Staying connected to Jesus amid transition, loss, and grief

by Ryan Wendt

Text: John 15:1-11

In my life, there are many times where I have had to rely on my connection to Jesus to get through loss, grief, and transition. In November 2016, my mentor, Curt Mortimer, died suddenly of a heart attack one Tuesday during his afternoon stroll. Losing him was hard, and after his death, I experienced loss and grief like never before.

Curt was more than a mentor to me. He was like a spiritual father and an innovative thought leader in my life. I met him while living at Jesus People, an intentional Christian community on the north side of Chicago, in the Uptown neighborhood, which is a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination. Curt was an important person in my life because he modeled what it meant to remain in God. His example of staying connected to the vine, encouraged and inspired me as a young Christian to do the same.

There are two aspects of John 15 that I find helpful in understanding Jesus as the vine, God as the gardener, and the disciples as the branches, including us. This is what it means to remain in God and to bear fruit amid hardship in our own lives. This also involves leaning into God as a church community amid transition, loss, and grief. Without our connection to Jesus our life has no substance. As the branches, our life comes from the vine.

In this passage, Jesus identifies himself as the vine. The imagery of Jesus being the vine is the last of the “I am” statements made by Jesus throughout the Gospel of John. The vine imagery also follows on the heels of “do as the father commanded me” (John 14:31). Karoline M. Lewis says in her commentary that the image of the vine offers a picture by which the disciples can follow the commandment to bear fruit because of their connection to the vine. The image of the vine is used in this passage to describe Jesus’s relationship to the Father. The Father is seen as the vine grower.

When we think of a gardener, we think of someone who tends the garden, showing it love and care by watering it and making sure everything is growing properly. In this passage, the imagery of the gardener represents the theme of mutual dependence. The vine needs the gardener for its optimal growth and production, even in abundance. It will produce more fruit, even when it is in abundance if it is cared for well. The gardener needs the vine to produce abundance to make sustenance and life possible.

In this passage, the imagery of the branches represents the disciples. For the branches are dependent on the vine to bear fruit. It is essential that the branches do bear fruit. That is their entire purpose, to bear good fruit.

Any bad fruit on the branch needs to be pruned. The branch will wither and die if it bears bad fruit. In this passage, the bearing of bad fruit represents disobedience and sin. This results from failing to abide in or remain in God, and leads to the branches being cast away.

One of my favorite sayings from the Covenant Church’s history is, “How goes your walk with God?” This passage from John is one of those scripture texts that begs the question: How are we abiding in Jesus? Are we allowing ourselves to grow in deeper intimacy in our devotion to God? Where are we in our walk with God? Are we bearing good fruit?

Regarding good fruit, in Galatians 5:22, the apostle Paul writes, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Can we also demonstrate these Christlike qualities in our life amid loss, grief, and transition? Are we able to remain on the vine in such a way that others see Christ in us amid the loss, grief, and transition we may be experiencing?

I’ve had to ask myself these questions many times in my life during periods of loss, grief, and transition. Sometimes I experience storm-like moments in my life as well. My wife, Sara, has a condition known as complex-partial seizures. Since she was the age of two, she has had epilepsy and battled seizures all her life. Though she has medication for her epilepsy, she still has seizures every night while trying to fall asleep. Her condition of epilepsy is medically resistant, meaning her body always rejects medicines after a while. This has meant she has been on a lot of different medications.

Seeing Sara have seizures every night grieves me. It is not pleasant to watch someone you dearly love suffer in this way, day after day. As a matter of fact, it’s painful for me. The reality of living with Sara’s seizures has taught me something about God. I’ve learned that amid loss, grief, and transition it is essential to lean into Jesus. Leaning into Christ as a church community is crucial because it helps us to bear good fruit together. It helps all of us love one another better and be there for one another amid pain and hardship. I remain in God and go deeper in my relationship with God through prayer, reading scripture, and allowing myself to learn from Jesus during tough times.

May we remain in God and continue to stay connected to the vine, knowing that we are seen, heard, and loved by Him, bearing fruit individually and corporately loving one another, in our church community and beyond. Amen.