In Hampton Court near London (start video-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxzG6C-jrwE), there is a grapevine under glass; it is about 1,000 years old and has but one single root which is at least two feet thick. A formidable root. Some of the branches are 200 feet long.
Without careful tending, this vine would eventually come to yield very little fruit. But because of skillful cutting and pruning, the vine produces several tons of grapes each year.
Even though some of the smaller branches are 200 feet from the main stem, they bear much fruit because they are joined to the vine and allow the life of the vine to flow through them. And the fruit is good. Among the very best grapes produced in the world.
Our Scripture today is John 15:1-8. Let’s have a look.
John 15:1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 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. 5 "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 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. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
You may have caught wind of a story from Nova Scotia this week where a grade 12 student was suspended for wearing this t-shirt: “Life is wasted without Jesus”.
He wore it daily for a number of weeks, obviously in an effort to make a point. There were all kinds of predictable responses from the media and from the school.
They didn’t like it. Somehow they took personal offense to what is obviously a personal statement of faith by a young Christian man, a statement that reflects his beliefs. The problem is, his beliefs are not mainstream.
If the T-shirt had said: “Life is wasted without Beer”. or “Life is Wasted without Budda”, we would have never heard about this story.
Christians, we know in our polite Canadian society, are the last minority that our culture is permitted to suppress, oppress, dismiss and marginalize. And some feel that that is just. Go figure.
I can appreciate the young Nova Scotian man’s point of view. I also understand why his point of view is unwelcome by some.
The life that God intends for every human is one that is abundant. That overflows with joy, with purpose, with meaning and with fruitfulness.
Jesus said: John 10:10b “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”. Paul talked about living life “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
The prophet Jeremiah quotes God communicating his best plans for humanity: “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”. (Jeremiah 29:11)
The issue is not all this good stuff. We’d need to be pretty loopy to NOT want this good stuff. The issue is that God knows that the best life is lived in Jesus.
God knows that His intention and desire from the very beginning of creation was to dwell in intimate communion with people, with you and with me, AND, for that matter, with everyone who currently rejects Him.
The problem is that humanity in general goes after the ‘best life’ in vain because it seeks what can only be found in God. It looks in empty vessels for what can only be discovered in God.
And God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. That’s what people don’t like. They either want to have a connection with God through a path that is not Jesus, through a false path; or they want to achieve the ‘best life’ through some form of idolatry. Either way, they want fruit through a false vine, they want blessing from gods who are no gods. They want the best possible while at the same time avoiding the only way possible to have the best life.
But this is not God’s way. Let’s look more closely at what Jesus says in our passage today.
John 15:1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.
When Jesus spoke about Himself, he didn’t mince words. When Jesus taught about other important things – Kingdom principles, justice and the like, He normally did speak in parables. He did that so that we would have to think hard about how to live for God.
The parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the Talents, the parable of the house built on sinking sand. These are more about how we are to behave than what we are to believe. But of course there is still a connection because, hopefully, we behave according to our belief system.
But when talking about Himself, Jesus didn’t mince words. He says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener”. Jesus is saying something positive here, but He is also acknowledging a problem. Jesus identifies that He is the true vine.
He is not A true vine, He is not one true vine among many. He is THE true vine. Elsewhere Jesus says very clearly that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Jesus was crystal clear that He alone is the way to God. That’s the positive aspect. Indirectly, though, Jesus is saying that there ARE false vines.
There are WAYS that present themselves as authentic ways to God that simply are not. There are religions and philosophies that claim to be sources of light, sources of truth and sources of life that are false. Jesus alone is the true vine.
And the Father is the gardener. So Jesus is the source of life, the One through Whom health and strength and sustenance flows. Wherever you have Jesus, you have the Father. “I and the Father are one”, said Jesus. This passage in John, though, identifies the different function of the Father. The Father is the gardener.
