What does it mean when Jesus says, “I am the vine?” Or that we are the branches? Some thoughts on the occasion of Maundy Thursday 2014. The text was John 15.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been listening to Jesus preach. And in his preaching, he’s made a number of statements that begin with the words, “I am…” And always, the formula for Jesus’ sermons has been, “I am the …” and then he would name the thing. I am the bread of life, the gate, the light of the world, etc.
Did you notice what he said this evening? The formula has changed a little bit. “I am the vine…and you are…”
For the first time, Jesus explicitly states what we are. He uses a metaphor to describe, not just himself, but us as well. And it seems to me that this description is really the culmination of all of the other “I am” statements that we’ve heard. Because Jesus is the savior, the bread of life, the light of the world, the Door, the Good Shepherd – because he is all of those things in our lives, we are then free to relate with him the way that a branch relates to a vine. Because of all that Jesus is and does, we are free to participate with him in an intimate, organic, relationship.
Think about it. In the last few weeks, we’ve heard Jesus call himself a lot of things. Usually, we understand those things, at least in part, by what they are not. I am the light (not the darkness). I am the bread of life (not something that will not last). I am the way (not a maze in which you get lost). I am the good shepherd (not the hired hand).
And sometimes, when he uses a metaphor to describe himself, we learn something about ourselves, too. If he is the good shepherd, then obviously that implies that we are sheep. Unless you are profoundly vision, hearing, and smelling-impaired, there’s not much challenge in telling the two apart. Shepherd – sheep. You know which one is which, right?
But the Vine and the Branches? That’s a bit tougher, isn’t it? Next time you’re at my house, stop into the back yard and look at my kiwi plants. If you go right to the ground, you can see clearly – that large brown thing – vine. No problem. And if you go to the other end, wispy leafy thing – branch. No problem. But in the middle, it’s pretty tough to tell one from the other. Where does the vine stop and the branch begin?
Oooooh, I get it, Pastor Dave! Our relationship with Jesus is designed to be so close that we are totally immersed in Him. We grow into him… or does he grow into us? I don’t really know…Some days it’s kind of hard to tell.
Have you ever heard people talk about their relationship with God like this? They describe a closeness, a warmth, a sense of togetherness that is really appealing, don’t they? You hear some people talk about the ways that they and God spend time together, the kinds of feelings that they have about God, and you think, “Wow, that’s someone who must be really close to God. There’s someone who must be a branch that’s well-connected to the vine.”
And if we’re honest about it, that’s what we want. We want to have that intimacy – that sense of knowing and being known. I might say that it’s a sort of spiritual security blanket – the sense that Jesus is right here with me and nothing’s going to happen.
That is a good thing to desire, and a great thing when it happens. But it’s not the point. Jesus never talks about intimacy with God as something to be desired in and of itself. This connection between the vine and the branch is not the end – it’s a means. A means to what? To the fruit that is supposed to be growing at the end of the branches.
It’s very possible that you have come into worship in the previous weeks and gotten the impression that you were created to be in a life-changing, joy-filled relationship with Jesus. It’s possible that you’ve gotten that impression because that’s what I’ve said. However, we need to be clear about the fact that the joy-filled relationship where you feel fed and nurtured and forgiven and shepherded is not an end in itself, but rather the means by which God intends to use you to shape the world according to his purposes for it.
Or, to put it another way, that intimate, organic relationship with God for which you were created is incomplete until it bears fruit. There is an expectation clearly set forth in John 15 that if we allow ourselves to relate to Jesus in the way that he intends for us, then things will happen.
Jesus is the vine. He promises that he will give us everything necessary to produce fruit. And he promises that he will come looking for fruit in our lives.
Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. We exist to bear fruit. In fact, look with me at the progression that exists in this conversation. In verse 2, he commends the branch that bears “fruit.” That quickly is modified to read “more fruit”. Then in verses 5 and 8, he talks about “much fruit”, and by the time we reach verse 16, we understand that he is looking for “fruit that will last.”
How does the plant go from being fruitless to bearing not only fruit, but much fruit that will last?
It is tended and cared for. It is pruned.
Most fruit-bearing trees and vines have two prunings. In the dormant season, the gardener removes all of the branches that are obviously dead. John 15:2 says that the vinegrower takes away every branch that does not bear fruit.
Literally and metaphorically, this is a pain in the neck, but it’s not so hard to wrap your head around. I walk out to my garden, and I see some dead raspberry canes or a rotten limb on the apple tree, and it’s fairly painless to whack it off. I know it has to be done.
