”I am the true vine, and my ABBA is the vinegrower. ABBA removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit is pruned 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 ABBA is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Last week we talked about the Good Shepherd... a metaphor of comfort, care, surety... Jesus loves us and nurtures us, guides and leads us, and provides everything we need to grow and flourish. Who doesn't love that? Now, a mere 5 chapters later in the Gospel of John we get another metaphor- uttered by the good shepherd himself- now calling himself the 'true vine'... "I am the vine," says Jesus, "you are the branches." And I can get with that... who doesn't want to be connected to the vine?
Yet, this is one of those passages that when read out of context, can cause fear to well up in the core of our being. It lends itself to our dualistic, either/or thinking that we like so much. And when we read this passage that way, which many of us have been taught to do, here's what happens. We begin by interpreting Jesus' words here as a command... "abide in me as i abide in you. 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 and thrown into the fire... O.M.G. And our black and white thinking takes over, we begin our evaluation of the self- of our behaviors, of our thoughts, of our spiritual growth... we all have a master list after all, of what good, healthy branches should or should not look like... we have a picture in our minds of what healthy branches think, how healthy branches pray, the quiet way in which they receive nourishment from the vine, the lushness of their leaves, the blossoming of flowers, gently intertwined with other healthy branches... all doing what they are supposed to be doing to stay connected... second nature really, to a healthy branch... and then, when the branch is mature enough... that branch bears fruit. And surely there is a time frame for all of that- x number of days since the branch has sprouted till leaves flourish, and then another x number till we flower, and then then another until that first fruit arrives... oh- and we have a number in our minds of exactly how many grapes should be growing on that healthy branch...(am I the only one in here who thinks this way?) So- we read the passage, we allow our dualistic mind to continue playing like this, and then start checking things off our perfection list... (cause only the perfect branches get to stay, right?) So, come on... "what have I done to warrant being left on the vine or what have I done or not done that could cause the vinegrower to come and chop me off the vine?" And, if you are a human being... you can find at least 5 things you've thought, done or left undone in the last 13 minutes to warrant visioning a huge pair of pruning shears coming at you right about here...SNIP! And the fire awaits!
Who then, can be saved?
If we see Jesus in the same way we see ourselves, then no one. None of us would last on the vine- in the words of the Apostle Paul- all fall short of the glory of God- All fall short... even the Apostle Paul. So what then is Jesus talking about? So let's take a look at the context:
First, the author of John is talking to a primarily Jewish audience, who have now adopted Jesus as the long awaited Messiah. The early church was facing persecution- they were being thrown out of the temple, disassociated from their communities of faith. In our modern world, we think, well, so what? They can go find another church. But to the ancient jews, living life in rich full community was salvation! Salvation had nothing to do with heaven or the afterlife. Being included in community was everything- it had been that way for centuries. In fact, if you did someting that would cause you to be separated from community, there was a system of atonement in place that would bring the offender back to community. That was the central aim, and the primary responsibility of God's people- to be a people who accepted included, and restored the fallen. But now, because of their faith in Christ, the Jewish believers were being cast away from the central theme of their faith. There was no restoration offered except to denounce Jesus as Lord.
Second-the nation of Israel had been called "the vine" since the the days of Isaiah. It was a metaphor for the Jews being at the root of God's restorative plan for the world. Here, to this cast out community, Jesus calls himself "the true vine." This is brand new thinking for an already fearful people who has seemingly lost their community- and surely brought the Jewish believers in Christ great comfort in a time of distress. They were still connected to the vine... and the vine was Christ.
"Abide in me, as I abide in you," says Jesus. "Eugene Peterson renders "abide" in verse 4 a little differently, but with the same meaning, as Jesus teaches his followers, "Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you" (The Message). Just as we need the air to breathe, so we need food and nourishment to live. We need shelter and community; we need a home. The early Christians, who had in a very real sense lost their spiritual homes and perhaps, along with them, their family ties and their physical homes, were undoubtedly comforted by this thought. " (1) Jesus was restoring them to community, and giving them a place of security and safety in Christ- the same Christ... the Good Shepherd...
And how does this happen? How can we know for sure that we are not going to be lopped off at any moment from the vine? Look back to verse 3-"You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you." You have already been cleansed... we are not just connected to the vine, little ones who like to see ourselves as very important branches, we are cleansed and primed for bearing fruit. You're ok! But make no mistake- there will be pruning.
Well, if not us, then what will be pruned? The parts of 'us' that are not bearing fruit. And here's the big reminder... Jesus is not speaking to individuals in this passage- he is speaking to the group of early christians who are worried that they have been cut off from Israel, the vine. Not individuals. So, the parts of our community of faith that are not fruit bearing, the parts of our community that are blocking us or hindering us from serving God with our whole hearts- the part of our community of faith that causes us to stay stagnant and not move forward, those parts will be pruned. And my friends this is anything and everything that stops us from becoming all that God has designed for us to be.
But here's the trick to understanding and being comforted in this- because I already see some of our most prominent list makers calculating what we might need to get rid of in order to live into a fruit laden future- WE DO NOT DO THE PRUNING- God Does. It is not up to us to keep the vine healthy by determining what stays and what goes- and while we can certainly look around the vineyard and as humans, make judgments about what we think may be beneficial to the life of the vine, but my goodness, I don't want to make those kind of decisions. And no kidding, I've been around long enough to notice- God works through the weirdest things! Things I may have thought should have been pruned years ago, God uses for glory. And some things that pained me greatly to see being pruned, have been the most beneficial to our growth and health.
“God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he (God) does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him (God); rather, his (God's) way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof. " (Bonhoeffer)
So then, what is our responsibility? What can we do to feel a part of the production of big juicy grapes hanging off our vine, church? Simple.... Abide in the vine. Live in God's grace. Trust that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Know that the vinegrower has planted us for a season, and that our branches are so intertwined that we, when we are living out true community, will not be able to tell where one ministry ends and another begins... know that we are vitally and intrinsically connected to one another- and that means all of us- everyone is included, everyone is accepted... and my friends if you think that's easy, think for a moment about your 'group." Come, on, you know, the group you hang with at church.... the friends you love and care about- the ones you check on, or come to church to connect with and chat with and have coffee with. And I'm not telling you to stop hanging with your group, just saying there may be some room to grow there... everyone is accepted... everyone is included...
And listen, we all have a way to go in learning how to live out life on the vine. But God never gives up on us... even when we are tempted to give up on ourselves. Where that comes from, that temptation to think that we are too far gone for God to leave us with us comes just from an over inflated sense of ego- of self centered ness- of focusing on me and what I do instead of looking at what God is doing. Back to Bonhoeffer:"Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he (God) confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he (God) aggravates our nature, our piety—that is where he (God) wants to be, and no one can keep him (God) from it. Only the humble believe him (God) and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
My friends, we serve a God who cherishes us, even at our lowest. Because even at our lowest, we are cleansed- perfected, and loved by the vinegrower... There is no fear in that. in 1 John 4 it says, "17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, (meaning no fear of being pruned) because as Christ is, so are we in this world.18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us.
And one final thought... if you happen to be, like many of us, still fearful, and now you are thinking, gosh I must not be loving right because i still have fear, know this. (and these are not my words by the words of Paul: And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6 NLT In other words, dont worry about getting everything right. Jesus has your back. Just open your heart to the possibility that you are fully accepted, included, and loved and let God do the rest.