We find in John’s Gospel the "I am" sayings of Jesus – those wonderful descriptions that Jesus used to draw people to him.
"I am the bread of life." John 6:35,41,48-51
"I am the light of the world." John 8:12, 9:5
" I am the gate for the sheep.” John 10:7,9
"I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep." John 10:11,14
"I am the resurrection, and the life." John 11:25
"I am the way, the truth, and the life." John 14:6
"I am the true vine." John 15:1,5
The earlier sayings had focus on Jesus as life-giver and include an invitation to come to him and to believe in him.
In our reading from John
15 we have the last of these "I am" sayings, "I am the
true vine" and this time Jesus is speaking to those who have already
come to him, and his message is to stay close and commit themselves to
him for the long term, to grow and become fruitful Christians.
It’s an allegorical story, which means that there’s meanings everywhere (some maybe lost to those of us from a different time and culture, but not to Jesus’ listeners then), and he uses as the basis for this teaching a picture that would be familiar to all the people of Israel – the vine.
In the OT Israel is pictured as the vineyard of God. "I planted you as a choice vine" God tells them through the prophet Jeremiah. "Israel is a luxuriant vine" says Hosea. The vine was the national emblem of Israel, if you like – it appeared on the coins of the Maccabees, and there was a famous golden vine on the front of the Holy Place in the Temple.
But although the nation of Israel might consider itself as God’s vine or vineyard, the OT references actually use the example not to praise the faithfulness of God’s people but to berate the nation for being unfruitful, for being a vineyard that had run wild and was bedraggled and is now desperately in need of a rotavator.
Jesus hints at this when
he says that he is the true vine to which the branches are connected,
and his Father the gardener.
So the Jews considered themselves to be a highly favoured people. But one of the problems with being a member of God’s chosen people (or indeed to call ourselves Christians) however is that there’s a tendency to take a lot for granted – like it doesn’t matter what you do or say or how you behave because you’re favoured by God and he’ll look after you!
But that’s not how Jesus saw things. Being a Jew and considering themselves as a branch of God’s true vine was not enough because their lives were not showing that fruitfulness that comes with commitment, in fact their lives reflected the opposite because of their behaviour.
Nothing external makes someone right with God, only the
closeness of fellowship that is there when God’s love, shown through
Jesus, is present in lives.
So what’s Jesus doing in using such a familiar national symbol to represent himself? And more importantly, how does it speak to us, who have limited understanding of growing and pruning grapevines (even if we enjoy the fruit of those vines?)
Well, having looked up the subject of growing a grape vine, I came up with the distinct impression that you really have to know what you are doing, particularly when it comes to pruning and training a vine. Historically the vine has been grown all over Palestine, often on terraces, and the ground into which they are planted has to be scrupulously clean.
as pruning goes, and Jesus majors on this aspect, a vine has always needed
plenty of attention. According to one source - "The purpose of pruning
is to obtain maximum yields of high quality grapes and to allow adequate
vegetative growth for the following season."
Or as one gardener puts it "If you don't prune your vines, they will become unruly, tangled messes, fruit ripeness will suffer, and overproduction of the vine may lead to premature death."
Pruning a vine ensures that non fruit bearing wood is not wasting valuable nutrients that would otherwise be directed toward fruiting. It also allows for proper care of the vine, selection of the strongest branches and a worthwhile crop of quality fruit. Interestingly, the wood that is pruned out is actually useless for anything, too soft to be of value, and is often burned to destroy it. It was banned from being offered as kindling for the altar fire in the Temple.
All these things would be going through
the minds of Jesus’ listeners as they digested what he was saying
to them. And I guess that even if we only have a limited knowledge of
gardening we can begin to see and visualise what Jesus was trying to say
to the people around him.
So do we expect to be pruned, or do we consider ourselves to be so fruitful that there’s no need for God to reach for the pruning shears? What did Jesus mean by "every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful."?
Well, let’s look at the disciples and see how the process seems to have operated with them.
"You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you," says Jesus to his disciples.
So were the disciples a
product of Jesus’ pruning techniques? Well, in a way yes! Every
time that Jesus pulled them up for their foolishness or stupidity, every
time he answered their questions, every time they heard him speak and
were challenged as to who he was and what that meant to them, every time
Jesus caused them to look at and re-examine their own lives in relation
to His and the light of God’s Word to them – this was all
pruning out the dead or withered wood and enabling them to go on in the
future to grow into healthy vines and produce a fantastic crop of fruit
of which we could be said to be part.
So it is that we’re pruned, I believe. Every time that we sit in Church and something that the preacher says speaks to our heart, every time that a prayer is answered, every time that we reach for God’s Word looking for an answer and find it, every time that "still, small voice" speaks to our hearts in the quiet moments of our lives we are being gently pruned, made stronger in our faith, more able to be fruitful and of use to God.
But pruning is also a continual process, not just a once in a while thing. Jesus demands commitment.
"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."
Christianity is all about a relationship, between God and us as individuals. You cannot rely on other people’s faith or experience – this is between you and God. Being a part time Christian is not being a fruitful Christian. Why? Because as Jesus goes on to say,
"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."
It’s a difficult world out there to be Christian in, there are so
many distractions, so many other voices demanding our attention and diverting
or pulling us away from "the vine" which is the source of
our spiritual nourishment. And without that nourishment we’re likely
to wither, become weak and indecisive Christians and that is not being
fruitful because it does not show the joy and hope that is ours to the
So when Jesus says "Remain in me" or "Abide in me" as another version has it, what does he mean?
Well, if we look at the life of Christ himself we find that he lived a life that was very much connected to his heavenly Father (as you might expect!) We read about just a few of the times that he spent in prayer or finding a quiet place to be alone and spiritually close to God – and maybe that’s our perfect model, our ideal to which we should aim.
I’m guessing that this is something that doesn’t necessarily
come easily to all of us – taking time out of our daily schedule
to spend time with God (getting to know him in some way) but as with any
relationship, and we know this from our own lives, it’s the length
of time that you spend with someone that makes the difference, it takes
a while to get to really know someone, to feel free to share those hidden
things, to open up. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Getting to know God can just be a matter of setting aside a few minutes a day, maybe with daily Bible notes and prayer, or just being still and quiet and allowing that ‘still small voice’ to speak to our hearts.
Contact with God, friendship with him - Jesus says "You are my friends if you do what I command’ - enriches our lives because spiritual lives are fed, and lives that are fed can go on to be fruitful, and fruitfulness gives glory to God, and spiritually fruitful lives also attract others toward Him.
How did the Christian Church grow from those humble beginnings of a few fellowships meeting in houses?
By Christian disciples being fruitful,
bringing glory to God through the lives that they led, and becoming spiritual
magnets that began to draw other people to God, through understanding
the significance to humanity of the sacrificial life, death and resurrection
Paul knew what it was like to ‘remain in him’. In Gal 2:20 he says,
"It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me."
Jesus says "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. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name."
The fruitful life is the life that’s lived by faith in Jesus Christ.
It’s the giving up of self and being daily re-filled by God’s
Spirit – that’s the life that is truly connected and nourished
by the vine. It’s a fruitful life, it’s a life that gives
glory to God and a life that attracts others to the vine, as a flower
might attract bees by its sweet fragrance.