Reading: John 15:1-11
The Vine and the Branches
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5“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. 6 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. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
9 “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.
So today is the last day in our I Am series. And through it we’ve been examining who Jesus says he is, not who we might think he is, but learning what he says about himself. We considered that Jesus is the bread of life, he’s the light of the world, the gate, the Good Shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the Way the Truth and the Life, and now today we finish off with Jesus declaring that he is the true vine.
You know at the moment, the thing that sits on me as I’m sure it does for many church leaders is the importance for us to come through this season well. This has been such a shaky year, a turbulent year. However let’s agree that no disease, no disaster, no tragedy can keep us from growing in God, or can prevent us from accomplishing the things he wants us to do and be. They may be interrupted a lot at present, but they cannot be prevented. And as we look at John 15 this morning, my overriding feeling is that God wants us to remain close to him, and as we move into a new season next year that our only desire is to draw closer to him. So how can we ensure that we don’t allow everything that is consuming our senses at the moment – COVID, masks, increased cost of living, even the lethargy about church attendance; that these things don’t become our focus. How can we ensure we stay connected to the vine? Can I say from the outset of this talk, that really in order to stay close to Jesus we’ve got to want it. It’s a bit like falling asleep on the beach. If we are not alert before we know it, the tide will come in on us. We’ve got to recognise therefore that it requires action on our part to remain close to Jesus – we can’t be asleep in these times. And so do you want to draw closer this morning?
The context of our reading today is that Jesus has just shared the Passover meal with his disciples. And the thing that is in his thoughts at this point is how to encourage them because very soon he is going to leave them. As he washes their feet he shows them a model for leadership which involves servanthood. He knows they feel unprepared, and so he comforts them declaring that the Holy Spirit will ensure they will not be left as orphans. They don’t want to hear any of this. They’ve been with him for 3 years – they need him.
So where are we in Jerusalem? Well, they’ve just finished the meal in the upper room, they’ve left there and they’re now walking towards Gethsemane. And as they walk and talk, Jesus gives them more encouragement. You know that as they would walk they would more than likely go past the Temple In Jerusalem. The writer Josephus at the time commented about the incredible door that stood at the entrance to the temple, with a huge image of a Vine on it. Some of the coins would have the picture of the vine on them. It was part of their culture. And whilst the scriptures do not say that Jesus and his disciples walked past the temple, we know that the image of vines around the city would have provided Jesus with another physical illustration of a deeper spiritual meaning.
So here we have in this passage a picture of the vine and the branches. As people who live in a cold climate we probably don’t know a lot about vineyards. The nearest we might get to a vineyard is when we pick up the bottle of red from the supermarket. But here in our passage Jesus is clever as he walks, he picks up the imagery of growing a vine. People would have understood his references to agriculture because it was part of their livelihood – the parable of the sower, the parable of the mustard seed. Vines would have been all around them.
In verse 1 Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener”. Now the NIV translation, in fact many translations don’t help greatly with this word gardener. A better word would be “vinedresser”. A vinedresser is more than a gardener or a farmer. Grapes are not like other crops where you plant and leave them and eventually harvest. A vine required much more attention. And the vinedresser remained with the vine for decades. He came to know each one in a personal way, much like a shepherd with his sheep. He knows how the vine is faring from year to year and which ones are more productive or vigorous than others. There is no season where the vinedresser rests. It’s a very personal, dedicated and consuming relationship. So Jesus is saying that we have a heavenly Father who cares for us as if we are a branch and he is the vinedresser. He just doesn’t pop in every so often to check how we are – he is constantly paying us attention, because he wants the best from us. Does that not just give you such comfort to know how much God is interested in us. He wants fruit from us. When we go through tough times, it’s not as though the vinedresser is sitting at home. God is present and attentive to our needs. Jesus then says he is the true vine. He means he is the ultimate source of lasting fruit in our lives.
