Jesus the True VineJohn 15:1-11 (NRSV)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 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. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
Whenever we would visit my Nana and Grandpa’s farm, they had grapes that grew along the side of the barn. And each time we would walk in or out of the house, we would always pick handful and eat them. My parents also planted grapes in the backyard when I was a kid, and not only would we sit outside and eat them, but we would make grape jelly in small mason jars sealed with wax.
Because of my fond memories of grapes when I was a kid, I always found comfort in Jesus’ words, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit.” What a sweet message Jesus gives when he explains how we’re all connected to God’s many forms, just like branches are connected to a vine. If we stopped there, that would be a nice uplifting message reminding us of the importance of staying connected to God.
But to be honest, Jesus has always loved people too much to leave things that simple. Jesus loves people so much that he challenges them. You see, parables were told to be understood on many different levels, so people could understand them wherever they were on life’s journey.
Now if we want to look beyond the simple message of, “It’s important to stay connected to God so abide in me and I will abide in you,” we need to look back a few verses because that is where we hear a very different message. We hear a message of a vine grower who cuts the branches that don’t produce fruit and burns them in a fire. Now that may not sound like a message of love unless we start looking at it through a lens of love.
As a child, I so enjoyed the grapes that grew at my grandparent’s farm and in my parents’ backyard, and I wanted my kids to have great memories like that, too, So, we planted the same kind of grapes at our house when our kids were young. I figured it must be easy. Just get something to support the vine, and plant it, right? We picked a sunny location, set up a walkthrough trellis, and planted a few grapevines around it. We kept them watered, and within no time, the vines were growing, everywhere! And they got so heavy in fact that they knocked the trellis down and started reaching their vines for a large tree overhead. They quickly got out of control.
What I didn’t know about growing grapes is that grapevines can produce as much as thirteen feet of new growth on a single vine in one growing season! Left un-pruned it would not be unusual for a grapevine to have as many as three hundred fruit-producing buds at the beginning of the growing season. The problem is that’s far too many buds for the plant to support, so the majority of those have to be removed. In most cases, proper grapevine pruning requires that you remove as much as seventy-five percent of the new growth so the plant can properly develop and ripen the fruit it produces.
Okay. I know, that is quite an agricultural lesson, but I tell you this because my experience in growing those grapes has given me a much different understanding of the parable of the true vine.
As scripture says, “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, He prunes to make it bear more fruit.” I had always read that and thought, “God takes the poor choices that I make and the bad things that I do and removes them and throws them in the fire.” And I felt judged, guilty, and unworthy. But what I didn’t understand is that the trimming and cutting back was not a judgment or a punishment; it was a way of making the burden lighter. God says, abide in me and I will abide in you. Put your trust in me and I will guide you. I’ll help you find balance in your life.
Friends, do you ever feel like you go through your day running from one thing to the next, to the next, to the next, and you never finish anything because you are always looking ahead to what comes next on the to-do list? Many of us function that way, and to be honest, it’s not a healthy way to live, just like the vine that grows thirteen feet in one season may look impressive and successful on the outside, producing hundreds of beautiful buds. Unfortunately, the vine lacks the energy to support them and bring them to full fruit.
Friends, it has been a long year, living through a pandemic. Some of us are overly busy, and some of us are extremely lonely. Some of us feel confused and fuzzy all the time, and most of us just long for a feeling of connectedness–to our church, to our community, to our family and friends, and even to God.
To be honest, our branches feel tangled and out of control. But the good news is we are not the vine. We are only the branches. Sometimes it’s not up to us to solve all of life’s problems. But instead, we need to cling to the vine, allowing God to feed us and nurture us, sometimes challenging us, or trimming us, or pruning us as we are molded into new creations that will indeed bear much fruit.