I made one very tired mistake in the video below: I forgot to set my camera to eye autofocus, and so at points I go out of focus during the video. Of course, you may prefer me that way!
Last week we thought about one of the seven ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel, namely, ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’ This week we think about another one: ‘I am the Vine.’
We need to carry over two things from last week. The first is to remember that this very emphatic way of saying ‘I am’ indicates a claim by Jesus to divinity, reminiscent of God calling himself ‘I am who I am’ to Moses at the burning bush.
The second thing we need to carry over is to look to the Old Testament for some background to the title. So just as we looked at the title of ‘Shepherd’ last week, we must now look at ‘Vine’, and the obvious place to go is Isaiah 5:1-7, where the prophet describes Israel as like a vineyard. However, it’s a bad vineyard, and is symbolic of God’s people being persistently and seriously disobedient to God through their disregard for justice. God promises to withdraw the vineyard’s protective hedge and leave it to decay and destruction.
A new vineyard is needed. That’s what Jesus claims to be here in today’s passage. This is yet another New Testament passage where Jesus claims to be the True Israel, fulfilling everything that Israel should have done but didn’t.
And with Jesus’ disciples being the branches, Jesus says that the vineyard is now constituted differently, not on the basis of observing Torah, but on the basis of union with him.
Now we often say that all metaphors are limited, and one of the limitations here is that Jesus doesn’t describe how we become branches of the vine. There’s nothing obvious here about salvation by grace through faith, for example. We conclude that’s not the purpose of Jesus choosing this image.
Instead, Jesus seems to talk about what it takes to remain one of the branches. His Father is the gardener (verse 1). In the Apocrypha, the literature between the Old and New Testaments that our Catholic friends recognise as Scripture but we don’t,
The state of a tree’s fruit … was said to attest how well the farmer … had cared for it (Sir 27:6), reinforcing the importance of a gardener’s care for it.[i]
So, if you like, God’s reputation is at stake here! But he trusts that reputation to our behaviour – a very chancy thing, you may well think. It’s something that came home in a distressingly powerful way to me this last week when reports began to appear online that alleged the long-deceased headmaster of my old secondary school was a paedophile. You see, it was a Church of England school, and one of the alleged victims said that this behaviour pushed him towards atheism.
God’s reputation is at stake according to the conduct of his people.
So we need to give careful attention to our relationship with Christ.
A couple of things strike me about that in the reading.
The first is that we have a choice between being pruned and being cut off. Both sound painful. There is no choice that involves the avoidance of pain. It’s rather as I heard Adrian Plass put it some years ago:
Life is a choice between doing what you don’t want to do and doing what you really don’t want to do.
What’s the difference between being pruned and being cut off? Pruning took place in late Spring: the tendrils of the vine were clipped back to allow the fruit to grow. The idea was to get the vine to put all its energy into producing fruit.[ii]
Being cut off was much worse. This was when branches that would no longer produce fruit were removed to leave space for new ones that would.
I’m sure you can see some spiritual parallels here. God the Father is determined that the church of his Son Jesus be spiritually fruitful in what it does. If we share that concern (and if not, why not?) then we shall be wiling to submit to his pruning, removing those things from our lives individually and together that get in the way of fruit growing.
What might God prune from our lives if we are willing to let him work in us so that we are fruitful? I suspect it would include all those frivolous and shallow things on which we spend our time. How many of us are just not getting down to serious prayer and spiritual reading because we are filling our time with trashy magazines, Internet gossip, and maybe worse things? Or maybe he’s calling us to put aside something good in favour of what is better?
Are we aware of God wanting to prune us of the things that stop us going deeper with him?
And then what about the cutting off? How many of us have not only become unfruitful, we have also managed to get ourselves in the way of those promising branches that could become fruitful?
How might that happen? Do we dominate church life at the expense of those who want to move forward spiritually? Have we belittled the passion of those who want to press on with Christ?
Look at how few of us take our devotional life seriously, to the point that some surveys show many Christians only interact with the Bible on a Sunday morning, and when we talk about what we believe, it’s utterly infused with the values of the world rather than the Gospel.
In these cases, God has every right to look at his church and say, the situation is so serious that I shall have to get some people out of the way if the church is to have any hope.
Pray God that we shall not give him reason to consider us. Pray God instead that we accept his pruning.
The second strand of Jesus’ thought I wanted to pick up on is connected with this and is all the language about remaining – us remaining in Christ and Christ remaining in us.
The late Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, The Message, paraphrases this language as a call to make our home in Jesus just as he does in us, or to be joined to him in an intimate and organic relationship.
I wonder what it means to be at home with Jesus? Surely it sounds like the sort of relationship where we are comfortable with him – as a Person, and in what he says and what he does. It’s not just a distant admiration for a great man: it’s such a desire for him that we want to draw close to him and even imitate him.
So yes, this begins with all the sorts of things I regularly bang on about: the importance of personal Bible reading and prayer, and all the other spiritual disciplines.
But that’s only where it begins. If it stops there it won’t be enough for us to remain in Christ. I have known avid Bible readers who have also been avid back stabbers.
It was the twentieth century American saint A W Tozer who captured the spirit of what I’m trying to say here in these words of his:
The driver on the highway is safe not when he reads the signs, but when he obeys them.[iii]
When we not only listen to Jesus but put into practice what he says, then what do we think the result will be? Answer: spiritual fruitfulness.
Alternatively, when we hear the words of Jesus (and most of us have heard them regularly for years) but do nothing about them, what is the logical conclusion? The answer, surely, is the predominantly fruitless church that we have today. God is determined to have a fruitful vine,, not one he has to leave to rack and ruin again. Will we draw close to him in listening and in obedience so that he makes us fruitful for him? Or will we be so casual in our faith that in the end he says, these people are getting in the way, I must remove them so that I can use newer and younger branches?
[i] Craig S Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2, p994.