So God the vinedresser is intimately involved and interested in every aspect of our lives. Jesus is the source for the fruit that is produced in our lives. And so the logical question from this is – how do we know whether we are producing that spiritual fruit? Well thankfully we know what that fruit should look like – Galatians 5:22-23 ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control’.
So how can we be more full of love in our relationships, how can we have the joy in the activities that we are involved in every day, how can we have a peace in the decisions and worries of each day, how can we be patient as we wait for the outcome to issues? Jesus says that he is the source, and we are to remain or abide in him. I know many of you well enough by now to know that you long for more of this, but I’m sure like me, we chase after other things to fix our issues, and frankly the last place we go to is Jesus. You want more contentment, you want to have more self control but your first port of call is honestly not Jesus. Jesus says he only can give it.
You’ve tried to sort life’s problems out on your own. But Jesus says you won’t find peace except through him. You’ve got to stay connected to the vine.
I think it’s really important today for many of you to know how much God deeply cares for your wellbeing. And in this passage today we see 2 ways in which he as the vinedresser wants to shape us to have a deeper relationship with him and produce more fruit.
Verse 2 – ‘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’.
There’s some debate on the translation of this verse. In particular where it says that the vinedresser cuts off every branch that doesn’t bear fruit. To cut something off is the Greek verb ‘ekkopto’, and this isn’t the word that is used in the text. The word here comes from the root ‘aero’. I’m sure you will be able to guess the ways in which we use that word – aeroplane is the most obvious, and an aeroplane lifts up into the air. Whilst some other references to aero mean to take away, there is a view that there are other legitimate translations. And some commentators suggest that this verse is better read as, ‘He lifts and props us up’. And this translation links very much to the process which a vinedresser would do to a vine. When the vine begins to grow, some branches droop very low to the ground. And as these branches touch the ground they naturally will produce little roots to reach into the soil, but they never produce any fruit. So the vinedresser will lift up that branch, he will place rocks underneath it, and eventually it will produce fruit. So a few translations actually write this verse as ‘the vinedresser lifts and props up every branch that doesn’t bear fruit’. The vinedresser wants to see potential in that branch.
There are some of you today where you need to know in this season that God is beginning the process of lifting you up. You know over these last 2 years that you have settled into a comfortable pattern of living, but you know that there is no spiritual fruit being produced in your life – the fruit of the Spirit Galatians 5 is not that evident to those around you. Like the branch along the ground you are trying to draw nutrients on your own – you tap into church either physically or online, you maybe pray, but that’s all that you do. You don’t notice the lack of fruit in your life because you’ve just got used to the pattern. It seems as though you are connected to the vine, but you’re actually stuck in a rut. And God is in the process of lifting us up. If you recognise that today, how can you get yourself out of that rut and onto a path of growth?
The second way in which God is acting upon the vine to help it produce more fruit is also found in Verse 2 – Jesus says that it comes through pruning. Now I’m really not the person to talk to about gardening, but have you ever seen people who really know what they are doing with pruning roses – you watch what they do to their roses and for me it feels like a complete massacre is taking place. At the end of the season’s blossom, this beautiful rose is cut way back to the base. But having done that pruning, the following year new branches form, new life develops, and then the blossom is as good if not better than the year previous. Who would have seen the potential that would come after something has been pruned so much.
And so here’s the thing, Jesus is saying to everyone of us – do you know the potential that is within you if you remain close to me. And so God comes at us and begins to prune – things get taken away. And you and I will never be capable of producing the kind of fruit that God wants without a pruning process, without learning, without having those things removed from us that if left will create dead wood on which nothing will be able to grow from. What things that we love, that we cherish, things that we hold to dearly needs to be stripped back in order for God to work? What things in your life are more precious to you than God himself? Can you recognise the need to be pruned.
