Jesus the Vine - John 15:1-8
There's a story told about Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight boxing champion.
He's the one who used to say simply, "I am the greatest". Not without
reason, it has to be said, because he pretty much was. One day he was on an
air flight when the passengers were told to fasten their seat belts. Seeing
that Ali hadn't done so, one of the stewardesses asked him to fasten his belt.
Ali replied, "Superman don't need no seat belt". To which the stewardess,
brilliantly, responded, "Superman don't need no plane."
There's something shocking about someone making such extravagant claims about themselves -even if it's part of an act, or done in good humour, or even self-mocking. Yet what Ali claimed for himself was as nothing compared to the claims of Jesus of Nazareth. In doing so, he set himself apart from all normal religious leaders. CS Lewis famously commented, "there is no parallel in other religions. If you had gone to Buddha and asked him: 'Are you the son of Bramah?' he would have said, 'My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.' If you had gone to Socrates and asked, 'Are you Zeus?' he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, 'Are you Allah?' he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, 'Are you Heaven?', I think he would have probably replied, 'Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.'"
Yet Jesus consistently and repeatedly made claims which put himself, and not only his teaching, at the centre of spiritual reality, defining spiritual reality for us. And we have another such claim before us this morning. I am the true vine.
As we examine what Jesus says, we'll see that he puts himself right at the centre of spiritual truth, life and productivity. In Jesus' picture language here, there are four parts or characters: the vine, the gardener, the branches and the fruit. We're going to look at the vine in relation to the gardener, in relation to the branches, and in relation to the fruit.
1. The vine and the gardener There's no question as to who they represent: v1... Jesus is saying he's the one who gives God what he's been looking for from his people, but not yet found. He's the true vine. 'True' as in real and genuine, as opposed to false or imitation. 'True' as in ultimate and final, as opposed to temporary or provisional. For the disciples with their Jewish upbringing, and for anybody with a reasonable knowledge of the OT, the 'vine' image brings only one thing to mind - the nation of Israel, the people of God. Time and again, it was used as a symbol for the nation. Rather like we might speak of the shamrock for Ireland, or the thistle for Scotland - although after last weekend's rugby, the less said about that the better.
But every time God or his spokesmen spoke of the vine, it was in terms of failure. Because this vine had never produced the fruit God looked for. The fruitless vine, good only for burning, stood for faithless Israel, ready for judgement. Here, for example, is what God said through the prophet Jeremiah, I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine? (2v21). So, when Jesus comes as the true vine, he comes as everything that Israel was meant to be, but failed to live up to - to be God's own people, faithful, loyal, obedient, fruitful.
We need to be clear about what this means. For a start, Jesus is telling men who have been good Jews up to this point that if they want to continue enjoying the status of God's people, they must belong to him. If he's the true vine, no other vine can do the job of bearing fruit for God. It's no longer enough to be a Jew, Jesus is saying, you need to be a Christian. If Jews then needed to become Christians, they still do today. To have their heritage, and even their homeland, is no substitute for being in the true vine.
We must say the same to ourselves. There's no substitute for being in the true vine. There's much talk these days of spirituality and being spiritual. Don't Jesus' words here mean that the only true spirituality is Christianity, that we're only truly spiritual when we're Christian? It also warns us that it's not enough to belong to a Christian family, or a group of Christian friends, or a church. If Jesus is the true vine, we only belong to God's people if we belong to him. He's the one who gives God what he's been looking for in terms of spiritual life and fruit.
2. The vine and the branches Again, there's no doubt who's who here: v5a... Jesus is the vine. His disciples, including Christians today, are the branches. You don't need to have seen a vine to understand what Jesus is saying. Just think of any tree of bush. The vine and the branches share the same life. They are part of each other. It's impossible to think of one without the other. So, Jesus can talk of us remaining in him and of him remaining in us. As the vine gives life to the branches, so Jesus gives life to us. As the vine bears fruit through the branches, so Jesus bears fruit through us, v4-6...
At this point in John's Gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples for life without him. He'll soon return to his Father via the cross. They'll then be without him, but only physically - because Jesus is telling them how they can still be part of him, remain in him and bear fruit for him, just as branches do with the vine. And that's just the position I'm in as a Christian today. The vine, Jesus, is with the Father, in heaven. The branches, his followers, are still here on earth. How will Jesus bear fruit and do his work in the world today? Through the branches - through those who belong to him.
So how do we remain in him if he's no longer here with us physically? v7 gives the answer... As his words remain in us, we remain in him. His words are like the vital, life-giving sap which courses through the vine and into the branches, giving life to them and causing them to bear fruit. To try and be a Christian without the words of Christ is nonsense. If I despise the Bible and make little of the opportunities I have to hear what it says, how can I expect to enjoy the life that Christ gives? How can I hope to bear fruit for him?
