The Vine - John 15:1-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
‘No pain, no gain’- that is the sort of motto to be found on a locker room wall to remind the competitor of the harsh realities of sport. But it is also motto which equally applies to every worthwhile activity. Take the work of Deborah Rickets for example. Everybody loves what she does, but hardly anybody loves it while she is doing it. The product is brilliant, but the process is uncomfortable. You see, Deborah Ricketts is an independent researcher for the US film industry. If you want your film to be accurate, ensuring that the facts reliable, then Deborah is the person you bring in to guarantee authenticity. For example in the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark there is a map which charts Indiana Jones’ flight over Thailand. One problem, the film is set in 1936 and Thailand was called Siam until 1939. And so the nerds were writing in to Steven Spielberg to let him know he got it wrong. In Die Hard II Bruce Willis makes a call from a telephone booth which is supposed to be in Dulles Airport in Washington – the problem was that it was a California pay phone. Now Deborah Rickets job is to root out these errors and deal with them before they find their way onto the big screen and spoil everything. Some would regard her as a nit picker- but those in the business know that it is for their own good. Their work comes under scrutiny and errors are corrected. The process isn’t pleasant, after all no one likes their faults being pointed out, but the results are most certainly rewarding.
Jesus turns to his disciples in John 15 and explains that God is like that with his people. It’s not that God is a finicky critic who just loves finding faults, it is that he is a concerned Father who wants to sort out anything which impedes our growth. The process may not be nice, but the product certainly is-v1 "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.”
It could be that Jesus spoke these words while walking from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane and on route he saw a vine hanging over a wall and turning to it he explained the chain of command in God’s Universe- God is the Gardener, Jesus is the Vine and we are the grapes. You see, vines grew in abundance in Palestine. Carefully pruned they produced luscious, sweet grapes. But left alone they crept everywhere and into everything and caused a mess. And so the gardener trims the vines. Why? So that they would produce what they were meant to produce- fruit. And you know what? According to Jesus, that is the reason why God trims us- “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
So how does this pruning process take place?
Well, first of all it is vital to understand that will only occur if we are united to Christ in the first place-v1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener”. Jesus is not just drawing upon the experience of viticulture to make a spiritual point. What he says about his Father being the gardener and he being the true vine is a profound theological statement which would not have been entirely lost on his disciples. In the Old Testament there are numerous references to Israel being God’s vine. So in Psalm 80 we read: ‘You brought a vine out of Egypt. You cleared the ground and it took root.’ Similarly the prophet Isaiah in chapter 5 has God singing a song about the one he loves, his Vineyard- Israel. But it is a song which soon turns into a lament, for this is a vine that has not produced good fruit, only bad and so judgement is just around the corner. By the time of Jesus the vine had become almost a national symbol like the Thistle of Scotland or the Shamrock of Ireland. It appeared on their coins and was embossed in gold on the temple gates. But what had begun as a symbol of prosperity and blessing was turning into a symbol of apostasy and judgement. Thorns not grapes were being produced and Israel was a failure. But now Jesus takes this emblem and applies it to himself as the true vine. In other words, all that Israel was meant to be, a people which honoured God in loving obedience to his Word, which glorified God in producing spiritual fruit which would make other nations take notice and seek after the One true God, he now is.
