© 2021 Evan D. Garner
“Try hard to relax.” It’s a pretty silly thing to say, isn’t it? You should work harder to not work so much. Since doing nothing doesn’t come naturally to you, you should practice it more. Sayings like those are basically non-sensical.
In a way, that’s what Jesus tells his disciples to do. In these final instructions before he leaves them, Jesus says, “Abide in me.” I think most modern translations use the word “abide” because it sounds more official and significant than “remain” or “stay,” but the word Jesus uses—the thing he tells his disciples to do—really is as simple as that. Stay put. Remain here. Dwell in me. If you abide in me, you will bear fruit, and, if you don’t, you won’t. It’s really that simple. If you want to be my disciple, all you have to do is stay put in me. But I wonder if the disciples knew how hard that would be.
Just hours after Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, he was arrested. He was tortured. He was executed. His crucified body was put on display as a warning to any of his followers that, if they dared challenge the authority of the Empire, they, too, would meet a ghastly end. And where were the disciples? Hiding in the shadows. Scattered to the wind. Nowhere to be found. “All you have to do is remain in me,” Jesus said, but that wasn’t easy at all.
In the early church—actually by the time John’s gospel account was written—the principal test for Christian disciples was not how much they knew about Jesus but whether they were willing to be counted among his followers in the face of persecution. Martyrs were the witnesses who sacrificed their homes and possessions, their relationships with family and friends, and even their own lives rather than renounce their faith in Jesus. Abiding in him would enable them to bear much fruit, but the seeds for that fruit, as Tertullian (sort of) wrote, would be their own blood.
Still, although more challenging in practice than in theory, being a disciple really does start with abiding in Jesus. If we abide in him, even in the face of opposition and struggle, we will bear the fruit of discipleship. Jesus does not say to his disciples, “Go out and bear much fruit in order than you might remain connected with me.” Instead, he tells them to stay where they are—connected and rooted in the vine—in order that, in him, they might bear much fruit. No matter how hard we try to get that backwards, our first calling as disciples of Jesus is simply to remain in him. Bearing fruit always comes later.
What has abiding in Christ looked like for you during the pandemic? How have you stayed connected to the vine? On the one hand, being a Christian really is as simple as staying connected with Jesus, but doing that during a time when all of us are cut off from one another and the usual vehicles for spiritual growth are unavailable to us is hard. Collectively, we are the body of Christ. We are nourished as the body of Christ when we assemble and receive the body of Christ, but, for many of us, that most basic of Christian practices—coming together for Holy Communion—is not possible right now. Sure, we say our prayers and read the Bible and share our bounty with those in need, but doing those things in isolation rather than as part of the community of faith makes it hard for us to recognize them as practices that keep us connected with Jesus. It feels like what we really need is to return to normal—to go back to the way things were before we had to wear masks and stay home and keep six feet of distance from one another.
But isn’t there a peculiar holiness to this challenging chapter of our lives? Isn’t there a sense in which what we are going through is analogous to God’s pruning of the branches that bear fruit in order that they might bear more fruit? Aren’t we learning new ways of staying connected with Jesus and, through him, with one another? Aren’t we learning all over again why those familiar practices, which we have had to set aside for a time, are important and valuable in the first place? Aren’t we called to return to them not as if nothing has changed but with full recognition that everything is new and different?
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Though it takes considerable effort and intention on our parts, those who abide in Jesus will bear much fruit and for no other reason than the fact that that’s where they remain, where they dwell. What does it mean to be fruitful in the years ahead? How will church be different when all of us are able to come back together again? We don’t know. We can’t know. And that’s ok. Our calling is not to bear that fruit in order that we might be worthy of Christ. Our calling is to remain in the vine so that in us Christ might bear whatever fruit God will bring to bear.
In this time of pruning, when branches that bear fruit are cut back in order that they might be more fruitful and when branches that no longer bear fruit are removed to give room for new growth, our calling is clear. We must remain in Christ. That is always the definition of faithfulness, but it is clearer than usual in this pandemic time. Now more than ever, our prayers matter. They matter because they hold us together and hold us together in Christ. We must remain rooted in the vine even and especially when it is hardest to do so. It isn’t easy to stay connected with Jesus during this time when we are forced to stay apart. And our desire to be fruitful—our tendency to measure the success of our faith in output instead of identity—often gets in the way of what really matters.
Abide in Christ. Remain in Christ. Dwell in Christ. You belong to Christ not because you bear fruit but in order that Christ might bear fruit in you. In this time of our collective struggle, don’t lose sight of what really matters. Don’t be discouraged because bearing fruit is hard or looks different during the pandemic. Christ is the vine, and you are the branches. Our job, our calling, is merely to be what God has made us to be—a branch that remains connected to the vine no matter what wind and rain and last frost comes. Stay put. Abide. Remain in the vine and wait until that vine bears fruit in us once more.