But we need something more than Bible study if we're to be really fruitful, says Jesus, and it's not something we'd choose. It's the Father's discipline, or in the picture language here, the gardener's pruning, v2... Frequently Christians go through terrible times: long and painful illness, a distressing bereavement, the break-up of a deep and close relationship. We're then tempted to ask God, "Why is this happening to me?" And understandably. Perhaps we begin to think that our suffering is a sign of his displeasure, that he's even punishing us for something we've done wrong.
This passage doesn't give all the answers, but it does give an important part of the answer. The gardener prunes the branches until they're as fruitful as they can possibly be. My heavenly Father is disciplining me until I'm as fruitful as I can be. Actually, to be pruned is a compliment.
It means there's life in the branch, something worth nurturing and encouraging. You don't prune a branch which is dead and lifeless - you cut it off and throw it on the fire. When God disciplines us, it's because he sees some life in us, something of Christ that is, which is worth cherishing and nurturing. He sees spiritual life and he does it to produce more spiritual fruit. Hebrews 12 v10b-11...
My father was not in the habit of disciplining other people's children. It's not that he didn't believe in discipline. He did. But he reserved a special discipline for his own children. Of course, I didn't always register that fact at the time - that it was a sign of his special love and care for me. I wouldn't have told you what a privilege it was and how lucky I was. The pruning knife is not a sign of the gardener's displeasure. Quite the opposite. If he's finished with a branch, it's cut off and thrown on the fire. He only prunes where there's life and for more fruit.
An old Christian lady who had served Christ all her life was telling her story at a church meeting. A young Christian man in the congregation, awestruck by her godliness, whispered, a bit too loudly, to his neighbour, "I'd give everything to have a testimony like that!" The old lady, whose hearing was still very sharp, overheard and replied, "Young man, everything is what it cost me!"
3. The vine and the fruit.
I'm not the world's keenest or most capable gardener. However, I have observed that the holly tree in our garden bears red berries every year. It hasn't yet produced a daffodil, or a bluebell, or a hyacinth, nor do I expect it to do so. What fruit does a vine bear? Vine fruit. Grapes we normally call them. It will not produce apples, or oranges, or pears, however patient we are.
There's a question we haven't yet answered in thinking about the vine: What is the fruit which it bears? The vine is there to bear fruit. That's what makes it the true vine. Fruit bearing is a theme all the way through.
Branches are pruned to bear more fruit. Fruitless branches are cut off and thrown away. Bearing fruit is what being a disciple is all about and brings glory to God: v8...
But what is the fruit? It's described in four different ways in the verses which follow. They're not four different fruit, as if we can choose between them. They're all the fruit of Christ shown in the lives of those who belong to him. Here they are: 1. obedience, v10... 2. joy, v11... 3. love, v12... 4. witness, v16... Perhaps this last one is least obvious. But we must remember that Jesus is preparing his disciples for the time they'll spend waiting for him to return. He's already told them, 14v30: the prince of this world is coming.
And then, v31, Come now let us leave. He's not running away. This is fighting talk. He's saying, 'Come, let's go and face the enemy.' When he talks of going and bearing fruit, it's in that context.
It should be obvious that the fruit is the fruit of Christ's life in our lives. No-one could be more obedient than he was to his Father. No-one was ever more full of joy, even in the face of the cross. No-one ever a better witness, both in his perfect life and in his choice of the perfect word. No-one was ever more loving to his friends, and to his enemies. They're all the fruit of Christ, and we're not free to pick and choose. As if the vine branch could decide to grow the flesh of the grape, without the skin or the pips. We're not let off witnessing if we're loving and joyful. Nor can we restrict ourselves to a kind of grim obedience - we're to do be joyful and loving. It's not as if we can each sign up for a different group: the obedience team, the joy club, the witness brigade, the love family. The branches simply can't choose what fruit they'll bear. It's determined by the vine they belong to.
Are you a fruitbearing Christian? There's no other kind. If I'm a Christian, I will bear fruit. But, someone may say, surely we're saved, we're Christians because of what Christ has done for us, not because of what we do for him? Yes, that's true. And Jesus makes that very point in v3... We only belong to him because of his word spoken to us and dwelling in our lives. But, at the same time, the only evidence that we do belong to him and share the life he gives is that we bear his fruit.
A preacher once made a similar point. He was then challenged by a man in the congregation who wanted to affirm that once God had set his love upon us we cannot be lost, whatever we do. He said to the preacher, "Don't you agree that a Christian may fall very far and yet be saved?" The preacher replied, "I think it would be a very dangerous experiment." That was a great reply. It is Christians who last to the end, not unrepentant sinners with a Christian veneer. And Christians belong to Christ and so bear fruit for him.
Have you seen one of those portrait paintings where the eyes have been so skilfully painted that they appear to be watching you wherever you go? It doesn't matter where you go in the room, they're looking straight at you. You can't get away.
Yet again, we see we can't get away from Jesus. We have to reckon with him. He's the one who give God what he's been waiting for from his people.
He's the one who gives life to his people and bears fruit through them. He's the one who determines the character of the fruit in their lives. With him, we have everything. Without him, we have nothing. v5...
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