The True Vine
By Dr. Mickey Anders
A missionary in Africa lived in his central mission which had a small generator to supply current for his church and small rectory. Some natives from an outlying mission came to visit the padre. They noticed the electric light hanging from the ceiling of his living room. They watched wide-eyed as he turned the little switch and the light went on.
One of the visitors asked if he could have one of the bulbs. The priest, thinking he wanted it for a sort of trinket, gave him an extra bulb. On his next visit to the outlying mission, the priest stopped at the hut of the man who had asked for the bulb. Imagine his surprise when he saw the bulb hanging from an ordinary string. He had to explain that one had to have electricity and a wire to bring the current to the bulb. (1)
We may laugh at the innocence of an African native, but we may not be much better. Every year, I have to struggle to keep the trailer lights on my boat trailer working. It seems they are good for about one trip to the lake. Somehow I managed to ruin the connection every year, then I find myself tangling with the wires trying to track down the problem.
Recently one of our church members came by to help me with the problem. He suggested that I disconnect the leads to the bulbs and attach them with jumpers to a battery to see if the bulbs were good. They were. Then as we tracked down the wiring, he noticed that my idea of a connection is to twist the wires together a bit and loosely surround the loose connection with a bit of black tape. Sometimes the connections weren’t even together.
Then he showed me how to attach the wires with metal tubes which were crimped tightly on the wires followed up by tubes of heat shrink rubber. When the torch applied the heat, hot glue melted the whole connection together in a way that was completely water proof. I was amazed! Now that my connections are good, my trailer lights were great!
In our text for today, Jesus told a story about the importance of just such connections to the source of power. His analogy used the farm imagery of the vine and the branches. For those of us who did not grow up on the farm, we may be more familiar with the image of electricity and the bulb. Just as the electricity provides the power necessary for the bulb to burn, so the vine provides the life necessary for the branches to produce fruit. But we should never forget the great contrast between a living thing and a electro-mechanical thing.
Jesus is the vine, God the Father is the vine grower, and the true believers are the branches. Jesus wanted us to know that as branches we are alive; and that we can grow only if we are connected to him, the true vine. As long as we are connected to Jesus the power of the Holy Spirit can run into us and keep us alive and thriving. If we are cut off from Jesus, we wither and die. Then we’re no good for anything but to be cut off.
Our text for today has three primary messages on which we can focus. First, he mentions pruning, then fruit-bearing, and finally he emphasizes abiding.
I was interested to note that the text goes to pruning from the very first. Verse two says, “Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away.” What shall we say about this pruning?
Jesus says that God prunes the branches that bear fruit to make it bear more fruit. Vines left to themselves will sprawl out all over the place and produce huge canopies of shoots, leaves and branches, and unless that canopy is controlled, the vine won’t yield much fruit.
Pruning is a counter-intuitive activity because all those leaves suggests that what you’ve got here is a very healthy vine. In fact, it may be all show and no tell. Jesus is afraid that the disciples might face this same problem. He wasn’t interested in showy disciples any more than he is interested in showy churches and showy Christians today. What he is interested in is fruit.
My lone experience of pruning comes from a time many years ago when I tried my hand at growing tomato plants. We were in our first pastorate in a small farming community in Eastern Arkansas. I had plenty of excellent farmers to give me advice. One of them explained to me the importance of removing suckers. A sucker is a branch that usually grows in the fork of the main truck and a fruit-producing branch. According to my farmer friends, the new branch will not produce fruit. It will only sap the resources from the fruit-producing branch. So to have a better crop, I was instructed to remove the suckers.
We should note that the pruning is not really for punishment, but so that the plant can be even more fruitful. Pruning sounds destructive, but it is actually creative.
My second association with pruning comes from Walt Disney World. While visiting there with my children, I noticed that they had hedge-type plants growing in amazing shapes. They had one that looked just like Mickey Mouse and another like Donald Duck. By trimming the bushes regularly, they were able to shape the plants to look the way they wanted them to.
In a similar fashion, I think God prunes our lives to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. Sometimes the pruning involves removing sin from our lives. And sometimes God’s pruning is painful, but over time God is changing us to look more like Jesus.
There is one important thing we need to notice about this pruning. You can look at a hundred vines and you will never see one branch pruning another branch! It seems to me that the job of pruning, shaping and otherwise trimming those vines must be the job of someone besides the branches themselves. That responsibility is left to God. We are amateurs. We don’t know how to do the job right, so we should leave it to God.