And the warning that was given to Israel in the Old testament is the same warning which is given to professing Christians in the New testament- spiritual productivity alone is a sign of spiritual life- v2 ‘He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.’ That is a solemn warning that Jesus gives. Let me tell you that it is only too possible to be connected to Christ without being truly united to Christ, associated with him but not aligned with him. And what occurred a couple of chapters earlier and what is going to happened a few chapters later is dark evidence of the dark reality of this warning. There we read of someone who from the very beginning of his ministry was with Jesus. He was a preacher, a healer, a miracle worker. Along with all the others he swore an allegiance to Jesus and said all the right words and did all the right things. To anyone looking on he was so brilliant that he was made the church treasurer. And his name was- Judas. Judas is the patron saint of empty profession and show and sadly he has never been lacking in followers. It is obviously not religious works, talks or miracles that God is looking for otherwise Judas would still have been there. No, it is fruit. That is why he was cut off-for the fruit was lacking. Sure, he was the church treasurer, but we are told he used to pocket the collection. Sure, he kissed Jesus, normally a sign of affection, but now to become a sign of betrayal. In short he was in it for himself. No sense of service, no idea of surrender, no commitment to the rest of the Christian community- there is no such thing as a lone vine branch -the lone vine is the lopped off vine and will soon shrivel in the sun- for Judas leaves the twelve and goes it alone. The fact is if we are united to Christ-the vine-then we are united to each other and together produce fruit. The relationship between Christ- the vine and his people- the branches- is such an intimate one that it simply is not possible to be a productive Christian without meeting with other Christians. Neglect God’s people and God’s means of grace through the Word and Sacrament is a sure fire way of ensuring no fruit production and therefore is to run the risk of being cut off entirely. It is shear madness to play fast and loose with church attendance for example. Christianity by definition is a corporate affair just as is the business of branches being attached to the vine to produce grapes. The same warning is repeated in v 6 ‘If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.’ Jesus is not playing games here- we have been warned.
Does that mean God leaves the other branches alone just to get on with things? Hardly- - “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” What is the fruit God is wanting to produce in us? Joy? Well, yes- v11 ‘I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’ But the supreme fruit comes from obedience to a command: v 12 ‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.’ This demonstrates that we are friends of Jesus and not mere hangers on- v 13 ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.’ This is the purpose of anyone becoming a Christian- 16, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last.’ This again underscores the communal aspect of being a Christian. How can we love one another if we do not meet or know one another? It makes a mockery of any claim that we might make that we are Christians unless we are doing that- v 17 ‘This is my command: Love each other.’ It is not a suggestion. It is not just good advice. It is a direct command of the Lord Jesus who in a few hours time is going to show what love really means as he goes to a cross to die for those he calls friends- and there is no greater love than that.
But both you and I know that this does not just happen automatically. The command to love may be easy to hear but hard to do. And that is where the pruning knife comes in. You see, a good editor reads a manuscript and says, “This work has great potential, but here is what needs to be cut.” And the author groans as the red ink flows. A good piano instructor says. “I think you can master this piece of composition- here is the 6 hour a day rehearsal schedule.” And the pianist sighs as he sees the hours needed. Similarly, Deborah Rickets looks at a film and says, ‘This is good, but for it to be great here is where the corrections have to be made.’ And the film producer puts his head in his hands.
And where we are weak God will take out the knife to make us strong. Do you find other Christians hard to get along with? Then he will bring along to you Christians who are even harder to get along with so that you will learn to do just that- get along. Do you find the Christian life a bit of a breeze, hardly different from the lives of your non-Christian friends except that you go to church and pray? Then God will put you in situations where you will have to make a stand for him and it will cost you. Maybe you are thankful to God that he is slowly shaping you and that you can see progress being made-then expect more of the same. God is working sovereignly and purposefully through the sudden illness, the bereavement, the tough assignment, the disappointments. None of this means that God has abandoned you, far from it, it is because he loves you that he wants you to be a terrific Christian bearing the fruit of his Son, the True Vine. The writer of the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton poetically put God’s knife work like this: ‘I asked the Lord that I might grow in faith and love and every grace, might more of his salvation know and seek more earnestly his face. Twas he who taught me thus to pray and he, I trust has answered prayer; but it has been in such a way as almost drove me to despair. I hoped that in some favoured hour at once he’d answer my request; and, by his love’s constraining power, subdue my sins and give me rest. Instead of this he made me feel the hidden evils of my heart, and let the angry powers of hell assault my soul in every part. Yea, more, with his own hand he seemed intent to aggravate my woe, crossed all the fair designed I schemed, blasted my gourds and laid me low. ‘Lord, why is this?’ I trembling cried, ‘Wilt thou pursue thy worn to death?’ ‘Tis in this way’, the Lord replied, ‘I answer prayer for grace and faith.’ ‘These inward trials I employ from self and pride to set thee free, and break they schemes of earthly joy, that thou mayest seek thy all in me.’ It is precisely that dependency on Christ that God is wanting to cultivate-v 4, ‘Remain in me, and I will 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.’
