“I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5a). This is a beautiful passage that we love to use to decorate everything from tea cups to T-shirts, but have you every really taken the time to read the full passage and digest all that Jesus is saying?
He begins, “I am the true vine” (John 15:1a). Psalm 80, probably written during the Babylonian captivity recalls the history of God’s relationship with Israel through the image of a vine. “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River. Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.” (Psalm 80: 8-13). The Psalmist evokes an image of a once cherished and well-tended grape vine that has been abandoned and the wild has overtaken it. The prophet Ezekiel, writing about the same time uses the image of the vine to remind the people that they are in their current situation because rather than seek after God, who planted and tended them they sought protection from foreign kings. (Ezekiel 17).
Jesus’ opening statement is comforting to us, but would have been discomforting to many of the religious leaders of his time. Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” Jesus, who has already gotten in trouble several times for stating that he and the Father are one, has now declared that he is the true Israel. The relationship that Israel, as a nation, had with God the Father in the days of Moses, Jesus now claims has been given to him. What is that relationship? The inheritor of the covenant made with Abraham, continued through Moses and David that through Israel God would bless the world. Jesus is stating that God did not break the covenant with Abraham’s ancestors, rather he fulfilled that covenant through Jesus who, through his biological parents, is a descendant of Abraham. I am sure this did not go over well with many people at that time and can be disconcerting to many people today. I think it is important to clarify a few things about this statement. Jesus is speaking to the twelve that are his inner circle. They are all Jews. Jesus is speaking as an prophet from the position of an insider, offering critique and hope. Psalm 80 accuses God of abandoning His people. Jesus claims that God does not break his covenants, but because the people had not been faithful, God sent Jesus the only one able to perfectly fulfill humanity’s end of the covenant to represent and to be the root and base of the vine that can once again produce fruit. Only with a healthy root and stock can the rest of us be the branches which will bear fruit. This is only bad news if you are spiritually dead and chose to stay that way.
Jesus then says, “He [God the Father] removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Jesus has absorbed the identity of all Israel into himself so that when God removes branches that bear no fruit, Jesus says, “every branch in me.” In fact, Jesus will take into himself the identity of all humankind, not just Israel.
I am well aware that I am a novice in the area of care of plants, especially grapes. I helped my grandmother pick grapes and make jelly, but that is the extent of my knowledge about them. I have raised fig trees, though, which must be heavily pruned every year, so I understand the gist of what Jesus is saying. As I understand it, most plants can benefit from dead wood being removed. The dead wood can harbor insects and wood rot and takes away from the water and nutrients necessary for a healthy plant to grow. A lot of dead wood can be made into useful things, but my understanding is that dead grape vine is not good for much of anything. When a branch is separated from the rest of the plant, either by intentional pruning or like all the branches that fall off my trees with every rainstorm, if they are not already dead, they will die soon. I pick them up and put them in a pile to be hauled off and burned as trash. Jesus uses this illustration to demonstrate what happens to us when we turn away from Him. If we die (cut ourselves off from Christ) while still on the vine, we will eventually be removed to protect those that are living and bearing fruit. I suspect Jesus was referring to the religious leaders whom he saw as physically attached to the faith, but who refused to recognize Jesus for who he was and who were damaging those in their care rather than producing fruit to nurture those in their care. Remember the hired hands and the thieves from last week. Two important things to note here. 1) God the Father is the one who decides when and if the branch needs to be removed, that is not our job. 2) Jesus is using a description of what happens to useless items in his culture. It is a warning to us, not to become useless. This is not a literal description of hell nor does it give us permission to tell people they are trash. Our baptismal vows remind us that we are to treat everyone with dignity. We are branches and branches do not get to remove other branches or throw them away.
With figs, the fruit appears on new growth, so you cut the tree back to shape it and to provide room for the new growth in the spring. I can’t speak for grapes, but perhaps my resident grape growers can fill me in if the same holds true for them. Jesus says that “every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Pruning can be painful. Pruning means some things which we want to hold on to are taken away from us so that we can be more productive as Christians. A healthy plant will more than make up for what is taken away in due season.
Plants, like people, have a vascular system. There are some obvious differences, but the general premise is the same. Water and nutrients travel up through the roots and the vine, trunk, or stem to feed and nourish the branches, the leaves, and to produce fruit. Jesus tells us that he is the root system and the vine or trunk through which we the branches receive our nutrition. He says “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you…” His words, his teachings are the nourishment we need to stay alive, to grow, and to bear fruit which by the way is how many plants reproduce. Bearing fruit allows for more growth in general.
Jesus continues “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you”. We must remember this statement cannot be separated from the “abide in me” statement. If we are abiding in Jesus, what we desire will be pleasing to God and God will be pleased to grant it to us. If we are not abiding in Jesus, if what we desire is contrary to the will of God, we may have a totally different outcome.
This is the perfect time of the year to get outside and work in our yards or gardens. If you get the chance to do that, think about how you weed, trim, water and fertilize your plants and imagine what God might want to weed, trim, water and fertilize in your own life. Remember to bring Jesus to help you in your garden.