In a few weeks my not so little Josh will turn 18, and in the run up to his birthday I’ve been looking through photos of this cute little boy who arrived in our house all snuggled in his car seat. And the amazing thing about little babies is that you put them into their cots or buggies and you have control over them. Then before you know it, they are crawling and then walking and getting into everything. Then they start talking and learning how to say no. And as they grow it feels as though as a parent you are slowly losing control. And now at 18, parenting completely changes and Alison & I hope that how we have shaped Josh will continue to remain as he takes on more independence. But as grown up children make decisions that are not how we as parents want them to take, even though we love them, they are not acting the way they ought to. They are connecting to the wrong vine. We love our kids, but as they choose to take a different path, it’s the hard reality that they are following a different source.
So this pruning is a tough thing. But here’s the thing. As this vinedresser looks at each branch to be pruned, he does so not with critique but with a picture of what could be. He will only remove what he needs to so that you can be more like Jesus. Yes there’s pain involved, but God hopes that it makes us better not bitter. I am convinced that we will have circumstances happen in all our lives that are meant to prune us back for more fruitfulness. The source, the vine feeds its branches. So what is it that is feeding you right now? We’ve got to remain in those things that will feed us well, and be ready for the necessary pruning of those things that aren’t going to provide any fruit.
Folks, as years pass by in our lives, can we see how we have been remaining close to Jesus for his feeding? Even as we get older, the source is still providing, and it is so necessary. The largest vine in the world is actually located in Hampton Court where the flower show happens every year. The longest rod or branch coming from it is 37 metres long. It’s now 250 years old and produces a crop of approximately 600 lbs of grapes even after all that time. Isn’t that a beautiful picture of ‘remaining’. Even though the branches are so long, it is still connected to the source which provides nutrition right throughout the vine. To remain is to stay there – that’s my hope for you and your families. God wants to nourish you throughout your life, but he needs your willingness to be fed. CS Lewis in Mere Christianity writes ‘Give me all of you!!! I don’t want so much of your time, so much of your talents and money, and so much of your work. I want YOU!!! ALL OF YOU!! I have not come to torment or frustrate the natural man or woman, but to KILL IT! No half measures will do. I don’t want to only prune a branch here and a branch there; rather I want the whole tree out! Hand it over to me, the whole outfit, all of your desires, all of your wants and wishes and dreams. Turn them ALL over to me, give yourself to me and I will make of you a new self—in my image. Give me yourself and in exchange I will give you Myself. My will, shall become your will. My heart, shall become your heart’.
Jesus is saying that God is going to bring things into your life that will make you uncomfortable so that you can be better – not just for you but also for those around you. He’s speaking to you in verse 5, “you do your own thing, if you think you can make decisions yourself, well think again, because without him you can do absolutely nothing”. Nothing will last, nothing will be truly pleasing, nothing will give you true peace – he is the true vine – he says you have incredible potential to bear much fruit. It isn’t until Jesus comes into your life, until you take a real stockcheck of your life, to realise that you may be connected to the wrong things. Maybe now is a good time to jot down the things that are going on in your life and ask the question what’s the fruit that you are producing. Maybe you are so concerned with what other people think of you – ask yourself what’s the fruit; or you’re so busy with work commitments that you don’t make time for God – ask yourself what’s the fruit; you’ve got all your money tied up for retirement – what’s the fruit. Consider whether you are connected to the wrong vine right now.
Folks all this really matters. COVID has brought such separation, distraction and change to us. It has tried to disconnect us from our fellowship together and our walk with God. And therefore we have got to oppose this disconnection. We have got to fight for our time with God every day. We’ve got to encourage those brothers & sisters who we haven’t seen in church to get them back if they are physically able. If we live without a proper connection with God we will simply not see that peace that we need. However, when we remain and stay connected with God we are walking strong, stable, and confident. God I believe is moving some of you into a new season where he wants to do a pruning in your life. He wants to lift some of you up so that you can produce new fruit. And for this new season we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). Who this week can you encourage to get back on track with God? What do you need to do in this week to turn off and silence any distractions in your life, to open yourself up to that pruning, so that the source of all goodness, Jesus, the true vine, can properly feed and nourish you, so that his joy may be in you for this new season and that your joy may be complete. May God bless you as he works afresh in you. Amen.