“I am the Vine – you are the branches”

Revd Philip Webb, September 29th 2013

John 15: 1 – 8

Harvest Time: what does that mean to you? Golden fields? Windfalls? Combine harvesters and tractors working late into the night? If you ever have any glimpse of the countryside you know that this is a special time. But it is not just a time for gathering in the crops. It is also a time for farmer and gardener alike to think about what they have got, how well it is doing, and what is going to happen next. That is why Jesus so often used the illustration of harvest to encourage his hearers to think about their relationship with each other – and with God. Harvest in the Bible is not only about gathering stock – it is also about taking stock. And that is why Jesus once gave his disciples this strange line: “I am the Vine; And you? You are the branches.” What did He mean by this?

(1) We are united in Him. It could be that Jesus gave this teaching as He walked through the city of Jerusalem with his disciples – perhaps after they left the Upper Room and that fateful last supper. The night He was betrayed. It is possible that they were passing by a vine growing over someone’s doorway which the Master Teacher then used as a parable, a spiritual illustration.

On the other hand they may even have got as far as the Temple. It wasn’t far between the two – down a few streets, round a few corners, and then the magnificent sight opens up before them. Around the great entrance to the Temple there was a vine carved in stone. It hung thick with bunches of carved grapes. Families might pay to have another bunch carved and added to it, much as we pay to have marble memorials put up in our churches. The vine symbolised the nation of Israel itself and they were its fruit, their families the clusters. The Jews loved the idea that they were part of that great growing, spreading family, planted by God. But a vine is only as good as the fruit it produces. And what had that vine produced? Where was its crop? Jesus clearly reckons that the national vine is not up to much because it has been trying to grow on its own, as if it were independent of the divine root stock that nourishes it. Proud of their many branches they hadn’t given much thought to the health of the vine.

So, at the heart of the nation that saw itself as the Vine of God, Jesus make the last of his great “I am” sayings in this Gospel, and says, “I am the Vine, and you are the Branches.” You know how sometimes new stock is grafted onto a strong, older root to make it grow well? Jesus is offering himself as Godly stock, and tells the disciples that they are the new Israel – if they remain growing in Him.

This is radical politics, but it is also a saying which stresses the intimate and necessary relationship between Jesus and all of His followers. It also says a lot about the sort of relationship that Christians should have with one another. OK – some of our branches are on the left of the stock, and some grow on the right. Some are high and some are low! Some of our fruit has darker skins than others, and others wave their branches in the air much more than others, – but all of us are maintained by the one source of life, Jesus Christ, and without Him we are nothing and we can produce nothing. But the glorious thing is that when we are rooted together in Him we are filled with His life, and when we are one in Him what we produce can be truly wonderful. But if HE is the vine and we are the branches that means that –

(2) We must be pruned by Him. Back in March I didn’t feel too much temptation to get out into my garden, much as I love it. It was too cold and wet! But there were still jobs which had to be done, if future growth is to be as good as I always hope.

March, for instance, is just the right time to be pruning our wisteria, another vine. Each year it runs rampant over our trellis work at the top of the garden, but before spring gets going each year the dead growth needs to be removed, of course, if it is not to choke the new growth that is coming through. But, significantly, even some of that which is live needs trimming, cutting back to the last three or four buds in order to stimulate strong new growth in the future. The old stuff that is dead, that which is not growing in the right direction, or that which is distracting the energy that should go into the desired area of growth – all this has to be cut out and thrown onto the bonfire for burning. Can you begin to see some parallels here?

Now strangely I’ve found that even some of these pruned branches may still flower for a while and pretend to have life in themselves even while they are lying on the ground all by themselves. They are fed by the dampness that remains within them, but it is a false spring. They will decline, and only the branches that are rooted onto the good stock will grow stronger and healthier and eventually burst into glorious bloom.

Most vines need this sort of treatment on a regular basis, not least once the harvest has been gathered in. Jesus the carpenter clearly also knew a bit about gardening! But what does the parable mean for us? Well, we could suggest that most churches are damp, and some are pretending to be alive even when they have in reality died, cut off from others, but this is not about judging others. It is about assessing ourselves.

If Jesus is the vine to whom we are attached, then we need to be willing to submit, as He did, to the pruning care of the Father, the gardener who tends the vine. That is the only way the whole church can grow. We don’t like change. We like things they way they are. But sometimes drastic reshaping is needed if fruit is to come and growth is to be strong. And this is not about destruction and closure – even the weakest-looking branches can be strengthened by being pruned. It is about recognising that there are some things we need to leave behind – bad things of course, but also sometimes distracting things that are heading in the wrong direction, and good things that were great once and bore lots of fruit, but which have now had their day.

(3) We need to be empowered by Him. Since just as branches unattached to the vine have no chance of bearing fruit, it is equally true that if we are to be fruitful disciples then we must remain attached to Jesus. This is the main purpose of the vine allegory – to stress that without Him we are nothing. We may do all sorts of great works but without Him inspiring us it is not His work. We may run all sorts of wonderful projects, but without Him strengthening us they are not His projects. We may build all sorts of wonderful structures, but without Him supporting us we are not building His kingdom. Indeed, some of these things may even get in the way. For the whole vine to flourish, some such things may need to be cut off and disposed of.

When we moved to our current home the surveyor described the garden as “tired”. I doubt the previous owners would have been pleased, but he was right! They had just let things grow, and the result was many plants were straggly, and some were being overwhelmed by others. After many years of pruning and digging, the garden is now full of much more colour and life and strength!

What is the equivalent in a church? Just letting things go on as they always have. Keeping the programme running – make sure there is a prayer meeting, a men’s meeting, youth work, women’s work because we have always had them. All these things may be good in themselves, but they can get tired, and their very existence can sometimes stifle the life out of new and more colourful opportunities.

I asked one minister how his local church was faring, and he replied with one word – “Moribund”. It was still there, but it had become overgrown by the creepers of maintenance and many other things. There seemed to him to be little left in that was vibrant. What a sad description of something as potentially splendid as a church! But what sort of life would you expect to find in a healthy church? John 15, 7 suggests that it should be the sort of life that is infused with prayer – the sort of prayer that is the dialogue of constant communion with our Lord. In short it doesn’t mean asking “will I be comfortable with this?” or even “are we nearly there yet?” but “is this what God wants?”

Many people want their church to flourish, but for too many that means new people to do the things we are now too tired to do, as long as they don’t change anything! For some it means our church becoming really well known and really well thought of by others. But in fact verse 8 says that while every church is expected to bear fruit, fruitfulness is not an end in itself. It is simply a means of bringing glory to the Father.

Late next spring this fellowship will begin to draw up its pastoral profile, trying to assess where it is, and where it wants to go next, not least as you seek a new minister. You have a great history behind you, and God willing you will have a great future in front of you. It is tempting to think that future success (or fruitfulness) depends on us getting just the right sort of minister to lead us all forwards.  And it’s true – they can make a difference.

But if you take John’s gospel seriously, the fundamental question underlying everything else is not what your minister is like, or how big your church is or how old it is or how famous it is, but this, – “How are our grapes doing? Are we producing fruit to delight God? Are we all firmly bound to each other and to Jesus? Are we willing to be united in Him? Pruned by Him? Empowered by Him?” Because that is the only way any of us can expect there to be the sort of harvest God wants in years to come.