.
The commandments of the Father are clearly the Mosaic law. By Jesus’ perfect life and obedience, he has kept the law; hence, Jesus has abided in the Father’s love. What makes this distinction between the commandments of Jesus and the commandments of the Father is the setting of John 15. Jesus and the disciples have just concluded their Seder meal, the Last Supper. At that Seder with bread and cup, Jesus takes another Jewish sacred symbol and points it to himself, commanding the disciples to continue this meal in remembrance of him. In the service of Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer, we are reminded that this is a command of Jesus when we pray:
Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the institution of thy dearly beloved Son our Savior Jesus Christ, we, thy humble servants, do celebrate and make here before thy divine Majesty, with these thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make; having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.3
At that same supper in John 13:34, Jesus gives his disciples a new command: “That you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” This command to love is also reiterated in John 15:12. Commands are also given by Jesus in the Great Commission, where Jesus sends his disciples into the world to baptize and teach all his commands—namely, that salvation comes only through his name. Therefore, we begin to understand the commandments of Jesus not as a new law or obligation. Rather, the commandments of Jesus have become tangible for us; they are the sacraments of the new covenant—word, water, bread, and wine—all subjects he has commanded and in his name.
In verse 13, Jesus brings John 15 into focus: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” In that moment, the disciples probably heard this as simply another thing to do. This is how we hear this passage when we believe that Jesus has just given us another divine checklist. In light of the cross, however, instead of giving just another lecture on the end of religion, we can all see that the 3D image is a fully developed picture of how Jesus the vine, with his Father the vinedresser, works in our lives to enable us branches to bear fruit.
So often we gaze at the Magic Eye 3D poster of Scripture and miss the true picture, because we are busy looking for an image that is not there: ourselves. The image conveyed in John 15, however, stands in stark contrast to ourselves and any notion of a new religion. Instead, John 15 seeks to express something else altogether.
It is God our Father, who, as the vinedresser, does the pruning to make our lives fruitful. Sometimes this means our lives can be trimmed back to a nub. Yet, the cross assures us that we are already pruned—already clean (katharos). So when things are taken away—even good things—or when we face trials and tribulations, these are not signs of God’s absence. Instead, they are most often signs of his redemptive presence, assuring us that we are clean, as Jesus by his word prunes away the idols and dead branches of our lives so that we can produce fruit that lasts. Throughout periods of both harvest and pruning in our lives, as Christians we abide in Jesus as we keep those commandments that connect us to Christ: his word preached, baptism, and Holy Communion. These commands of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, lead us to repentance, to seek his forgiveness, and to receive the full assurance that we are still abiding in the vine. At the same time, through the commandments of Jesus, his joy is found in us; and our joy is full, as we receive the gospel of Christ and share it with the whole world, laying our lives down as living sacrifices.
This picture of a loving God working on and for his people comes into vivid relief when Jesus tells his disciples in verse 16 that “you did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” Religion of law is all about choices, but with this statement Jesus tells us that it is officially dead. This is formally known as the doctrine of election, and this doctrine can make people feel out of control due to its lack of practicality. When faced with this controversial doctrine, many wish to push it aside so we can keep all of our bad choices out of the picture. In my own ministry, I have had several people tell me how upset they felt when they began to engage with verse 16. “Wait a minute,” they would say, “I thought I decided to follow Jesus.” Existentially, this may have been your experience; but Jesus tells us that long before you ever knew or met him, despite your good and bad choices, he chose you.
I am the rector of Calvary Church in Manhattan where the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were composed. We host one of the oldest AA groups in the country, and many of those in recovery will tell you that sometimes choice can be extremely cruel. One longtime attendee in the program told me that sometimes the only choice you have is Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, or Jose Cuervo—and all three choices will kill you. In religion, the deadly outcome of choice stems from either pride at commandment-keeping or ultimately the discouragement that comes from the following questions: Are you still abiding in Jesus? Are you still keeping all of his commandments? Did you really lay down your life for your friends? In the Thirty-Nine Articles, Article 17, “Of Predestination and Election,” reminds us that “the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons.” This is the great image that emerges from the Magic Eye 3D poster of John 15: Jesus chose you!
During the 2018 Mockingbird Conference at St. George’s Church in New York City, theologian and author Alan Jacobs referenced The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère. In this book, Carrère puts himself in the place of Luke and describes a journey from faith to unbelief, which ends with Carrère crying out in the midst of his so-called unbelief: “I have forsaken you Lord. Please do not forsake me.” In the midst of all of our failed choices, this more often than not is the cry of all of us, even as Christians. The Magic Eye 3D poster of John 15 is the image of a God who continues to choose us; and despite the fact that we may want religion, by virtue of Jesus’ cross, he is the end of religion and has appointed us—working through us—to go and bear fruit that will last.
The Reverend Jacob Smith is the rector of Calvary-St. George’s in New York City and is the cohost of Same Old Song, the weekly Mockingbird Lectionary podcast.
- Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 253.
- Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1995), 594.
- Book of Common Prayer, 335 (italics mine).