In this Easter Season we continue to reflect on how the risen Lord Jesus minsters to us and supplies our needs. Last week we considered him as our Shepherd. This week we learn of how he is the Vine, and we are branches on the Vine, wholly dependent on remaining with him for everything.
The Lord presents us with five basic principles that emerge from our relationship to him as the vine. Lets look at them each in turn.
I. Purpose – The text says, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit – The purpose of a vine is to bear fruit. And what are the fruits that the Father seeks? Surely Justice, righteousness and holiness are chief among them. The Letter to the Galatians speaks of them in this way: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:23). Surely we can add virtues and fruits such as generosity, chastity, mercy and forgiveness, zeal for God and His kingdom and so forth. These are among the fruits God seeks and which are the purpose of the Vine, his Son Jesus, who he sent to nourish us so that these fruits would come to pass.
And yet, there are some branches, that though they take nourishment from the vine, do not bear fruit. And not only do they fail to bear fruit, but they often harm the vine by drawing away strength from the fruit-bearing branches.
I know little of grapes, but for many years, I have grown tomatoes and, as the plant grows, I have learned to identify small shoots that emerge base of the vine branches. These are usually called “suckers” since they draw away strength from the main branch where the tomatoes are growing. These suckers are to be plucked for the health and vigor of the plant and the best development of the fruit.
And thus God will often do the same. In our modern age, with our stress on individualism, hearing that God cuts off unfruitful branches strikes us as unmerciful and harsh. But God has in mind not just the individual, but the strength and fruitfulness of the whole vine. Failing to bear the fruit spoken of above, does not just affect the individual, it affects the whole vine. So God, as a loving vine dresser, cuts away the harmful branches. Your life is not just about you. My life is not just about me. We exist in a complex set of relationships wherein God has to have the care of all in mind.
Since the purpose of the vine is to bear fruit, God tends the vine with that in mind.
II. Pruning – The text says, and every [branch] that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Most of us who have cared for roses know how important pruning is. Without this careful and necessary cutting, the rose bush grows long and gnarly. The rose bush expends its strength more on the branches, than the flowers. Little by little the flowers become smaller and less beautiful, the leaves too loose their beauty, shape and color and become smaller and more light green. Eventually the rose bush looks little better than a weed.
Now, I suppose if a rose bush could talk it would protest and cry in pain every November, as I descend upon it and cut back its growth to one foot above the ground. But here in May the gorgeous roses in the front yard are a masterpiece, and all the pain of November is forgotten.
But pain and pruning are part of the Christian journey and God knows what he is doing. We often do not, and like the roses in November which cry out in pain and protest, we too look for answers. And yet, no more than I can explain to roses my purpose (they are only rose bushes after all), can God explain to us what he is about (we are but mere mortals with minds too small to see the whole picture).
But just the same, our November pruning gives way to May glory and God the vine dresser knows what he is doing.
Note too that the Lord says his Word “prunes” us. For if we let the Word enter us uncompromised and unabridged we read: For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12). Yes God’s word can humble our pride, cut to the quick our distorted and wrongful thinking, and hold us accountable. It can cut away error and debreed the decayed wounds of sin.
But we must allow the Word of God to be what it is. Too many of us seek a filtered and watered down version of God’s Word. No! Let the undiluted Word go to work of which Scripture itself says: Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29).
A pruned vine bears abundant fruit. None of us like pruning, but nothing is more necessary.
III. Persistence – The Text says: Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
In this short Gospel, the word “remain” occurs seven times. Do you get the point? Remain! The Greek word is μείνατε (meinate) is the plural imperative of the verb meno, meaning, more richly, “to abide.” To abide means to habitually remain or stay somewhere. It speaks of a stability and a persistence.
It is a clear fact that a branch must always and without fail, stay attached to the vine or it is doomed. Absolutely nothing is possible to a branch (except to wither and die) unless it is 24/7/365 attached to the vine. Nothing could be clearer in this analogy that this truth.
And yet, it seems very unclear to the average disciple of Jesus who so easily walks away, and finds abiding both tedious and difficult. And then we puzzle as to why our spiritual life is tepid, and its fruits lackluster. We can’t have a mediocre spiritual life apart form Christ, the text says we can’t do anything at all but be scattered.
How do we abide with and in the Lord. Scripture distinguishes four ways. We abide and experience union with the Lord through:
- HIS WORD – If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. (Jn 15:7) And again: Anyone who loves me will be true to my word and my Father will love him and we will come to him. (Jn 14:22)
- HOLY COMMUNION – He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (Jn 6:56)
- PRAYER (especially communal prayer) – For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matt 18:20).
- KEEPING HIS COMMANDMENTS – Those who keep his commandments abide in him and He in them. (1 John 3:22)
Yes, abiding is accomplished through prayer, scripture, Sacraments, fellowship and walking uprightly. And this Gospel could not be more clear, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide. Seven times the word is used.
Do you get it? Abide. Persistently abide.
IV. Protection – the text says Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.
The text here indicates, in a negative way, the kind of protection we have in the Lord if we abide. For what happens to those who do not abide? Note that the text says they wither and that “people” will gather them and throw them into the fire.
The simple fact is that, if I don’t know who I am and whose I am, any one can name me and carry me off. Yes, with out the stability of abiding on the vine, I get all carried away by worldly things, I wither, and die spiritually and the slightest breeze can blow me about. Walk away from Jesus and you get burned.
Only by abiding on the vine and staying connected to Jesus am I protected by this stability. Only with Jesus holding me close can I withstand the winds of this world and avoid the fire that burns. Unless Christ carries me and sustains me, I am carried away by others who cast me into the fire.
Abide, remain, stay, and be protected by Christ.
V. Produce – The text says, If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Attached to and abiding in the vine we will produce abundant fruit. Note that this is linked to a kind of fruitfulness in prayer that comes from the Father’s good pleasure.
And why is he pleased to answer our prayers if we abide? Because he can trust us with his blessings. In effect He can say, here is someone who is close to my Son, who habitually remains with Him, abides with him. Yes, here is someone I can trust with blessings, here is a wise steward who is in union with my Son. Scripture speaks often of the correlation of wise stewardship and blessings:
- Luke 16:10 Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?
- Matt 25:21 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
- Luke 12:48 From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
You want more? Use well what you already have. Be someone whom the Father can trust because you stay close and abide with his Son. Be like those who can say with Mother Ruth: Where ever you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay (Ruth 1:16). And be like the man who said to his wife, “If you ever leave me, I’m going with you.”
Abide, Abide, Abide.