What do you think of when you hear the word “church?” If you’re like most people, your mind immediately goes to an image of a building. Childhood memories of mornings languishing in high-backed pews. There’s also a good chance the word “church” brings back painful memories—pushed away from Jesus by the very people who claim to represent Him. Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, refers to this as a form of “spiritual abuse:”
“Spiritual abuse is rather like any kind of physical or sexual abuse. It brings you to a place where you can’t face the subject ever again. It’s rare for the sexually abused to ever enjoy sex. So, too, people who are spiritually abused can rarely approach the subject of religion with fresh faith. They wince and they twitch. My religious life has been trying to get through the minefield without coming out of it at the other end in a wheelchair.” (quoted in Kathleen Falsani, The God Factor, p. 11)
So why church? In John’s gospel, Jesus rarely refers to the church through institutional language. It’s not a building. It’s something organic—something vibrant and alive. In John 10, the relationship between Christ and His Church was that of a shepherd and a flock. Now, in the second part of Jesus’ “commencement address,” Jesus refers to the church through the familiar language of a vine and branches.
A POINT OF TRANSITION
Let’s pause a moment and return to John 14:31. Jesus tells His followers: “Rise, let us go from here.” John 15-16 consists of the second part of Jesus’ “commencement address.” It may have taken place in the upper room—they may have stood to leave. But it may also have taken place as they journeyed from the upper room to the Mount of Olives to pray. Because Jesus is making reference to a vine and branches, it’s easy to imagine that He was drawing analogies from the lush outdoor surroundings—though we have to admit that this is speculation.
THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH
Perhaps the most famous metaphor for Christ and the Church is found in these verses:
John 15:1-27 “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.
Jesus is the True Vine. Our connection to Him is one of intimacy and necessity. A branch cannot find life except through connection to the vine. Now, some branches try. They put down a secondary root system, but this kills the plant. Vinedressers have to lift these branches to keep them from doing this, and increase their dependence on the vine. Jesus says that the same thing happens between Himself and His followers. Branches that don’t bear fruit are “taken away”—or better translated “lifted up”—so that they can be more fruitful. Those that are unfruitful are in danger of being discarded and burned. We don’t need to assume Jesus is saying we can lose our salvation, but the verse should still make us sweat a bit to think that we can lose intimacy and reward.
So why church? In the context of this image, the question might better be: what’s the alternative? The life-giving connection between Christ and His followers can hardly be said to limited to a Sunday morning experience. Instead, it is a constant connection. We don’t attend church. We are the church. There’s no alternative.
These days it’s increasingly common to put down other “roots.” We can be connected to other things: sports, hobbies, career, etc. In a post-everything world, Sunday mornings are no longer off-limits for sports practices or other activities. In this setting, it’s tempting to see church as another option in a sea of endless activity. But a connection to church is not optional. It is essential. Regardless of my frustrations and past hurts, regardless of the endless sea of alternatives that beckon my attention, I am part of a network of branches that find their strength and life from Jesus Himself.
THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
Jesus now turns to the mission of the church, one characterized by love:
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
Some of these words are familiar, the kind of thing you might see on a coffee mug. We’re used to hearing the command to “love one another.” But pay close attention to verse 16. What is the mission of the church? To “go and bear fruit,” Jesus says. Go? The church has a mission to perform. Love must extend beyond the walls, grafting outsiders into relationship with the True Vine.
Do you see what’s happening here? Jesus is saying that Christian love has a vertical component—between man and God—as well as a horizontal component—between man and man. Place the vertical and horizontal pieces together and what do you see? The shape of the cross. Christian love is found in the cross of Jesus, and if we seek to follow Jesus we find ourselves drawn ever closer to the criminal wood of crucifixion.
THE POSITION OF THE CHURCH
This tells us that our position in life will be marked not by a crown of glory, but a crown of thorns.
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’ 26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.
We bear an unpopular message. We will face rejection. We will face suffering. Pain. To represent Christ in our world is to experience the same rejection that He did. But the cross also reminds us that suffering is only temporary, and that this crown of thorns will one day be exchanged for a crown of glory. This is why Jesus now turns His followers attention to life lived through the Spirit as they away God’s glorious future.