My mom used to grow green beans at the family cottage years back. I never understood why she would cut off so much of the plant, especially off stalks that weren’t producing much – it seemed to me like a waste.
And in the cutting it seemed like the bean stalks were also being exposed, that were being made vulnerable. So in a given half hour of time the bean stalk would go from looking quite full to being quite sparse.
It made no sense to me; until a week or two later when the stalk would start producing a whole lot more beans. Pruning, I learned, was not optional to a gardener. It was an essential function in order to make the plant bear fruit. What appeared like harsh treatment was actually ‘mercy’ so to speak.
Also, without the pruning, the bean stalk didn’t actually function as a bean stalk. It was just an overgrown mess. The bean stalk by itself was a problem to itself.
2 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.
So…God has a purpose to your life and to my life. It is that our lives produce fruit. Interesting to note that while it’s awesome to be fruitful and to feel fruitful, the grapes do not grow for their own benefit or consumption.
They grow and have health in themselves ultimately so that another is fed, another is enriched. The tough thing is that God needs to prune us. We are, in and of ourselves, a problem to ourselves. We get in our own way. We can’t get out of our own way.
I don’t imagine that my mom’s bean stalks, if they couldh’ve talked, would have said they liked being pruned. More than likely they would have screamed.
They would have thought something horrible was happening. And perhaps, when its stalks began to grow and more fruit was produced sometime later, they would not even attribute the fruit to the pruning process.
So it is with us. God prunes us. And we do not like it. God shows us that our pride is getting in our way. He shows us that our habits are getting in the way. He shows us that our sin is getting in the way.
I’ve told the story of how I was a heavy weed smoker in my teens. The church I went to talked a lot about the evils of alcohol, but no one ever mentioned weed, so I figured…hey, I’ll keep smoking weed.
Then 2 years later I let it slip that I was sometimes high at church. A deacon then simple asked me, “do you think that smoking weed is helping you grow spiritually?”
The honest answer was that no, the weed wasn’t helping. It wasn’t helping me remember what I was learning about Jesus.
It wasn’t helping me be clear-headed so I could be responsive to the needs around me. It was getting in the way in fact. So a 6 year habit had to go. It wasn’t easy, but go it did.
I’ve noticed over the years that God’s pruning can be hazardous. I’ve noticed that if two Christians have the same issues and God prunes them, God disciplines them, God seeks to refine them, there are at least two different responses.
First off, neither person enjoys the pruning. They have that much in common. But in response to the same discipline, the same pruning, one person may choose to enter into conflict with those through whom God is doing the pruning, or even enter into conflict with God.
The other person, while still not liking it, will respond very differently. The person will receive counsel; the person will humble themselves before God.
She or he will accept God’s pruning, and then over time experience the blessing of untold growth. The one who rejects ceases to grow.
Interesting that the only way to grow is to be pruned, to be disciplined. In other words, courage is required to endure God’s pruning.
3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
Jesus says something here that we may wonder at. What does He mean when He tells the disciples that they are clean? It does not mean that they were perfect, but that they had been under a process of purifying by his instructions all the time he had been with them.
He had removed their mistaken ideas about the Messiah; he had gradually reclaimed them from their silly ideas about who is first in the Kingdom; He had taught them that to lead was to serve.
He had taught them to be willing to forsake all things; and he had so trained and disciplined them that immediately after his death they would be ready to go and bear fruit among all nations to the honor of his name.
As well, by this time in His ministry, Judas had been removed from their number, and they were now all true followers of the Saviour.
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.
5 "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 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.
William Barclay gives some helpful insight here. He gives a human analogy to help us understand what Jesus is saying here. All analogies are imperfect, but let’s work with this. Suppose a person is weak.
He has fallen into temptation and made a mess of things. He is on his way down to what Barclay calls: “degeneracy of mind and heart and mental fibre”. Now suppose he has a friend who is strong and solid and loving and who rescues Him from his degraded situation.
