In the last four years, my husband and I have experienced the gradual emptying of our nest as we have sent two of our three children off to university. Their absence from our household has taken some getting used to. FaceTime has been a lifeline — it tops the technology of my own undergraduate days consisting of hand-written letters and weekly phone calls from home. Even so, seeing our girls on a screen is not the same as being in person with them. A weekend visit promises the cherished opportunity to envelop each one into a hearty hug and plant a fierce mama bear kiss on their cheeks. I love these girls. I can tell them this through a screen, and that matters. But to embody this close up: that’s what I miss.

Jesus’ disciples encounter a similar transitional period whereby they go from being with Jesus on a daily basis to having to acclimate themselves to daily life without his embodied presence. Shortly before his arrest, the Gospel of John records Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse,” an extended conversation with his closest friends that prepares them with instructions and encouragement for when he is no longer physically with them (John 13–17). And ­the message seems mixed. On the one hand, Jesus says to them, I am leaving you, but in the next breath he says, I will be with you. (This strikes me as not unlike a FaceTime call — with but not with someone.) Jesus is speaking, of course, of his death, resurrection, ascension and the promised coming Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “I am going [to my Father’s house] to prepare a place for you” (14:2b), and yet while his embodied presence is departing, he says, ‘I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you’” [14:18]).

This presence-in-absence dynamic explains how Jesus’ bodily absence sets in motion his ongoing presence through the Spirit. Ultimately this is a reassuring reality: it means that the presence of God is with Jesus’ disciples persistently. (And this applies to disciples of all eras, including you and me.) The Spirit is “another advocate” to be with us forever (14:16). By the Spirit we participate in a mutually abiding relationship whereby Jesus can say, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (14:20).”

This is particularly encouraging on the days when we feel most alone in this world. Jesus is not bodily present to give us that hug, but his abiding Spirit assures us he is near. Not only that, but since this dynamic is true for all believers, this means that when the church is gathered, we are all the more able to reflect back and forth to one another the presence of Jesus among us. And if you still struggle to know that you’re not alone, here’s one more treasure.

Believers of all eras have been captivated by the metaphor buried in the midst of Jesus’ farewell remarks. This familiar scene is a vivid presentation of the salvific life we have with Jesus when he makes the claim, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…and you [disciples] are the branches” (15:1, 5). The Father tends to the vine by caring for the branches, and the role of the branch-disciples is simply to remain in Jesus, the vine. I don’t know about you, but this peaceful garden scene provides a comforting sense of this abiding life with Jesus, especially on days when I feel most alone.

Now to be sure, this is more than just comforting agricultural imagery. This is the seventh of seven I am sayings presented throughout John’s Gospel, each consisting of a metaphor with rich salvific tones. (In a coming post I will say more about this collection of seven sayings.) When Jesus says “I am the vine,” he recalls familiar biblical texts which picture Israel as a non-fruit-bearing vine or vineyard (Ps. 80:8-16; Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 2:21; Ezek. 15:1-8; 17:5-10; 19:10-14; Hosea 10:1-2). Jesus as the “true” vine suggests that God’s mission, which began with Israel, is now being completed and fulfilled by Jesus, the new nexus of the people of God. This Old Testament resonance is an important layer of soil added to the organic literal resonance provided by this vineyard scene. All disciples are invited to imagine the goodness of this salvific union of vine and branches, Jesus and his people, abiding together in a garden tended by the Father.

What I love about this metaphor is that it pictures a stable connection between Jesus and his disciples. This is not about how branches work to become connected. It doesn’t involve yearning, or earning or straining to connect to the vine. Yes, he talks about believers obeying commandments, but such activity is not in order to get connected to the vine. Rather, this obedience is characteristic of those already connected. It’s a snapshot of the believing life, and part of how you know you are connected, Jesus says, is that your life is marked by love (15:9), obedience to his Word (15:10) and friendship (15:14). Those who don’t believe are like fruitless, unconnected branches. For those who do believe, this is a reminder of the nature of their connection to him. It’s an abiding, steady union.

One of the most stunning statements in the Gospel of John is in the Prologue’s declaration that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (1:14).” Later in Jesus’s farewell gathering with his disciples, he prepares them for when this Word made flesh is physically absent. And yet, he also says, I will be with you.

As embodied disciples of Jesus who rely on the Word of God, we can draw encouragement from this vivid garden scene sprouting up in the middle of Jesus’ instructions about his departure and his ongoing presence by the Spirit. These are words of life, giving us the vivid reminder that in this believing life we are not alone.

And we need this encouragement, because how many of us at times feel disconnected, or alone, or far away from God? Just as I sometimes feel the quiet of my household and long for the embodied presence of my daughters, I suspect that we sometimes long for the embodied presence of Jesus. It’s why we hang onto words and imagery that reminds us he is near. Our longing will not last forever, since he assures us that someday he will come again and take us to be with him (14:3).

In the meantime, Jesus’ farewell discourse is a vivid reminder for believers that we are not alone. God’s presence is ongoing and enduring, and our role is simply to abide in the vine, letting the Father do his good work as we seek to live out the kind of love and friendship Jesus embodied with his friends.