The Christian story begins with a garden. “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the [people] whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” (Gen 3)
When we settle in towns and cities we build gardens. Adelaide was designed around parks and gardens. Once that was settled we established the Botanic Gardens. Even as pragmatic a suburb as Elizabeth, is designed with a linear park for its entire length from south to north, and you can walk through the extended Fremont Park from the west of the suburb to the eastern hills face.
The garden is the symbol of all that is good. It is the harshness of life brought into some order and harmony. No matter how beautiful the house, we bring plants inside. In the new suburbs with crowded houses we build even more parks, gardens and waterways. And the names—Golden Grove, Playford Waters, Mawson Lakes, Andrew’s Farm; the names give our longings away.
The garden is good, and being banished from the Garden of Eden was a disaster. Eden is all that we have lost, and all that we desire.
The garden is a potent symbol of what life could be. It is a symbol of the kingdom of Heaven.
Ev’ry man neath his vine and fig tree, shall live in peace and unafraid says Micah 4.
He leads me beside still waters... in green pastures... says David.
And Isaiah looks for the time when “the wolf lives with the lambs—“ odd how we often call Zoos “Zoological Gardens.”
There is another name for Garden of Eden which is used in the bible. It’s in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which many people used in Jesus’ day. That word is “Paradise.”
It is with this longing to get back into the garden that we meet Israel. Israel are the people chosen by God; the people meant to live God’s way. They are imagined as part of the garden! In Hosea 10 God says of them that Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. In Jeremiah 2:21 God says, "I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock.”
Israel was meant to be the true vine.
Imagine vines. They are pure delight. They are not potato, or figs, or even apples. They are sweets, luxuries among the fruits trees rather than a staple like olives. And there is wine. Benjamin Franklin said "Wine is sure proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
God called Israel a vine. We see that they were somewhat blinded in their exclusion of others; God loves us all. But their instinct was true: God is delighted by the people of earth..
And like all of God’s peoples, Israel failed.
"I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?" (That’s the full quotation from Jeremaiah 2:21).
And in Ezekial: "Therefore thus says the Lord God: Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so I will give up the inhabitants of Jerusalem" (15:6).
We’ll go back to Hosea:
Israel is a luxuriant vine
that yields its fruit.
The more his fruit increased
the more altars he built;
as his country improved,
he improved his pillars.
2 Their heart is false;
now they must bear their guilt.
The Lord will break down their altars,
and destroy their pillars.
As the country became richer, and could do more and look after its poor, and build gardens, and even begin to bridge the gulf, and repair the break, between them and Paradise, what they did instead, was build altars to other Gods, pillars to worship idols, and sold the poor for the price of a pair of sandals. (Amos 8:6)
What we have in John 15 is a part of Jesus’ last will and testament. The literary convention of the time was to write up a summation of the teaching of an important person. You tried to encapsulate the essence of their message.
The essence of Jesus it includes this: I am the true vine. I am the one who is living in harmony with God in the way Israel was meant to live in harmony with God.
The translation is not quite correct. In the Greek it says I, Iam, the true vine... it was meant to remind the Christians readers of the time in Exodus chapter 3 when Moses meets God, and is told the name of God is “I am.”
If we ignore the theological subtleties for a moment, John’s Jesus is saying, essentially: I am God... and in case you don’t get it, my Father is the gardener, the one who made it all, who created the paradise in which we are meant to live.
Then there are these words:
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. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit...
Think about one of those perfect Sunday afternoons where you relaxed in the back garden or picnicked in the Botanic Gardens and it was a little paradise; everything was right with the world. Remember those few glorious hours when you could hear a Queenslander boasting “Beautiful one day, perfect the next,” and you would think, “No... paradise is here... and now!”
If we will live so closely connected to Jesus that we are like a branch grafted into the vine, then we will abide in the love of Jesus and his joy will be in us, and our your joy will be complete.
“Apart from me you can do nothing,” said Jesus. If we won’t graft ourselves onto the way the world is meant to be, if we won’t live as God made us, then we will not have the joy. John imagined that we would be, instead, like the branches pruned off the vines; good for burning.
One of my friends said Jesus would never cast anyone off for burning... and that’s a good instinct. But there is something else going on in the world. The world is like crossing North Terrace when you leave the Botanic Gardens to go home. There are lights and signs, and places to cross.
If we don’t look, if we don’t wait, and follow the signs, we’ll get run over. It’s not that God has it in for us, but if we don’t live in line with the way the world works, we’ll get run over.
Sometimes the church has interpreted the words in a most un-Christlike manner, as though God was demonic and a tyrant. But the spirit of the text is not that. The spirit of the text, and the Spirit of Jesus is that living close to his way, our joy will be made full. Or... we can choose to miss out. We can take our chances crossing the road with our eyes shut.
Let’s hear the last verses again:
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete....
Then, let’s remember the gardens, and imagine. For this text is not a mathematical formula, or precise systematic theology. It is the poetry of love.
Remember the perfect times of safety and sunlight, of safety and joy; the little moments of paradise, where for a time we found our way back into the garden. We were made for this, and this was made for us.
Do you want to stay in the garden? Abide with Jesus.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!