One pastor once said, “I love preaching every Sunday. It’s the one opportunity I have all week to put the screws to the people.” He told of another friend who ended his vocation as a pastor in order to become an undertaker. When people asked the former pastor why he did that, he responded, “Well, as an undertaker, once I straighten people out, they stay straightened out!” (2)
So, it is good news that Jesus is the True Vine, God is the vinedresser, and we are the branches.
What is the fruit? I struggled with this part of Jesus’ analogy for some time. Many people suggest that fruit-bearing means leading other people to Jesus Christ. Perhaps that is a worthy application, but it is hard to find from the text.
Then I turned my thoughts to Paul’s listing of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22:
“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
If we look at the context, we might better clue. Verse 12 says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.” The whole paragraph that follows our text for today is about abiding in love, the kind of love that Jesus showed to us.
It seems that Jesus is saying once again that we should emulate the character of Jesus, and especially his love. A branch should have the same DNA as the trunk. If God is love, then we should so love.
Jesus third point concerns the abiding. The word “abide” or “remain” (meno) is repeated many times in this little story so it must be important.
One of the books I am reading just now is Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. In the first chapter he tells of his own pilgrimage in understanding Jesus. He tells of several phases in which his understanding of Jesus changed. At one point, he viewed Jesus primarily in terms of his involvement and the social and political issues of his day. But finally he came to realize the centrality of spirituality in the life of Jesus. He says that Jesus’ grounding in the world of the Spirit was foundational for his life. “Jesus’ relationship to the Spirit was the source of everything that he was.”
In a similar fashion, Borg’s own spiritual life moved in different stages. Though he grew up in a household of faith, he admitted that there were times when he was a “closet agnostic” or even a “closet atheist.” But then in his mid-thirties, he had a number of mystical experiences that fundamentally changed his understanding of God, Jesus, religion, and Christianity.
He says, “The experiences were marked by what the Jewish theologian Abrham Heschel called ‘radical amazement.’ moments of transformed perception in which the earth is see as ‘filled with the glory of God,’ shining with a radiant presence. They were also moments of connectedness in which I felt my linkage to what is.”
He then describes his pilgrimage as “Beyond Belief to Relationship.” Until his late thirties, he saw the Christian life as being primarily about believing. But after the experiences he described, he concluded, “The Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit. And a Christian is one who lives out his or her relationship to God within the framework of the Christian tradition.” He says it is a relationship that involves one in a journey of transformation. (3)
The biblical image of a vine conveys a deep sense of the connectedness of our lives. The real measure of our lives is not so much what we believe, but to whom we are connected. The better we are connected the more we are transformed.
Such transformation comes from connectedness, not from effort. Suppose someone were to walk up to one of those vines and yell, “START PRODUCING FRUIT!” Nothing would happen, would it? You see, once the vine growers have done their jobs, all the branches have to do in order to bear fruit, is to stay connected to the vine.
Thomas Merton, in one of his taped lectures to the novices at Gethsemane monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky talked about abiding in Christ this way. “It’s like you’re trying to catch a plane. You’re late. You hop in your car and speed to the airport. Every delay gives you ulcers. You reach the parking lot, grab your stuff and race down the corridor to get to the right gate. You rush onto the plane, flop down in your seat, and heave a sigh of relief. You made it. In one sense you’ve reached your destination. Then the plane takes off, and you’re on your way to other places, going higher, faster than ever before, but now you are not frantic or worried. That’s what it means to be in Christ.” (4)
1) Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Five-Minute Homilies on the Gospels of Cycles A,B,C (Hillsboro KS: Multi-Business Press 1977) pg. 86. Quoted in a sermon by Jerry Fuller posted on PRCL. May 17, 2000.
2) From a sermon by Stephen Portner posted on PRCL Listserve May 18, 2000.
3) Borg, Marcus. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Harper, San Francisco, 1995, p. 14-15.
4) “Illustrating text and theme.” Lectionaid 8 (02): 72 (LectionAid, Inc., P.O. Box 19229 Boulder 80308 – 2229) May 2000. Quoted in a sermon by Jerry Fuller posted on PRCL May 17, 2000
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003 Mickey Anders. Used by permission.