I have a confession to make. It won’t be easy; some of you will never forgive me for keeping so dark a secret. But here goes: I kill plants. Like, all plants. I used to own a houseplant. It died under my care. I did all I could, but for the life of me (and the death of the plant…) I had no idea if I was overwatering or underwatering or if the poor thing really just wanted a cup of coffee or something. A year or so ago my neighbors asked me to water their plants while they were on vacation. I ended up praying that they would return soon because I was already starting to see some brown leaves emerging. All of this would be perfectly understandable if you didn’t know that my first job out of college was working with plants (including in a greenhouse) for the USDA. C’est la vie, or something like that.
Plants really have only one of two fates. They thrive and flourish, or they wither and die. There’s no real setting for “neutral,” at least not for very long.
Jesus seems to be saying something similar in his message to “abide.” Yesterday we talked about how to “abide” in Christ means to be connected and committed to Jesus in a personal way. Today I thought we’d take a personal look at the results of this. Let’s revisit the passage, this time paying attention to the results of abiding (highlighted in bold) and the results of failing to abide (underlined):
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11)
(On a side note, this is actually a good exercise for things such as family devotions, etc.—an easy way to practice the habit of simply observing the text)
If you focus on just the highlighted portions, you get a snapshot of the mature Christian life. Abiding produces growth. “Fruit” is a symbol for life, a life that begins with our walk with Christ and stretches onward into eternity. And it is a life, Jesus tells us, that is marked by the fullness of joy. Jesus even promises that an abiding person can expect answers to his prayers—though we should note that the condition is a heart that is truly abiding in Christ.
Negatively, look at the underlined portions. I don’t think Jesus necessarily means a loss of salvation, though he certainly emphasizes a loss of fellowship, a loss of effectiveness, a loss of joy.
It’s cliché to say that our world suffers from a lack of devotion to God. Devotion to self is a cancer that causes our nation to wither like a bundle of drying branches. Our notion of “progress” is often a myth, and every news cycle, every election cycle proves that indeed, history truly does repeat itself, often transfigured into an uglier form than it was before.
The gospel makes no promises of our happiness, but it makes a powerful promise of lasting joy. Imagine that—on the night before he was publicly tortured and killed, Jesus promises joy for those who abide in him. The problems that flicker across our television and computer screens are not interruptions in our call to joy; they are reminders of the sheer necessity of joy. “Abide in me,” Jesus asks us. “Stay close…that’s where joy is found: fresh and wild and alive.”