>The following was preached at Emmanuel UMC on 3/02/08.

John 15:1-9
1″I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He 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. 3You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain 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. 5″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. 6If 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. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

Jesus begins with a bold proclamation, “I am the true vine.” Doesn’t sound very bold does it? I mean, what is the big deal? “I am the true vine.” There’s nothing shocking, or amazing, or controversial about that statement, or is there? What is behind the words that Jesus is saying here that would make it such a bold proclamation?

Here I go again, giving Greek grammar lessons, but a Greek verb includes the subject of that verb. You can look at a Greek verb and know whether it is in the first, second or third person. Now, when a verb is in the first or second person, you pretty well know who the subject is – “I, me, we, us” (first person) or “you, y’all” (second person). And, as a side note, “Y’all” is good Greek grammar. Now, what Jesus does here is include the first person pronoun “I” with the first person verb. In other words, a strict, literal interpretation of what Jesus is saying here would read, “I, I am true vine.” Jesus uses this form in other places in the Gospel of John, perhaps you’ve heard of them – I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth and the life; before Abraham was, I am. After that last statement, people picked up rocks and were getting ready to stone Jesus for his blasphemy. What is so controversial about those two little words that people would be ready to stone Jesus?

We are going to have to go back a few pages to Exodus 3, to understand what is going on here. You see, in Exodus 3, Moses meets Yahweh in the burning bush. And Moses is trying to come up with all sorts of ways to get out of going back to Egypt. Moses anticipates the people not believing him and wants to know who he should say sent him. And God responds by telling Moses to say that I AM has sent him. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this is using those same two words that Jesus uses all throughout John. Ego, which means “I” and eimi, which means “I am.” Jesus knew what he was doing when he put those two words together, and so did everyone else. Now, as if that wasn’t enough, Jesus throws on another major word that carries with it all sorts of baggage – “vine.”

You see, in the Old Testament, Israel is described as a vine. Psalm 80:8-11 talks about how God brought a vine out of Egypt, planted it and cared for it. Hosea 10:1 talks about Israel being a spreading vine that was fruitful at first, but was deceitful and turned away from the Lord. Jeremiah 2:21 talks about how the vine has “turned degenerate and became a wild vine.” And if there was any question whatsoever, Isaiah 5:7 explicitly says that “the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.” The vine was a symbol of the nation of Israel. It was on coins during the Maccabean period. There was an expensive wire work vine that was made of gold and silver adorning the entrance of the Temple in the first century. Israel was the vine. Everybody knew that! Yet Jesus says, “I am the true vine.”

Jesus then goes on to say that the Father is the vinedresser, or gardener, or farmer, depending on the version that you’re reading. You see, the Father is the one that takes care of the vine and ensures that the branches are producing fruit. The Father, as the vinedresser, does two important functions. First, he takes away the branches that do not produce fruit. Second, he prunes the ones that do produce, so they can bear more fruit. From what I have picked up on vine dressing in the past week, these are both important functions that serve a similar end. In both instances, the cutting is done to facilitate growth. It is done for the improvement of the overall health of the plant. It helps to channel the nourishment to the places that need it the most. Dead and diseased branches hurt the overall health of the plant and need to be appropriately addressed for the betterment of the whole. This is why it is so important for a branch to stay connected to the vine and to produce the fruit of the vine.

If there was any question about what Jesus was talking about here, he clears it up pretty well in verse 5. “I am the vine; you are the branches.” Those who are disciples of Jesus Christ are the branches. Let’s look at the broader context to see what’s really going on here. Just two chapters ago, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet – all twelve disciples. They have their meal and Jesus says that one of them will betray him on that night. By the time, the conversation in John 15 takes places, Judas is gone. Jesus knew what he was doing. Judas is an example of the branch that is not producing fruit. As you probably well know, later on in this night, Judas betrays Jesus and hands him over to the authorities. Jesus knew about the branch that wasn’t producing fruit, and it was only a matter of time before the other disciples knew about it as well.
Now, it’s important to realize that this is not just a one time event. What Jesus has to say here doesn’t end with the disciples. The principle carries on to all of his disciples, even to those who are to be his disciples today. It is a call to live out the Christian life, to show the fruitfulness of a life in Christ, not just on Sunday mornings, but from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night. Living the Christian life is not about showing up for church service, it’s about what you do between church services. So, how do we do it? How do we live the Christian life in the hours that we aren’t in this building for a worship service?

There’s an important word that is used repeatedly in this chapter that is key to understanding how this is done. That word means “to remain, to abide.” Now, I don’t know if you knew this about me, but I am a huge baseball fan, and as with many huge baseball fans, I’m fascinated by the numbers. So bear with me for a minute. The Greek word that is translated as “to remain, to abide” is used 118 times in the New Testament. 68 of those 118 occurrences are in John’s writings (the gospel; 1, 2, 3 John, and Revelation) (58%). 40 of those 68 are in the Gospel of John (59%). 10 of those 40 occurrences are in John 15:1-10. So, yes, right here in John 15, we see one-quarter of the 59% of the 58% of the times that the word is used. What does that mean? Well, besides the fact that I wasted 5 minutes this week, it means that there is a heavy concentration of “remaining” or “abiding” in these very few verses. When there is a heavy concentration of words being used in one place, it’s generally accepted that the writer is trying to make a very important point. And the point is this, it is only by remaining in Christ that we can produce the fruit of the Christian life.

Jesus is pretty clear about this in verse 4. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” You see, a branch has to draw all of it sustenance from the vine. It has to rely on the vine 100% or else. The branch cannot do it on its own, and neither can we. This is what Jesus is saying here, we can’t do it on our own. The only way to live the Christian life is to rely on the true vine 100%. Once a branch is disconnected from the vine, it is practically worthless; the only thing it is good for is kindling the fire. Once we are disconnected from the true vine, we are practically worthless. That’s what Jesus says in verse 5, “apart from me you can do nothing.” That’s some tough words from Jesus; however, they are not hopeless words.

The bar is set high, but we are not left on our own to do it. In fact, when we do try to do it on our own, we begin to find out that we cannot do it at all. It is only in abiding in the true vine that we can begin to produce the fruit of the Christian life. Yes, there will be times that we are being pruned, and it is going to hurt, but in the end we will find out that the pruning was worth it. Because the fruit that we produce will be better than anything we could have done before. You see, that is what is so awesome about the Christian life. It is a dynamic journey in which we are constantly being challenged to grow. We can never be happy with where we are as Christians. There is always room for growth. That’s what we call discipleship. It doesn’t matter if you are a new Christian or if you have been one for fifty years, discipleship is a journey in the Christian life that we all go on. Some people move faster than other, but the important thing is that people are moving. However, like all journeys, there are times when we just stop. Maybe we’re out of gas, maybe we’re just drained from the long miles of the road, or maybe we just don’t feel like going any further.

Those are the times when we are disconnected from the true vine. There will be times in our lives that, indeed, we have withered. But, do you know what is amazing about God? You see, the Father, the Creator, the vinedresser can bring things back to life. Romans 11 talks about those that are grafted in. Those who were once separate from the root, were grafted back in. Nothing is impossible with God. When our situations look hopeless and we are totally disconnected with the vine, do not fear. There is hope because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that is what we try to do here at Emmanuel – share God’s hope. In sharing the bread and the cup, we remember that hope.

Just some musings from a traveling pilgrim.