I remember our first attempt at gardening. We dug up a little plot of ground and borrowed a neighbor’s rototiller and got the soil ready to plant. And then we went to Gibsons (that was before anybody had heard of WalMart) and we bought seed packets of squash and zucchini and okra and three little tomato plants. We planted them and made sure they were at exactly the depth the seed packet said, and we watered them and fertilized them and then waited. Every evening we would go out to check the progress of our precious plants, and when those first green sprouts started to poke through the ground and those first blossoms came on the tomato plants we were so excited – we could almost taste those fresh vegetables. I guess we got a little peek into how God feels about seeing the fruit show up in our lives.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will 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.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
In the seventh and last of Jesus’ I AM statements he says “I am the true vine.”
Let’s go back for just a minute to be reminded of the significance of the I AM statements. When Jesus says “I am,” it is not just an expression of identity. I might say, “I am a minister,” or “I am a husband and father and grandfather.” They tell you about something I do or some part of my identity. But when Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” or “I am the good shepherd” he is revealing some crucial aspect of his nature that helps us understand what God looks like. Even more than that, when Jesus said, “I am…” it evoked a powerful image to those who heard it, because as he spoke those words in Hebrew, they were the same words God spoke to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3, when Moses asked God, “Who shall I say sent me?” and God replies, “Tell them I AM sent you.” It was God’s name: Yahweh, I AM. Jesus said, “Yahweh, the true vine.”
And as with so many of these I AM statements, they point to Jesus as the source of life: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life. As Jesus says, “I am the vine,” it points to him as the most fundamental source of life. If we are connected to him, he provides everything we need for growth and health. If we are disconnected, we are cut off from all nutrients and sustenance. Connected to him we have life, cut off from him leads to death.
Jesus’ imagery of the vine runs deep in the Hebrew scriptures. Isaiah and Ezekiel and Hosea all speak of Israel as God’s precious vineyard which he cares for and watches over, but when the harvest comes, they produce only bad fruit and sour grapes, and keep for themselves the fruit they produce. It is an indictment of Israel’s faithlessness and rejection of God. It’s not always a pretty picture. Isaiah begins with this beautiful image of a faithful gardener who pours himself into his vineyard, but the fruit is bad; a faithful God who pours himself into his people and their actions are faithless and ungodly. Isaiah writes: I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit…. The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:1-2,7)
Some of you know how hard it is being a gardener when you pour your time and energy into caring for a garden and the results are disappointing. Your first inclination is to plow it under and take up something less stressful, like golf. But God’s faithfulness causes him to keep working the vineyard, pruning and nurturing the vines, hoping that they will finally produce the harvest of righteousness. And aren’t you glad that God is more patient than you or me?
As Jesus takes this vineyard imagery, he uses it in a couple of different way. First, he uses it in the same way the OT writers did. God is the gardener. He is the owner of the vineyard and he cares for it. He works the soil, he plants the vines, he tends the branches, he harvests the fruit. But then Jesus personalizes it. The Father is still the gardener, but Jesus himself is the vine to which every branch is connected. He is the vine whose roots draw the moisture and the nutrients and pass them on to the branches and leaves and fruit.
And it’s interesting, in his I am statements, that Jesus always makes it obvious how we’re supposed to respond. If he is the living water, we are supposed to drink; if he is the bread of life, we’re supposed to eat; if he is the way, we are supposed to follow. They are all fairly active – there is something for us to do. But when Jesus is the vine, what is it that we are supposed to do? Remain in him, stay connected, literally, hang in there.
Remaining is totally dependent. The branch doesn’t one day take off on its own and become its own vine and start its own vineyard. When we are a branch connected to Jesus, the true vine, we will always stay connected to him and depend on him for our spiritual life.
Now, to a lot of us, that doesn’t sound like much to do. Just remain. That doesn’t get us going, it doesn’t send us out evangelizing, it doesn’t even sound like much of a verb at all – remain. But that is the imperative here. I’ve heard this text preached many times and it has always been with the focus on bearing fruit. If you’re not bearing fruit, you need to start working harder, you need to start bringing people to the Lord. Bear fruit or you’ll burn in hell.
But I’m here to tell you this morning, that the imperative is to remain in Jesus – stay connected to him and the fruit will come. But… you need to remain.
You and I are the branches that are connected to Jesus, the true vine. And Jesus speaks to us this morning in the picture of this relationship between a grape vine and its branches.
Now, the people to whom Jesus was speaking were farmers or connected to agriculture and the land. They understood the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep, where as we might miss some of the nuances. But you don’t have to be a botanist to understand the implications of what it means to be a branch connected to the vine.
