When Melanie and I bought our home, we were very fortunate to buy a home with good landscaping in the front yard. The previous owners had planted bushes and plants that really make the front of the house appealing.
One thing I discovered during the first and subsequent summers is that this landscaping in the front will grow automatically every year and bloom. The problem though, is that along with the bushes and plants, we have a lot of random unwanted trees that will grow up as well. We also will get quite a covering on weeds, some of which can grow quite tall.
It is amazing how fast these things grow. This summer, I weeded this area in the early summer and then I did not tend to it for a couple on months. The other day I was walking in the front door from the sidewalk and noticed that weeds and trees of overtaken the beauty of the landscape while I was "not paying attention to it."
In the second section or sermon in the "Farewell Discourses" Jesus begins his "words of wisdom" by using the analogy of a vine, its branches, and the gardener who tends the vineyard as way of showing the importance of maintaining our connection with Jesus. In Jesus' day, vines were very important and normally refer in Scripture to grapevines. Grapes were eaten fresh, made to produce wine, or made into raisins. These grapes, in some ways, were the backbone of the agricultural economy and the Jews relied heavily on its produce.
It is no wonder that many of the Old Testament writers used a vineyard and the image of vines to depict God and Israel. In Psalm 80, the psalmist refers to Israel as being the vine that God brought out of Egypt and planted. The Psalmist then prays that God would watch over the vine because it has been uprooted. Isaiah compares Israel to a vineyard that God planted, but then the vineyard did not produce fruit. Likewise, Jeremiah says that God planted Israel like a choice vine, but they grew wild.
In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples,
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Jesus declares, "I am the true Vine and that his father is the gardener. While the gardener remains the same, Jesus has now taken on the role of Israel. Jesus continues on with the metaphor that the disciples are the branches. If the braches are like Israel and do not bear fruit, they are cut down, but those who do bear fruit will be pruned so that they will produce more fruit.
Notice also that Jesus uses the phase "I am the vine" twice, once in verse 1 and then again in verse 5. In the first four verses, Jesus is speaking of his relationship with the Father. Beginning in verse 5 he is speaking about his relationship with the disciples. There is a nice progression in this text as it relates to the two parts:
- Jesus is the vine (15:1)
- Father is the Gardner (15:1)
- Disciples are the branches(15:5)
- The father prunes the branches that are bearing fruit and throws the branches away that are not (15:2)
- In order to be a branch that bears fruit, disciples must abide or remain in Jesus (15:4)
- If we abide in Jesus, we can ask whatever we want in Jesus name and it will be given (15:7)
- Jesus chose us so that we would bear fruit (15:16)
- Goal of bearing fruit is to love one another, which is grounded in Jesus love for us. (15:17 with context from 15:12-15)
In order to understand the words of wisdom Jesus was giving the disciples, it is important to keep in mind, that while the Gospel of John on the whole is written for "evangelism", this material is written for those who are currently Jesus' followers. He is giving them "words of wisdom" so that they will be able to better follow him. So, what does he suggest?
Me and God, More than Just Two Peas in a Pod
Josh Turner, a country music artist, has a song called, Me and God. The lyric express what I think is one of the greatest problems in the church today. It says,
There ain't nothing that can't be done
By me and God
Ain't nobody come in between me and God
One day we'll live together
Where the angels trod
Me and God
Early in the morning talking it over
Me and God
Late at night talking it over
Me and God
You could say where like two peas in a pod
Me and God
He's my Father
He's my friend
And the end
He rules the world
With a staff and rod
We're a team
Me and God
Josh Turner is expressing that he and God are close friends. He would say that he "abides in Jesus." The problem though, is that this song makes discipleship an individual experience. It is about each person abiding in Jesus. While it is true salvation is dependant on each person making a decision to "abide", Jesus reminds us with this image that faith, in the words of Jim Wallis is "always personal, but never private."
The word "remain" or "abide" is mentioned eleven times in the first 11 verses. The Greek word for "abide" is meno which literally means "to stay somewhere or remain." Jesus is literally saying that the disciples must remain in him. Each disciple is challenged to "abide" in Jesus and as a result will bear fruit.
The concept of the Vine and the branches means also that we are all committing to Jesus together. We are not the isolated branch on the Vine. When we commit to following Jesus, we are committing to be a part of the body of Christ, the church. We are one of many branches on that remains connected to the vine. Michael Slaughter says in best it his book, Spiritual Entrepreneurs
When I accepted Jesus as Lord of my life, I was born into his Body (The Vine), the Church. You cannot commit your life to Jesus and not become an active part of the Body. The Church is the living presence of Christ in the world. To be committed to Christ is to be connected and functioning with his people.