There is only one way that he can retain the positive changes he has made and keep him on the right way. He must keep contact with his friend. If he loses that contact, there’s a very good chance that his weaknesses will overcome him again.
The old temptations will rear their ugly heads again, and he will fall. His salvation lies in his continual contact with the strength of his friend.
Barclay says: “Many a time a person who is down and out has been taken to live with someone fine. So long as he continued in that fine home and that fine presence he was safe.
But when he kicked over the traces (did what he wanted and did not show any respect for authority), and went off on his own, he fell. We must keep contact with the fine thing in order to defeat the evil thing. Continual contact with loveliness makes (us) lovely”.
Remaining in Jesus, abiding in Jesus means something like that. The secret of the life of Jesus was His continual contact with His Father. Again and again, he withdrew to a solitary place to meet Him.
You and I must keep contact with Jesus. We cannot do that unless we deliberately take steps to do it. A simple prayer to God in the morning can work wonders in your day.
In fact the more time you give to God in prayer, in worship, in gratitude, the more God occupies our thoughts when we awake and when we go through our day, the better our day will be, no matter what may come.
7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.
It’s just human nature to focus on the second half of this sentence. We like to see God as a genie in a bottle. We like to believe that there is a distinct material advantage to knowing God.
There’s a whole school of theology, prosperity theology, that tries to milk the Bible of all it’s worth for human advantage.
But the second half of this verse, like all the other passages that say similar things about God’s provision, has to be taken in context. I hope none of us would really try to rip what Jesus is saying here out of its context.
This whole passage, of course, is about abiding in Jesus, about having deep, deep roots in Jesus. That’s the bigger context. The immediate context here is that Jesus says: “7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you”.
Let me ask you. If I am abiding in Jesus, if I am letting His words truly impact my life. If I am humbling myself before Him and seeking His will, will this have an impact on the things I desire? Is there a difference between the desires of a person who walks with God and one who doesn’t? Of course there is!
If I am abiding in Jesus, the things I will wish for will be things that honour Jesus. If I am living my life in Jesus, the things that matter to Him will increasingly become the things that matter to me.
The things that concern me, the things that I pray for will increasingly be the things that already matter to God’s heart.
That is why Jesus says this. The point is not to get what we want. The point is to choose this day and every day following to remain close to Jesus. To invest my time in Him. To spend my time doing what He wants me to do.
8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
Finally, in our passage today Jesus says that when we bear fruit, when our lives are a blessing to others, God is glorified. We’ve already discussed how it is not possible to bear much fruit without a lot of pruning.
In fact, the more fruit we really want to bear in our lives, the more we need to willingly give ourselves over to God’s pruning.
But we can easily over-concentrate on the discipline of God, on how we don’t like being pruned.
To do that is to miss the point. The point of pruning isn’t pruning. The point of discipline isn’t discipline. The point of it all is that you and I bear fruit unto God in our lives. And it happens in the every day.
My wife Barbara is a kindergarten teacher. She works with 23 little rug rats all day long, every week day. She loves them and sows into to them. She teaches them. She looks out for them. She is a light to them.
When she’s away due to sickness for a few days, she comes back to the classroom and many of them just come up to her and hug her leg. They want to be near the one who has cared for them. Who has disciplined them, yes…but they want to be close to the one who they know truly cares for them.
Barbara bears fruit in these young lives in a way that she will likely not see down the road. They move on and up through the school system. But Barb is faithful. Is it easy to teach kids at such a young age? I could never do it. It’s one of the toughest jobs there is. But when Barb is doing it, there is fruit.
May each of us here submit to the loving discipline of God, the careful pruning of the Father. May each one here choose daily to abide in Jesus, to study His teachings and let them travel from the head to the heart and then out through our hands to the blessing of the world around us. May we choose to live our lives in rich and deep communion with Jesus. Let us abide in the vine. Let us abide in Christ. Amen.