Does God Have One People or Two? (John 15)

A homily given at the weekly Sabeel Jerusalem Service 25th April 2024

 “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 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.” (John 15:1-7)

Who are God’s ‘chosen people’? Does God have one people or two? A simple question. In our gospel reading today, the Lord Jesus is crystal clear as to the answer. I am sure you have heard numerous sermons on John 15. We rightly focus on Jesus profound description of himself, “I am the Vine”. It is the last of the seven great “I am” statements Jesus made recorded uniquely in John’s gospel. What is the context? In Exodus 3, when Moses asks God his name, the Lord says “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). The website Got Questions has a helpful explanation.

“The phrase translated “I am who I am” in Hebrew is ehyeh asher ehyeh. The word ehyeh is the first person common singular of the verb to be. It would be used in any number of normal situations: “I am watching the sheep,” “I am walking on the road,” or “I am his father.” However, when used as a stand-alone description, I AM is the ultimate statement of self-sufficiency, self-existence, and immediate presence. God’s existence is not contingent upon anyone else. His plans are not contingent upon any circumstances. He promises that He will be what He will be; that is, He will be the eternally constant God. He stands, ever-present and unchangeable, completely sufficient in Himself to do what He wills to do and to accomplish what He wills to accomplish.”[1]

When Jesus uses the expression, he is explicitly identifying himself as God, literally God’s presence on Earth in human form. This is clear in the way the crowds responded after Jesus refers to an encounter with Abraham at the end of John 8.

Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”  “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” (John 8:56-59)

Jesus deliberately and unambiguously took the very name of God to himself. In the Greek translation of the New Testament this is even more explicit. In normal conversation, people would say “Ego Anthropos…” “I, a man, am going for a walk.” The two words “I” and “am” would never be said together – like two magnets that repel each other.  Jesus however always put the two words together, “I am” just as the Lord God does in Exodus. Each of the seven “I am” statements contain an everyday metaphor to which Jesus adds an explanatory statement, so there would be no misunderstanding as to who Jesus claimed to be. “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “I am the door” (10:7), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14:6) and “I am the true vine” (15:1).  What is significant in our gospel reading from John 15, is that Jesus begins by saying “I am the true vine” then later “I am the vine”. Why add that word “true”? Because Jesus is drawing on a popular metaphor Jewish people would have known about from Isaiah 5. 

“I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit… The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” (Isaiah 5:1-2, 7)

Israel liked to believe that because of their physical decent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they were God’s “chosen people” his “vine” the means through which the world would be blessed. Here Jesus is saying emphatically “no” – to paraphrase, Jesus is saying “I am the true vine. You depend on me. Not me on you. What you think of me is irrelevant. Your eternal destiny depends on your relationship to me.”

In the imagery of the vine and the branches, just as in the wild and natural branches of the olive tree in Romans 11, we see that God has only ever had one inclusive people, identified on the basis of faith not race.  How does this speak into today? To use the words of Isaiah 5:7, into the absence of justice in Palestine? Into the bloodshed of Gaza? Into the cries of distress from all denied their human rights?

Little has changed since the days of the prophet Isaiah, or of 1st Century Palestine, when Jesus identified those who are the authentic people of God. The supremacism of ethno-nationalism, the brutality of Zionist settler colonialism, and the cruelty implicit in Israeli apartheid we are witnessing in Gaza and Palestine are not the actions of God’s chosen people, they are not the fruit of God’s vine.  Just the opposite.

What does Jesus say of those who reject him?  What does Jesus say to those who bear no fruit? Who refuse to abide in his teaching? 

“my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit… such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:1, 2, 6)

If we take seriously God’s word, then we can know for sure that judgement is coming on those who presume to be God’s people, whether they are actively complicit in the genocide of Gaza and in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. But the warning of judgement, I believe, also applies to those who claim to be Christians who knowingly refuse to demand an unconditional ceasefire, who refuse to call out Israeli apartheid, who refuse to endorse the South African submission to the ICJ of Israeli genocide, who endorse arms sales to Israel knowing they will be used to kill children, women and men, who support the veto of the recognition of Palestine at the UN, who are proud to call themselves Christian Zionists.

In the context of Gaza, if we truly abide in Christ, the fruit of our relationship will be evident in ten things:

  1. Demand an immediate, permanent and unconditional ceasefire in Gaza and withdrawal of Israeli forces.
  2. Demand that the UNWRA and humanitarian agencies be allowed unhindered access to provide sufficient supplies of food, water, medical aid, tents, clothing. 500 lorries a day.
  3. Demand the immediate release of all hostages including the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli detention.
  4. Demand Israel pays war reparations for every civilian death, every injury, every home, every university, every school, hospital, clinic, and every business destroyed. $20 billion+
  5. Demand support for the South African submission to the International Court of Justice charging Israel with genocide. 
  6. Institute war crimes investigations against Israeli military and political leaders.
  7. Arrest returning British citizens who have joined the Israeli military and investigate their complicity in war crimes.
  8. Ban export licenses for British companies supplying Israel with weapons or military equipment.
  9. Institute punitive sanctions until Israel withdraws completely and unconditionally from all territory seized and colonised since 1967. 
  10. Boycott Israeli goods. Boycott Western companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine. It is your money and your choice. BDS is a non-violent way to bring the liberation of Palestine from settler colonial military-imposed apartheid. BDS worked in South Africa. It can work in Palestine.

How are God’s chosen people identified? By the way we follow Jesus example and teaching. We will do this by repudiating hate, injustice, violence and supremacism and instead demonstrate in our words and actions God’s love, justice, peace and reconciliation.