Knaphill Methodist Church is exploring John chapters 14 to 16 between Easter and Pentecost. These chapters contain teaching by Jesus about the transition from his time with his disciples on earth to the era after his ascension when the Spirit has come. This weekend I get to preach on the first half of chapter 15, the famous ‘I Am’ saying about the vine.
On the morning that Mum died in February, my sister and I offered to contact all the people who needed to know quickly. We discovered that Mum and Dad had kept two different address books. One seemed to be more current than the other. How did they stay in touch with old friends when they had moved house? Letter-writing and phone calls.
One reason Debbie and I use a service like Facebook is also stay connected with friends when we move from one circuit to another. We know it isn’t the same as seeing people face to face, but then letters and phone calls don’t give you that, either. But at least we can remain in contact. Lately it has involved keeping up to date with news about the ill health of friends’ children, and the speed of the Internet enables us to keep up to date and pray in an informed way.
All of this, then, is about that basic question: how do you keep in touch with someone after you part from them? We know the promises to write to people we met on holiday that rarely last, but when we’re dealing with people we’ve known for a considerable time, or people who have been a major influence upon us, then usually we are motivated to keep in communication with them.
Something like that is happening in John chapter 15, and indeed in chapters 14 to 16 generally. Jesus will be going to the Father, not only in his death but later in his ascension. This is about how Jesus and his disciples stay in active fellowship with each other after he has gone. However, rather than come up with an elaborate mechanism for communication – be it the Royal Mail, the telephone, or the Internet – Jesus instead deploys an extended metaphor. It’s a metaphor that would resonate with his Jewish followers. For hundreds of years, the prophets had compared Israel to a vineyard, and Jesus deploys that image, adding his own twists to it, in order to show what a healthy relationship between God and the people of his Messiah would look like after that same Messiah had returned to heaven.
The metaphor runs in three parts, depicting Jesus, his Father, and the disciples.
Firstly, Jesus is the Vine. From Isaiah 5 and other texts, the vine was a prophetic image of Israel. God’s people were his vine. He longed to make beautiful wine from them, but tragically the prophets often used this image to make the point that Israel did not live up to her calling as the holy people of God.
Now, Jesus claims, by calling himself ‘the true vine’ (verse 1), to be the true Israel, the true model of the people of God. It isn’t something that is solely claimed in this New Testament verse: it is something that is implied elsewhere in the Gospels. It comes in that common title for Jesus of ‘Son of God’. Although we use that much of the time to designate his divinity (and we use ‘Son of Man’ to stress his humanity), these two titles actually belong the other way round. ‘Son of God’ is an Old Testament title that was originally used of Israel – it’s a way of marking out the special identity of God’s people. ‘Son of Man’ was in places such as Daniel 7 a divine title.
So if Jesus is ‘the true vine’ (or, elsewhere, the ‘Son of God’), he is claiming to be the true people of God. God’s people Israel had failed him persistently over the centuries, and even when Jesus instituted the church, that failure would continue in many shameful and pathetic ways. Effectively, Jesus says, if you want a model for how to be the people of God, then remember me. Imitate me. Look out for my example, and seek to copy it. I show you what the people of God are truly meant to look like.
Or, to put it another way, although the branches are not themselves the vine, the branches are to imitate the vine. There is an ancient doctrine in Christianity that true holiness is found in imitating Christ. Some say it goes back to great teachers of the Church such as Thomas à Kempis six hundred years ago, but its basis comes from the Jewish rabbis. When they selected bright young men to be their disciples, they encouraged their followers to imitate every part of their lives. And I do mean every part.
So when Jesus acts like a rabbi and calls young men to be his disciples with the famous words, “Follow me,” he is not just urging them to follow him geographically wherever he travels. He is calling them to imitate his whole way of life.
And that, implicitly, is the challenge here. If Jesus is the true vine, then he is showing truly how the people of God are meant to be. We are called to be his disciples, his imitators.
Wait a minute, though – that’s daunting, if not impossible, isn’t it? Which one of us can imitate the life of Christ? Not me, for a start. Can any of you? Anyone at all?
If this is our reaction, then there is good news, and it comes in the second part of the metaphor, when Jesus says, ‘my Father is the gardener’ (verse 1). The imitation of Christ is not something we are left to do on our own. In our own power we cannot achieve it. God knows this, and does not leave us alone to attain the impossible.
Rather, God is at work in us. He is the gardener who cuts off the fruitless branches (those who are not staying in vital connection with Christ) and prunes the fruitful branches to make them more fruitful in the future (verse 2).