So how do we remain in Jesus, or ‘abide’ in him? It is so basic it that almost comes as an anti-climax.
First of all, we listen to Jesus teaching- v 7 ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you….’ The remaining in Jesus and his words (plural) remaining in us go together. In verse 3 Jesus says that his true followers are already ‘clean because of the word (singular) I have spoken to you.’ The word translated ‘clean’ is the same word translated ‘prunes’- so this separating of people to form this new community- vine and branches, is also a cleansing process which takes place by hearing and trusting Jesus’ Word- the word of the Gospel. That is how you become a Christian. It is also the way you keep on remaining a Christian, by allowing his words to become part of you. Think of how many ‘words’ will have come you way just in the past week: words from friends, teachers, parents. Words from the TV, the radio, the CD, ipods. Words through books, internet, newspapers, magazines, billboards. To a greater or lesser extent those words will have shaped the person you have become. Your mind and outlook, your vocabulary and values have been changed because of those words. That is the way words work. Now how many of those words, have been words from God? Words read in the Bible, words from preached sermons, words from Christian books? I would hazard a guess and say only a fraction. Should we therefore be so surprised that God sometimes seems distant and our faith illusory if he is not winning the battle of words? That is why those homegroups and bible studies are so vital. Why sermons are not an optional extra and why we have at least two preached on a Sunday. They enable us to remain in Christ by his words getting into us. God speaking to us-that is how we abide in him, mull over his words, savour them, trust them and -obey them.
Secondly as his words dwell in us, our words reach up to him-v 7, ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’ Now it is significant that the invitation to ask whatever we wish follows on from allowing Jesus words to remain in us for that is as we get to know God more closely and discover what his desires are so that we will then pray more in accordance with those desires. Jesus is not saying we can simply offer up to God as wish list and ‘abracadabra’ all will be granted. Rather, as we get to know God’s mind as revealed in the Scriptures, those are the things we will be asking for and of course they will be given, because they will be precisely the things he wants to give. Don’t be taken in by the flash Christian testimonies- you have heard them, ‘I prayed to God to give me a wife who has the looks of Angelina Jolie and the character of Mother Theresa and he did.’ Be careful because he might well give you a wife who looks like Mother Theresa and has the character of Angelina Jolie! How can such prayers bring glory to the Father and so demonstrate before a watching world that we really are Jesus disciples? Of course they can’t, all they show is that we are as self absorbed as the rest of the narcissistic culture we live in. If we are in this intimate relationship with the true Vine, then what characterised his prayers will characterise ours. And if you want to know what sort of things those are then look at John chapter 17, and there we see how he longs to see God glorified and that comes through Jesus having authority in the world. He longs for his followers to be rooted in God’s Word. He prays for others to become his followers too through the witness of Christians. He pleads with his Father that all of his people will be united in the truth of the Gospel and show genuine love for one another and that they be protected from the evil one until they all eventually share the joy and wonderment of his presence in heaven. Those are good things to pray for. Those are things God is going to say ‘Amen’ to don’t you think? But they have to be genuine requests, as they were with Jesus. And they will be genuine as they flow from a heart which knows God.
I doubt that it is easy for a filmmaker or scriptwriter to turn their work over to someone like Deborah Rickets. They know she is on the lookout for errors. But they also know the end result is a better story. I know it is not easy for us to turn our lives over to the heavenly Gardner. Even now some of you may be feeling the pain and the ‘snip snip’ of his shears. Tonight he has been challenging some of you to stop playing Christianity, to stop running away from him, and keeping him at arms length. For some of us it is our prayerlessness and lip service to the Bible that has been exposed. And to be frank-it hurts. But be encouraged. We will be better as a result. ‘Every branch of mine that does bear fruit he prunes’- aren’t you pleased that he thinks you are worth the effort?
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