A Sermon preached by Eleanor Childs, Lay Reader on 15 April 2018
Whenever I do background reading or research for preaching on a passage, I always feel grateful that Jesus never used theological language or wrote a manual on doctrine. When I turn from a commentary to the gospels, it’s like a breath of fresh air! Jesus spoke so memorably and so profoundly in the language of story and imager and metaphor. He took his illustrations from life, the life his hearers were familiar with. It’s no wonder his hearers trudged for miles on foot to hear him and hung round him all day. Not your usual reaction to a sermon or a book on theology!
In today’s passage Jesus uses a wonderful image/metaphor to communicate the nature of his relationship with us. ‘I am the true vine!’ Vines were a common sight in Israel, and their fruit, grapes, was an important part of the local diet. But not only were they a common sight, the vine had actually become a symbol of Israel, the chosen people of God. Over and over again in the Old Testament Israel is pictured as the vine or vineyard of God. ‘The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel’ said Isaiah. ‘I planted you as a choice vine.’ is God’s message to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah. ‘Thou didst bring a vine out of Egypt,’ sang the psalmist.
The Jews were very aware of the presence of the vine and its symbol for their nation. One of the glories of their magnificent Temple was the great golden vine on the porch of the Holy of Holies. But Israel, the chosen people had failed in their mission to be a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth. The symbol of the vine or the vineyard in the Old Testament was usually accompanied by a rebuke because it had not produced fruit fit to eat. Isaiah, again: ‘Then he (ie God) looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.’
Into this context, Jesus spoke, ‘I am the true vine and my father is the gardener.’ What he is saying is ‘You think because you belong to the nation of Israel you are a branch of the true vine of God. But it is I who am the true vine. Only a living relationship with me counts in God’s sight.’
So we can see what a huge paradigm shift this would require of a devout Temple worshipping Jew, who prided himself in his religious heritage. He accessed God through worship in the Temple, God’s dwelling place. Jesus is claiming to be that dwelling place now. But he is not speaking to the Jewish nation here, but to his disciples, who are already in relationship with him, so they are more likely to grasp his meaning. For it is a marvellous image of the disciple’s relationship to Christ.
‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ A word or two about the vine. It is grown for its fruit. The whole point and purpose of growing vines is for their fruit. Grapes, currants, raisins, sultanas were part of the staple diet. Wine was a vital necessity in a hot country where the water might not be pure. A vine has multiple branches. It’s a plant that needs quite a lot of attention. The ground round it has to be cleaned and kept clean. It has to be trained up trellises or forked sticks. It grows very luxuriantly but needs drastic pruning regularly if it is going to yield a good crop.
What is Jesus communicating here about his relationship with his followers through this familiar image of the vine? First it’s about union and dependence. Branches can produce nothing unless they are united to the vine. They are completely dependent on the vine if they are going to produce any fruit, which is what they were planted for. You can’t get a closer relationship than that of union. Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’
Then there’s the rather alarming fact, that branches that don’t bear fruit are cut off. You who are gardeners know that you cut out dead or non- productive branches so they don’t deprive the plant of strength. This is really a warning of judgement, isn’t it? Jesus is probably thinking of his own nation who are about to reject him, but it can apply to us who imagine we are Christians but produce no fruit.
It makes sense to cut out the dead branches, but the vigorous shoots, that are doing so well, why wouldn’t the gardener let them grow? I have just recently pruned my roses. I’d left it a bit late because I absolutely hate pruning, cutting off those little green shoots that look so vigorous and promising, but I know if I want lovely lush blooms in the summer, I need to, I must cut them back. They may look a bit sad for a few weeks, but then they get going and I have wonderful reward in the summer. That’s the result of pruning.
What is the fruit we as Jesus’ disciples are meant to produce? Some commentators think fruit is disciples making more disciples, leading more people into the kingdom of God. And I think that is true. But also, remember Galatians 5:22 ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ These are the marks of someone who abides in Christ. That is the fruit we are meant to be in the process of producing. And it is a process. Fruit just doesn’t appear one day, it grows and develops slowly. We don’t concentrate on producing fruit. It develops naturally if we abide in the vine. We concentrate on abiding in the vine.
And what about this pruning we are warned of? Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.’ Those of us who have listened and responded to Jesus’ word, are clean, so why do we need pruning? Pruning can be anything painful in our lives – hard circumstances, trials, illness, losses, persecution which God uses to strengthen our faith and produce more fruit in our lives. I think it’s important here to bear in mind that our God is love, he is our Father and his purposes are always for our good, though we can’t always see that at the time. One of my favourite verses in Scripture is Romans 8:28 ‘In all things God works for the good of those who love him.’ He weaves everything, even the bad, painful things, into a pattern for good. Whether we are responsible for these things ourselves through our own folly or sinfulness or whether he is pruning us, he can bring something good out of them, because he is our loving, creative Father.
There is a command and a promise in this passage. The command is ‘Remain in me,’ How do we as branches remain in the vine? As a young Christian, I was taught that reading Scripture and prayer were how you remained in God’s love. And that is true to a certain extent. But it didn’t feel like remaining or abiding, more like dropping in and dropping out. But I found a new door opened for me when I discovered contemplative prayer. And I was delighted to hear it recommended in our Lent Course, which a number of us attended. John Mark Comer, the speaker on the DVDs talked about the difficulties of surviving as Christians in what he called ‘a culture of distraction and addiction’, caused mainly by our technology and social media and busy schedules. He said it is robbing us of our ability to be present to others and to God and to our own souls. The solution he proposed is one of the practises of Jesus – solitude and silence. Jesus frequently went off alone to resource himself in God’s presence. And he repeatedly said to his disciples, Come aside with me to a quiet place.’ Comer defined silence and solitude as ‘intentional time in the quiet to be alone with ourselves and God.’ This is contemplative prayer. Before I learned about it most of my prayer was me talking at God and bringing him my agenda of requests. Just being with him and listening was a whole new ball-game for me. Very difficult – takes lots of practice and perseverance, but so worthwhile. I’ve found it really is true, as we step aside from our distractions and addictions and agendas simply to be with him, he is faithful to his promise to abide in us. But in case you mistakenly think I’ve arrived and can do this, it feels more like I’ve just got the message and need to practice it and I’m at the 5 finger exercise stage.
Abiding or Remaining in Christ is completely different from Asking prayer or Intercessory prayer. It’s prior to that. Jesus says, ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.’ God promises to answer our request prayers if we are abiding in Christ, because then we will be praying according to his will, his agenda, not our own. James says ‘You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives.’ God is not there on call for when we need a bit of help, or there is something we can’t cope with. We can’t treat him like A&E. He is our loving Father and above all he desires relationship with us. He wants us to be involved in his family and his kingdom. He wants us, above all, to abide with him, because then our lives will bear fruit. Jesus said, ‘This is to my Father’s glory that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.’