Put like that, it all sounds rather painful. Who wants to be pruned? Our modern pruning shears can be quite vicious implements: imagine what the equivalent first century tools were like, then.
But, again, hold on. The matter is illuminated by knowing the name of God. And God’s name is … George.
I’m being irreverent, aren’t I, to say that God’s name is George? Actually, I am being half-serious. Only half-serious, I should add. The word translated ‘gardener’ (or ‘farmer’ in some translations) is the Greek word from which we get the name ‘George’, namely georgos. And what does Georgos do to make his cherished vine grow? He goes in for a spot of kathairo, which is the word translated ‘to prune’ here.
Except it can also mean ‘to clean’. So which is it here, pruning or cleaning? The context tells us in the next verse:
You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (Verse 3)
God cleans us up by the word of Jesus. God knows we are dirty, and that we look nothing like Jesus. Few people would mistake us for him, sadly. So he cleans us up in a number of ways, as he speaks to us through the gospel message of Jesus.
It begins with the word of forgiveness. God’s word, promising the forgiveness of our sins through the Cross of Christ, sets us free from condemnation and cleans us with the knowledge that God’s grace accepts us in Christ.
Then it is Christ’s word, calling us to follow him, that empowers us to walk in his ways. We do not seek to do this alone, but in response to him and dependent upon his power through the Holy Spirit. Slowly, the family likeness develops. We begin to show signs of imitating Christ, as we know we are loved, forgiven and empowered – all of them gifts of God.
This, then, is the good news: Jesus says, ‘Be my disciple, and therefore imitate me,’ but we cannot. Yet there is grace in the word of forgiveness and the word of transforming power. What Christ calls us to do, the Father by the Spirit enables us to do.
But what does imitating Christ with the help and power of God look like? Some of you have heard me tell a story how when our son Mark was born, one of the worshippers in the church where Debbie based herself said to me, “Don’t you ever take out a paternity suit against Debbie over Mark, because the judge will take one look at him, then one look at you, and laugh the lawsuit out of court!” You cannot mistake that Mark and I are son and father. He may not have the glasses yet, but I didn’t until I was eleven, and even the red hair comes from my own Dad’s family. He has inherited his love of Maths from me. There are similarities in our temperaments.
There are, then, certain specific ways in which Mark takes after me. And the third part of the metaphor, ‘You are the branches’, looks at some particular ways in which Jesus calls us to imitate him.
From the outset, before Jesus gives the examples, he continues to emphasise that this isn’t something we can do on our own. He calls us to remain in him (verses 4, 5). It requires a vital relationship with Christ so that we can hear his word and receive his power in order to do his will. Any professing Christian who sets out to do great things for the kingdom of God while putting all the emphasis on their deeds and none on the devotional life of prayer, Scripture, fellowship, the sacraments, worship and so on is as deluded as the car driver who thinks it’s unimportant to fill up with petrol, all you need to do is drive.
So that remains the foundation. The very specific things we are called to do are all based on what we receive from God. And to receive the word and power of God, we need to take some responsibility for putting ourselves in a place where we can receive, which means nurturing our relationship with Christ.
But what are the specific examples? Well, Jesus seems to circle around, gradually getting closer. Having talked about his and the Father’s love for his followers, Jesus calls them to remain in his love by obeying his commands (verse 10). What commands? Ah, now comes the specific:
My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (Verses 12-13)
You want to imitate Jesus? It’s simple. Love. You have received love, now give love. If we want the world to see living, breathing imitations of Jesus, then the church needs to be a community of love. The Methodist Church is stressing something like that in a national campaign at present. It’s called ‘A Generous Life’. It dwells on just how unbelievably generous God has been to all of us. How can we not respond generously in all areas of our lives? Yes, it’s about generosity with our money. But it’s also about being generous with our time, generous to God in our worship, generous in evangelism and outreach, and so on. This is what God’s gracious word, deed and power enables us to do.
Let’s return to where we began, and answer our original question: how do we keep in touch with the risen and ascended Lord? We imitate him, especially his love. We can do that, because God speaks forgiveness to us and empowers us by the Spirit. We access that by maintaining the lines of communication with God. And we live it out.
So – no more poison comments against other members of the church. No more cliques. No more judgmentalism. No more superiority complexes. Just love. Jesus-shaped love.
As Thomas à Kempis, who I mentioned earlier, put it in his classic book The Imitation Of Christ,
At the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done.