After all, the goal which Jesus says in verse 17 that he hopes people will achieve is that "they love one another." While we like to think that it is just "me and God, this text opens our eyes to see that abiding in Jesus is about a community of faith.
Weeding our Spiritual Garden
In the apocrypha, which is the section of the Bible that Catholics still use and Protestants have stop using, there is book called Sirach. It is written by a Jewish teacher nicknamed Ben Sira in about 180BC. Ben Sira wrote down his teachings in a time when Jerusalem was becoming Hellenized. In other words, Greek teaching and culture was on the increase and many Jews began to abandon their own faith in exchange for Modern Greek thought.
Ben Sira taught that the wisdom of God as found in the Jewish teachings was still superior to the Greek influence Jerusalem was experiencing. In this book, he compares God's wisdom to a Vine. He says,
Like the vine I (Wisdom) bud forth delights, and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit. Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits. For the memory of me is sweeter than honey, and the possession of me sweeter than honeycomb. (Grapes could be used to make a very sweet honey when boiled down) Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more. Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame, and those who work with me will not sin.
Imagine for a moment, that Jesus has these verses in mind as he gave this sermon. If he is the vine or the source of wisdom, he is asking his disciples to abide in him, the source of wisdom so that we can be filled and satisfied. The question he is addressing is this: How can his disciples remain faithful to him? The answer: Abide in me, the source of knowledge. Jesus is then the source of our nourishment.
In the book Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald compares our spiritual lives to a garden. He says,
This garden is the place where the Spirit of God comes to make self-disclosure, to share wisdom, to give affirmation or rebuke, to provide encouragement, and to give direction and guidance. When this garden is in proper order, it is a quite place, and there is absence of busyness, of defiling noise and confusion.
The garden is the place where God shares his wisdom with us. Just like abiding in Jesus allows us to be nourished, coming to the garden gives us the opportunity to experience God's guidance and direction. When this happens, we grow fruit.
While this is true, MacDonald also points out that when we neglect the garden, we find our lives to be "overrun" and lacking in spiritual nourishment. When we neglect to "abide" in the vine who supplies our nourishment we will find that we will grow tired and dried up. We then become dead and we are uprooted and useless.
Pruned, Not Burned
Last spring we noticed that two of our dogwood trees stop blooming. It was pretty sad and depressing to see no flowers. We did notice though, that a few branches in one remained green, it just did not have any flowers in it. One of the trees was so undernourished, that I was able to actually pull it up out of the ground.
We decided to try and save the second tree with the green leaves and no flowers. During the fall, my dad and I climbed up this tree with an electric chain saw and cut out all the dead branches. The tree looked so funny (it still does) as we cut about 75% of the branches out. However, this last spring, the few branches that were left not only turned green, but were covered in white flowers. They were actually better looking than the other three dogwoods. It made me wonder what would have happened if we had cut the branches out sooner, before so many of them died.
Sometime Jesus' language is difficult, especially when he begins to say things like "when you don't bear fruit, you will be gathered up and thrown in the fire." It is especially difficult when we realize that he is not talking to those people who are not followers. He is talking to his disciples whom he has already said "have been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you." (Verse 3) Jesus is saying that it is possible for those who have been cleansed, to stop remaining in Jesus, thus meaning that they fail to produce fruit, and then for them to be uprooted and burned.
Of coarse Jesus is using metaphorical language of what would happen to branches on a vine that did not bear fruit. If we were to take this a step further, we could conclude that there is pruning and burning of things in each one of our lives that do not bear fruit. When we are faithful to remain in Jesus, the source of nourishment and strength, we are able to see the places in our lives that need pruning so that we can bear more fruit.
On the other hand, if we fail to remain in Jesus and lack nourishment and wisdom, we will fail to see the places in our lives that need to be pruned back, which causes us to wither away. When this happens, the only thing that can be done it to throw it away in hopes of saving the rest.
I think Jesus' last words of wisdom for us would be that we take a look at our own lives by abiding in his wisdom and see what things need to be pruned back so that we can bear more fruit. Maybe there are lots of dead places that need to be cut out so that we can bear fruit for God. Only when we abide in him, with prayer, study, worship, service, etc will we be able to find the nourishment we need and the wisdom to move forward in our faith.