In my life, where I see rot developing, where I sense hatred growing, where I am made aware of an evil that threatens my life, my joy, my purpose – then I can ask God to take that away. Oh, sometimes I experience it as a loss, but it’s not too bad. I generally come away thinking, “well, that just had to happen.” It makes sense, somehow, even if it doesn’t always feel good.
But there’s a second pruning that takes place during the growing season. If I’m on my mark as a gardener, once those branches have set some fruit, I have to go out and thin the plant, and remove shoots that are clearly living, but have no fruit on them. I do this because I didn’t plant my cherry tree to grow wood – I planted that cherry tree because I would like to see cherries in my pantry and freezer. If I remove those branches, the tree can put its energy into growing bigger cherries – and less wood.
And in my garden and in my life, I don’t like that pruning. I don’t like to cut into the pretty greenery. It’s hard to rearrange the shape of the tree. And even though a particular branch may be fruitless, I may get some measure of satisfaction, or shade, or beauty from that greenery. But if my goal is fruit, it’s got to go.
This Maundy Thursday evening ask God, and ask yourself: is there some secret attraction, some trivial pursuit, some fruitless distraction that ought to be removed from your life?
Maybe it’s obvious. Maybe there is an addiction that you know is killing you; an unhealthy relationship that consumes you. Sometimes the dead wood is easy to spot.
But my hunch is that for many of us in the room this evening, the second pruning is what needs to occur. There is something that looks healthy and alive, but is simply not fruitful for us. It may be a behavior that is rewarded in some circles: a devotion to work that seems commendable to many, but then you realize that you haven’t known Sabbath rest in far too long. An awareness of your diet and need for fitness that makes you critical of other people to the point of cruelty. A practice of saving that is rooted, not in a biblical understanding of stewardship, but a deep fear that you do not now, and will never have “enough”.
Ask for the grace to make you want the fruit more than you want this other growth. Ask God to show you how the fruit that he desires is better than the things that have held your interest or distracted you.
And let’s talk for just a moment about that fruit. In John’s description of the Last Supper, it’s pretty clear what kind of fruit Jesus is talking about. Love. Love is the fruit that grows from a life rooted in the Father’s intentions and sustained by the Spirit’s care.
Let me remind you that love is not warm and mushy feelings. Love is not being nice to the people who are nice to you.
In fact, in John, there are two measurable criteria for the kind of love that Jesus says God is looking for. First, love means obeying God. And second, love means being willing to lay down your life for your friends.
I’m pretty sure that could mean that if you love me, you’d be willing to take a bullet for me, or throw yourself on a grenade if one got flung into the room right now. But more probably, I suspect that kind of love means that you are willing to act for my good, even when it is inconvenient for you. That kind of love means that you are willing to help me grow into what is best for me, even if it costs you somehow.
It is, in short, a kind of love that is not altogether attractive or valued in our world. And frankly, it’s not the kind of love that we usually look for at church. Listen:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Here is something that occurred to me this week. What is it that is between the vine and branches and the fruit? The blossom, right? The flower. Every branch, every vine, every plant in my yard that produces fruit does so by extending a blossom. And that blossom – every blossom – is a risk. I’ve got a little cherry tree in my back yard. I get nervous when it starts to blossom. I’m excited, because I can think about homemade jam and cherry pie. But I’m scared, because what will happen if we have a freeze? Even a really gusty day can blow the blossoms off the tree. And if they freeze or fall off, then no matter how green the leaves, how deep the roots, how nicely the tree’s been pruned – there’s no fruit. The blossoms are a fragile risk that my cherry tree makes each spring. And if for some reason you need proof of the great gamble that spring blossoms are, then take a look at that very sad-looking, brown magnolia tree in our front yard – thousands of blossoms that were simply frozen on Tuesday evening.
Tonight, we commemorate the ultimate risk. The sinless Son of God who loved his friends enough to lay down his life for them.
Including Peter, who would later deny even having ever met Jesus.
Tonight, as we remember this risk, know that this Jesus knows you, calls to you, and loves you with this kind of love. He desires a deep and intimate relationship with you, as the vine has with the branch. And if you are not in that kind of relationship, then let me encourage you to walk towards that tonight – to ask Jesus to enter more fully in to your life and heart and purposes.
And if you are in that kind of relationship with Jesus, then let me challenge you to grow in your ability to love with the kind of love that he seems to expect from us. I know that I am advising you toward a dangerous prayer – that I am asking you to pray for pruning and tending and shaping that could be inconvenient or painful. After all, look at what that kind of love got Jesus.
But know, too, that you are not alone in this love, you are not alone on this vine, and you are not alone in this risk. It is why you exist. You came into being for love, and you are to dwell in and act in love. May God be gracious to us as we learn it…again and again and again. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 $3 Worth of God, Wilbur Rees (Judson Press, 1971)