The True Vine (John 15:1-27)

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.

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Vine Connections – John 15:1-17

When we built our home here in Maryland in 1995, it involved our purchase originally of an 8.4-acre lot that was largely untamed wilderness! The house went in the portion that was the least overgrown, and since then, I’ve worked here and there to recover, lose, and re-recover acres of the forest. I have yet to ever get past about 50% of it being manageable, and at this point of life, this may be one of those things I will never get done. I actually enjoy doing it. I can’t imagine a much happier day personally than waging war on the wilderness, clearing brush, pruning and cutting down smaller trees, etc.

Something that I have always found fascinating are the vines that stretch high up into the very largest trees in my woods. I’m talking 60 feet or more into the air – all wrapped around branches stretching way into the sky. They are so intertwined that there is simply no easy way to just pull them down out of the tree. Rather, I cut the vines at the ground (often the circumference of a small tree!), and over time, the dead branches will eventually come to the ground. Yes, all the leaves and stringy connections that are 60 feet into the air simply die off when they lose connection to the nutritional source of the primary vine.

Our passage today in John 15 is one that we can readily understand. This would have been even more true for Jesus’ time and agrarian culture. People were very familiar with working with vines – particularly in the growing of grapes. All the strength comes from the vine – everyone understands that. The orchardist cuts off the fruitless branches (no need to keep them as a drain on the vine) and prunes the healthy branches in a wise way in order to make them most productive.

Obviously, there are no disconnected branches out there bearing any kind of fruit! And here is where the analogy “jumps” a bit … as Christ says he is the vine, and we disciples are the branches. We need to stay connected. Unlike the natural world, as human “branches” we may choose to disconnect ourselves from connection to the vine. It may work for a short time, but ultimately the fruit from it is zero. There is little negotiating room here for what we can accomplish apart from Christ – NOTHING!

So how do we know if we are well-connected to the vine? Well, there will be evidence of the life of the vine in us. What is that life? It about love – love of others – love that looks away from self in the same way Christ through his sacrifice looked away from himself in choosing those who would be a part of the life-sustaining organism.  If the principle of the life of Christ is really alive and flowing through a believer, that person will be driven by a passion and love for other people. That is the characteristic of this vine. If that characteristic is present, we are connected to the life of Christ. If an opposite characteristic is present … well … it may be time for tracing back toward the roots to see what is wrong.

I didn’t make this up. It is there in the text, where it ends with the words, This is my command: Love each other. This is why I question and wonder and worry about Christians who are so focused on “my needs being met” or “I’m not sure I’m being fed” – all the characteristic stuff of looking toward self. I’m yet to hear, “I’m frustrated because I just don’t have enough avenues to love other people right now in this church!”  You get the picture.

John 15:1-17 – The Vine and the Branches

15:1 “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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also 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.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I 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. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.