“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
I wonder what it must have been like for the first disciples of Jesus? We don’t get much of the back-story. Some of them were fishermen, we know that much, and left their business, their livelihoods, their families of origin, and responded to Jesus’ call to follow.
We don’t see too much of those disciples as Jesus journeys through the villages of Galilee. We see Jesus stopping to heal people, we hear him teaching, telling parables, but the 12 remain mostly in the background.
Occasionally we get to watch them react to Jesus or answer his questions. Most glimpses of them are not at all flattering. We see them trying to keep children from bothering Jesus. We hear them as they complain about multitudes who have no food. They are terrified by storms at sea and annoyed as Jesus sleeps in the boat. They are puzzled if not scandalized as he converses with a woman at a well in Samaria.
But I do not recall getting to hear or see their reactions to opposition. Jesus has it out with scribes and Pharisees, he gets accused of breaking purity laws and breaking the Sabbath – what are his disciples doing in those moments?
I picture them trying to avoid eye-contact; hanging back behind Jesus. “He started it, he can finish it.” I’m sure there are wry smiles as Jesus gets the better of his opponents, even when they have tried to trap him; I can hear a collective “Yesss!” and see a fist and hand pump as he says things like “then neither will I tell you.” “Yes! That’s our man!
The Elephant in the Room
But there must have been a nagging feeling among the disciples that left to themselves, they were in trouble. It was Jesus who had the grand vision of the kingdom of God. It was Jesus that had such an immediate and uncomplicated relationship with God the Father. It was Jesus who had the powerful sense of vocation; he knew he was called and sent by God for a mission. What would happen if he were not there? It was probably unthinkable.
So here they are, as we meet them in John 15, in that upper room, celebrating Passover together, and it is a somber moment. He has announced his imminent departure. He is leaving, he tells them.
He has been their source of inspiration. He has been their source of a new way of looking at God, not as score-keeping, angry judge but as loving Heavenly Father.
He has been their source of a new way of looking at the world, at people – at women, at children, at foreigners, at the poor, at the diseased – he has been the source of their hope that God was doing something new, bringing his kingdom on earth! He has been their source of the bonding power of love that has made them all into a new family.
“How in the world,” they wonder, “can we live, cut off from Jesus, the source?” It would be as impossible as expecting a pruned-off branch of a grape vine to produce a new cluster. That would be impossible. Cut the branch off from the source and it simply dies in the hot Palestinian sun; good for kindling a fire, and nothing else.
Remain Attached or Die
Yes, that’s exactly right. Unless they remain attached to the source of life, they will, in effect, die. The situation for them is very much like branches of a vine. Remaining attached, they live and produce grapes. Cut off, they die, barren.
With a bit of re-phrasing to bring out the meaning, Jesus says this:
4 Remain connected to me as I remain connected to you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it remains connected to
it’s source, the vine, neither can you unless you remain connected to me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who remain connected to me and I to them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
Everyone in that part of the world knew in detail the process of wine making. It starts with a grape vine that needs an enormous amount of tedious tending. In Europe they say, if you have a vineyard, you don’t own it; it owns you. If you want good healthy grapes you will be putting in hours of pruning.
Does the analogy hold? Yes, Jesus says:
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
You might think that this pruning work is a metaphor for hard times that you go through that help you to be a better person. But that is not the point here. Jesus tells the disciples whom he has been with for the past three years:
3 You have already been pruned [cleansed] by the word that I have spoken to you.
The Pruning Effect of his Word
“The word” Jesus has spoken is the sum total of all the teaching Jesus has done. The disciples have cast their lot in with Jesus. They have staked it all
on him. His teachings have pruned and tended them, just as methodically and thoroughly as a gardner’s vine-tending.
Now that he is physically leaving, it is only a question of staying connected to Jesus. How? By constantly attending to his teaching: the teaching of his words and of his life of uncomplicated connection to his Heavenly Father. Staying connected to his vision of the Kingdom of God. Staying connected to his embrace of all of humanity. Staying connected to his way of being in the world that can only be summed up by the one word that can sum up God himself: love.
The Fruit of Love
This is the fruit that is the goal of the whole vineyard project: love. Nobody goes to all the trouble of a vineyard for any reason other than grapes – the fruit. The branches aren’t good wood for building, and not even very good firewood except for kindling. No, the only reason for the time-consuming vine is the fruit.
The fruit that will come from staying connected to Jesus, the source, is love. As the epistle we read says, in effect:
“God is love, and those who remain connected to and enfolded in love remain connected to and enfolded in God, and God remains connected to and enfolded in them. (I John 4:16)
How are We Doing?
God is love. That one word sums up his essential character. How are we doing at remaining connected to and enfolded in God? How are we doing at remaining connected to the vine; to Jesus, the Source?
It is tragically possible to stop being connected to the source. It is possible not to remain; it is possible to be utterly fruitless, to loose the capacity or will to love. Look around at the face which the church presents to the world: is it the face of love? Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not.
Sometimes it is the angry face of a group of people who have become inattentive to the true vine, the real Source, to Jesus and his cleansing words, who are now desperate to find a scapegoat for their anxieties and frustrations. Scapegoats are easy to find. They condemn the gays, the pro-choice people, the big-bad government, the illegal aliens, or whatever other target that Rupert Murdoch holds up for firing practice.
But then there are those others who have stayed connected, who have listened to Jesus’s words, who are fulfilling the goal, producing fruit, living a life of love. They show a different face to the world; a face of joyful love. They are the ones who know what Jesus meant when he said:
8 “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Did you notice that word “become”?
“...bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
It’s a process of becoming. We have not yet arrived, but we are on the way. And so we keep attending to Jesus’ words. We keep connected to the Source of Love. We practice daily spiritual disciplines of prayer, study and reflection. We take advantage of opportunities for continuing Christian education.
And we keep showing up in places were love leads us – like the Christian Service Center. We keep responding to needs and the pain of people around us. We keep looking for new ways we can be involved in missional outreach.
And though Jesus has departed physically, though we do not see him, we are continually connected to him as our Source of life, of hope, and of fruitful love.