In order to remain connected to the vine, you need to let his life flow into you and through you. That means you must spend time with him, listening to him, talking with him. You will spend time with him in his Word, you will constantly be connected to him in prayer. Those are the flow of nutrients.
Have you ever grown something that was a vine? Melons or squash or tomatoes, and the vine gets a kink in it. It’s underneath all the foliage so you don’t notice it at first, but part of the plant starts to turn brown and die, the fruit starts to shrivel up and shrink. That’s what happens when the flow of nutrients is blocked.
It was always frustrating with squash to have the plant look strong and healthy and all of a sudden the squash would start to stunt and shrivel and then the vine would start to collapse and we would cut the vine and find squash bugs had bored their way into the vine and were eating it from the inside out. Sin will stop the flow of nutrients and cause your spiritual life to shrivel and die. That doesn’t mean you will ever become sinless, but you need to deal with sin and confess it and let the Holy Spirit deal with those issues in your life that block the flow of nutrients and keep you from being healthy and strong.
The other thing that makes us strong and healthy is pruning. God is the gardener. And as he walks through his vineyard he sees branches that are all foliage and no fruit. So he snips them back and pinches off unproductive shoots and gets rid of those parts that are keeping the whole from producing fruit.
Pruning is the most counter-intuitive thing I’ve ever done. I always thought, if it’s growing leave it alone. But I’ve learned that if you know what you’re doing, that cutting back branches and pruning out the dead wood makes the plant healthier and more productive. And though it is a painful process, there are times we need to let the Holy Spirit prune some areas of our lives that are keeping us from being as productive as God wants us to be. Ultimately, the purpose for the vine is fruit. If you have a beautiful vegetable garden – green and lush – but none of the plants ever produce vegetables, something’s missing.
God created you to bear fruit. Now understand, he’s not standing over you with the threat of hell if you don’t start producing. But if you are planted by God, and you are growing in the Spirit, you will produce fruit. It is an inevitable outcome. But what is the fruit that God created us to bear? Let’s listen to the next words of Jesus:
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:9-17)
Love is the fruit we will produce if we are intimately connected to Jesus. We cannot help but love people if Jesus’ love is flowing into us and through us. We will be the conduits of his love. He comes back to what he said in chapter 13: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
When Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit, he began by saying, “The fruit of the Spirit is love.” And some suggest that those qualities that follow – joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. – are descriptive of what that love looks like. And a few verses earlier there in Ephesians 5, Paul wrote, Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth). Love shows up in the way we treat others.
If you are connected to the vine, then you are also intimately connected to the other branches that are connected to the vine. And the nutrients that flow through the vine to you, flow on through to others. You don’t store it up and horde it for yourself, you pass it on to others and help them to grow stronger and bear fruit, as well.
Are you starting to get the idea that for Jesus, the one quality that defines us is love? And if we do not love, we are not following Jesus, and we are not remaining in Jesus, and we are not bearing the fruit that identifies us as his.
And here in John 15, Jesus tells his disciples that the one dynamic aspect of love that makes it uniquely God’s love is that it lays down its life for its friends.
Jesus tells his disciples, I no longer call you servants, (though we are his servants – that is our core identity, but not just servants). Instead, I have called you friends.
He invites us into the inner sanctum of this relationship between himself and the Father: “…for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
In John 17, Jesus will pray, “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us.”
That is such a significant difference in this relationship. If you feel like just a servant – ordered to do this or that, bound by duty, kept in line by fear of punishment, kept at arms-length – you will always feel distant and disconnected. But Jesus says “I have called you friends.” We are invited into an intimate relationship where we know him and he knows us. That’s what friendships are about. And Jesus says that the core of this friendship is that we lay down our lives for each other. He laid down his life for us, and we are to lay down our lives for each other.
That will probably be the most difficult demand you will ever have to follow. Most of us are, at our core, selfish. When it comes down to it, we will choose ourselves over others. But when Jesus says you must lay down your life for your friend, he’s not necessarily talking about dying for someone, he’s talking about putting them first – their needs ahead of yours. Choosing them over you. I hope that kind of love already characterizes your relationship with your husband or wife, with your children. But if you are truly going to be a friend to others, it means laying down your life for them.
And then Jesus brings it back around to our purpose, bearing fruit: You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.
It’s an amazing thought: to be chosen by Jesus. You might think you chose him, and you did. But long before you ever thought about following Jesus, he chose you. He knew your name, he created you to be his, he went to the cross for you. Before the creation of the world, he knew you and thought about what you would bring to the world. And he said, “I can hardly wait for my friend to arrive.”
In order to be what God called you to be, do what God created you to do: remain in Jesus and love each other.