Our Scripture today comes again from the gospel according to John. This is part of what scholars call Jesus’ ‘farewell discourse’—in which he tries to prepare his disciples for his death and resurrection. And in true Jesus form, he doesn’t give a list of specific instructions with clear directions—he uses metaphor and images, because he knows that as much as we love lists, we are story people.
Scripture: John 15:1-8
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
It’s particularly interesting that Jesus chooses this image in this moment. In the Old Testament—particularly in the prophets–the vine is used multiple times as an image for God’s people as a whole. The context is much the same—talking about fruitfulness and faithfulness, pruning and cutting away the dead parts of the vine. But Jesus makes allusions to the Old Testament all the time, so that’s not the super interesting part.
What’s interesting is that in the Hebrew Bible, this image is used as a call to repentance—the prophet is calling the people away from the things that lead to death and back to proper worship and fruitful living. The health of the vine depends on their actions.
But here, Jesus himself is the vine. The life of the vine itself no longer depends on our faithfulness or our righteousness—rather, we depend on Jesus’ faithfulness as we are grafted into his life and love.
“Abide in me,” he says.
To abide in Jesus is to remain intimately and consistently connected to the heart of God—to receive the life, the love, the joy and hope and generosity of God and turn it into something that nourishes the world around us.
But as pastor and professor David Lose says: “Jesus doesn’t just say “Abide in me.” Rather, he says, “Abide in me, as I abide in you.” And that changes everything. The other statements about pruning and withering and the rest are not threats of intimidation but rather statements of fact, descriptions of what happens when we do not abide in Jesus; when we are separated from his love and acceptance, we run or hide or think we can do it on our own or decide to stand alone or whatever. Branches don’t do that well when separated from the vine. At best they, like cut flowers, have a burst of color and bloom but then fade and wither.”
As far as gardening goes, I have what some would call a Black Thumb. The plants I grow best are dandelions and stubborn perennials that thrive on neglect. I am not consistent enough with watering and weeding to grow anything too intensive, and I’m fine with that.
But I can wield a pair of garden shears, so a few weeks ago, when we had our church work day, I was set to work in the prayer garden on the other side of the shelter house.
(Did y’all know that we have a prayer garden? We have a prayer garden! It’s on the other side of the shelter house!)
My job for the day was dead-heading the perennials: the grasses, flowers, and shrubs that sported lots of brown after this seemingly never-ending winter. I did a lot of pruning that day, and I was, admittedly, a little sad about it.
I wondered what these plants might say if they had the mind to think about it: “BUT I JUST SPENT ALL OF LAST YEAR GROWING THAT, and now you’re going to cut it off?! What did I spend all that effort for?!”
The flowers, the grasses, the shrubs and trees were all quite beautiful—the faithful gardeners in our congregation saw to that—but now, because of the cold and the snow and the lack of sunshine, that beautiful new growth had withered. The plants aren’t dead, not by a long shot. But in order to grow and produce fruit again, in order to return to their beauty, they needed to be cut back. And that part, I can do.
The old growth was literally carried away and burned in the fire pit out back, and just a few short weeks later, we can see the new growth beginning to poke through. Sooner than later, we’ll see new flowers, new fruits, and new beauty in that space.
I think too often, we do the same thing with our own lives. Left to our own devices, we will cling far too long to things that aren’t producing any fruit—we will pour enormous amounts of life and energy and time into last year’s growth, no matter how brown and crispy, rather than watching for the green shoots coming up through and underneath it.
We can, and must, honor the beauty in that growth and the joy that it brought us; and at the same time, we must also be willing to make room for new life, for new beauty, for new ways to glorify God.
But what is it that we’re making room for? What sort of fruit does the life and love of Jesus produce in us? What sort of disciples does Jesus ask us to be?
If we skip forward a few chapters to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he names the fruit that life on the Jesus vine produces in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control.
Great, right? Those are all good things. They are the lilacs and daisies and hyacinths and sunflowers of our spiritual lives and our relationships. But they’re still intangible, hard to measure–this is not exactly a checklist we can run through before we walk out the door.
Wait, where did I leave my patience? Mercy, I don’t have time for this!
Did I forget my self-control at work yesterday? That would explain why I made so many cookies…
Like vines, or a prayer garden, or even a fruit tree, these are things that must be carefully cultivated, day after day and year after year. We have to be able to wade into the weeds, to prune away the dead branches, to water and feed the soil. We rely on Jesus to provide the seeds, tools, the water, the sunlight—the absolute necessities–but the garden of our souls is ultimately ours to cultivate.
Jesus provides all that we need to grow in life and love, but the work of abiding, of staying connected to the heart of God so that we grow good things, is ours.
That might look like prayer. It might look like a little bit of Scripture every day. It might look like a Bible Study or a fellowship group. It might look like meditating on the goodness of God for five minutes on your way to work, or a long walk reveling in the beauty of the earth God has given us.
It might look like pruning away a toxic relationship, or sitting down for an honest conversation with someone you love. It might look like giving up an activity or responsibility that’s now more draining than life-giving.
It might look like waiting, watering, watching for something green after a long winter.
What new growth are you watching for?
If you could focus on cultivating one of those fruits, which one would it be?
Abide in me, as I abide in you, says Jesus.
To abide in Jesus is to live as he lived, to love as he loved, to have the very heart of God alive within us.
In a world where skin color, political affiliations, and even particular ways of speaking have become impenetrable walls, it’s Jesus who leads us to welcome the stranger and offer curiosity instead of conflict with the people who are different from us.
In a world that would have us believe that self-sufficient people are more worthy of love and care than others, it’s Jesus who leads us to seek out the people who fail to meet those criteria and love them anyway.
In a world that tells us our productivity is the only thing that matters—that we are only as good as what we can check off or produce, it’s Jesus who leads us to rest in our God-breathed worth.
When we lose sight of Jesus, we lose sight of what God wants for us and from us, and we disconnect ourselves from the life and love we need—and that our families, our community, and our world need so desperately.
Jesus is the heart of God made flesh, who moved into the neighborhood and showed us a new way.
Abide in me, he says, as I abide in you.
This is the good news: Jesus is at home in you, and Jesus is the one who calls on you to make a home in his love, so that you might walk in his ways, know his truth, and let his life flow through you into the whole world.
Friends, believe this good news and live in its peace.