by Robert Brow
John's Gospel describes how the eternal Son of God gave himself a string of metaphorical names: "I am the Bread of Life . . . I am the Good Shepherd . . . the Door . . . the Resurrection . . . the Way, the Truth, and the Life." And in today's reading he says "I am the Vine, you are the branches" (John 15:5). Today I want to focus on the second half of that statement. We are like branches in a vine. But what does that mean for us?
When Mollie and I went to Cyprus to take care of the Anglican congregation in Paphos there were hundreds of acres of vines on the hills around us. We arrived in winter and each vine looked like a stump with two or three very short dead looking branches. Now imagine if those vine branches could think and have feelings, how would they experience the process of producing grapes ?
Fruit Bearing - The farmer says "Little branch, this summer you are going to be producing nine big bunches of grapes." But the poor little branch says "No way, I haven't got it in me. I couldn't even produce a leaf if I tried." And that's just the way we feel when faced with God's longing for us. In telling the parable Jesus said "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and so be my disciples" (John 15:8, NRSV margin). "I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last" (John 15:16). All the vine dresser expected from the vine branch in the parable were grapes. But the heavenly Vine Dresser takes delight in each of us producing the ninefold fruit that Paul lists for us. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
Now it is true that with a bit of effort we may be able to learn a bit of patience or self-control. Some people are naturally kinder or more generous than others. But they are unlikely to produce the rich sweet fruit that God has in mind. And anything we produce by our own effort quickly turns to self-righteousness, which has a sour taste for others and even more so for the heavenly Farmer.
Let's face it, there is no way we can produce by self-effort the kind of fruit that we are designed to bring forth in our lives. And that is exactly what Jesus said. "Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me . . . because apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:4-5). Obviously we can choose to do some things by our own strength. Learning to garden or drive a car can be achieved with a bit of time and effort. Making money can be a bit harder. Raising kids is very much harder, but many parents manage it quite well. There are hundreds of other useful things we can achieve by our own will power. But producing the beautiful fruit of the Spirit is totally impossible for us. It can only be done by abiding, which is what a branch does in a vine tree.
Abiding - "Abide in my me as I abide in you . . . those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit" (John 15:4-5). But what does abiding mean? And how can we both be in the vine and the vine in us? I found this explanation very helpful. "The branch abides in the vine structurally and the vine abides in the branch vitally" (A.B.Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, 1901, p. 403).
The problem is that many people are only outwardly connected with Jesus the Son of God. They have been baptized, they can say the creed, sing hymns, listen to sermons, work for the church, take communion. What they miss is the inner life of the Spirit. In this case the Holy Spirit corresponds to the sap coming up into those dead looking vine branches, and giving them the nutrients needed to grow, and produce fruit.
Apart from that inner life, the branch remains lifeless. Sometimes you can see a dead branch on a vine when the other branches are growing leaves and little grapes. Perhaps an insect has blocked the flow of sap, and it is only a matter of time before the branch turns brittle and is broken off. As Jesus said, "Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withered; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned" (15:6).
This is one reason why so many Christians get discouraged. They try very hard to produce love and joy and peace, and other fruit of the Spirit, and after a few years they find they are making no real progress. They feel lifeless, and church is a bore. So they become frustrated, get miffed and quit. They have had an outward connection with Jesus the Son of God, but they haven't learned the secret of letting the Spirit abide in them. But then the day comes when they begin to feel the inrush of the Holy Spirit of God, and they know they can relax and let the fruit come in due course.
When the Spirit is working in us we find the Word of God becomes a joy and is very effective. "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you" (John 15:7). The reason such prayer is answered is because the longing is first given to us by the Spirit, and so is bound to be according to the will of God. When a branch feels the sap beginning to push out a new shoot, or leaf, or bunch of grapes, that desire to grow is given for the one purpose of effective fruit bearing. On the other hand the prayers that we think up according to our own agenda are very unlikely to be what God has in mind.
Pruning - Other Christians have a great experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and they are excited as they find themselves growing in new directions. But then suddenly the Vine Dresser comes and brutally prunes away the growth that is not needed. "Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit" (John 15:2). When this happens it is easy to get upset and discouraged. "I thought I was doing so well, and now most of what I was excited about has been taken away from me. This exciting emphasis on charismatic life does not work out in practice."
Now you can see that this is a parable about the three Persons of the Trinity. For effective fruit bearing we need our structural faith connection with Jesus the Son of God. But we also need the vital inner life of the Spirit coming in to do in us what we could never do by our own will power. And we need to welcome the painful pruning of the Father. On the one hand He is as tender as the most loving of parents, but He also cares about our effectiveness in producing an abundance of good fruit. He will not let us dissipate our energy in all directions. So when the pruning knife cuts us back, rather than fuss and cry, and try to regain what we have lost, we relax in the Father's care.
The parable of the Vine and the branches gives us the assurance that
however weak and frail we are, God the Trinity can and will produce beautiful
fruit in our lives. It is not a question of will power or any kind of self
effort. All that is needed is confident abiding, and the Father, the Son,
and the Sprit will do the rest. That does not make us passive and lazy.
For a vine branch producing big fat bunches of grapes is very hard work.
And people who relax and let the Spirit do his work in them are wonderfully
energized. As Paul said "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you to will and to work for his good pleasure
(Philippians 2:12-13). And for a branch God's good pleasure is bearing
much fruit. Vine wood is totally useless for any other purpose.