There is a character in George Orwell’s great analogy of the Soviet Union “Animal Farm” that I really love and whom I find displays some worrying character traits that I see in myself…Boxer… Boxer is a cart horse, he has great strength and faith, he believes strongly in what is happening at the farm, in animalism, and his response to everything that goes on and definitely if it goes wrong, even the ridiculous fanciful plans of the pigs is I must work harder, he puts all his strength and energy and heart into helping the farm achieve its purpose, working longer and longer and harder and harder, heroically even, and then finally his heart gives out. He lies there exhausted and broken still in harness. Wow does it feel like that sometimes. I have to watch myself in that the Christian life and Christian leadership can feel a lot like that. I must work harder; it’s all up to me. We even live in a society where there is an expectation at our work places that we will all be like boxer, there is the demand for greater and greater productivity, less people doing more and producing more and more and more.
In that environment you can find yourself just surviving holding on by a thread, but Jesus invites us to be thriving, bearing lasting fruit, through a life giving relationship holding on to him. Leon Morris sums it up like this ‘The analogy of the vine brings before us the importance of fruitfulness in the Christian life and the truth that this is not the result of human achievement, but of abiding in Christ.’
We are working our way through Jesus “I Am” Sayings in John’s gospel, Sayings that show us something of the mystery and the meaning of Jesus divine origin and nature, as John says of Jesus in the prologue to his gospel “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Our working definition of Glory is the weighty reality of all that someone is and just like light is refracted when it passes through a prism in the “I Am” saying we get to see some of the wondrous hues and deep rich dimensions of the weighty reality of all God is revealed in Jesus.
Jesus used an analogy from everyday use to bring a spiritual truth. All around them would have been vineyards, and they would be aware of all the work and effort that went into getting the best crop and the best vintage. I worked for a year in the Kiwifruit industry and there are a lot of similarities. The canes had been grafted onto a strong sturdy root stock, each winter old wood had to be cut away and the canes with the best possibility of being fruit chosen and the others cut away, they had to be tied down to a frame and wires so it would get the space it needed and the sunlight it required to bear fruit in summer more had to be cut away so that all the energy surging through the vine could go to producing the right fruit. Vines were sprayed to protect them from insects and fungi, they were protected against the worst adverse weather at the wrong time. All to produce good fruit, when you pruned you had to be careful not to nick a fruit bearing cane if a cane was somehow detached from the vine there was no way it would bear fruit. I even remember the hard and unrewarding week we spent picking fruit on an orchard that had not been pruned for a few years. Struggling to find good fruit under frames that were sagging and breaking under the weight of too much wood. Jesus uses all this to say I am the true vine and my father is the gardener’ and tell his disciples that it is only in their relationship with him that the life that he has will bring forth fruit to the glory of God. Just as Jesus is the means by which we find life he is the means by which that life continues to flow into and through us. He is the vine we are the branches, to abide in him means to stay connected, to dwell and live in him.
But it is also an analogy full of meaning and significance from the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Old Testament Israel is portrayed as the vine, or God’s vineyard. Coins from the Maccabean era, which was the last time Israel was a nation before 1947, bear the image of the vine on them. Like in our reading from Isaiah today Israel is seen as a vineyard that God expects to get fruit from, but because of mismanagement or disobedience does not bear the fruit it is supposed to. Jesus here presents himself as the ultimate fulfilment of this image, it is in him not ones national or religious identity that life and fruitfulness will be found. In both images it is the Father that tends the vineyard. That prepares the soil, prunes and plants and engrafts and makes the fruit to grow.
It’s not often that you get asked whether you’re a heretic but at a funeral last year someone asked me if I believed in replacement theology. Well I’d never heard of it so I asked what they meant. She told me it’s a heresy of believing that the church has replaced Israel in God’s purposes, and is the heir to the promises of God. But in this analogy Jesus points to a greater fulfilment and a greater reality that it is in Christ and our abiding in him, that both Jew and Gentile have life and are formed as God’s people. It’s not one replacing the other. The focus is Jesus as the vine, as the source, as the one in whom we all find our purpose and meaning and identity as God’s people.
The context of this passage of course is the last supper, Jesus had told his disciples he was going to leave them for a while, he was predicting his imminent death, he comforts them with the words we looked at last week I am the way the truth and the life, no one come to the father but through me, it was an invitation into a relationship with God that would result in our eternal destination being with Jesus at his father’s house. Then Jesus had gone on to prepare his disciples to follow him even after he had gone away. He tells them that he will send them a comforter and here he tells them that the way to continue to bear fruit is through relationship with him. That dwelling with Christ is not just a future hope but a present reality. While John does not have Jesus initiating what we call the Lord’s supper these word of Jesus at this time are beautifully illustrated by communion hwere we remember what Christ has done for us and his strengthen presence with us,
We are called to bear fruit, and that comes from knowing and being known by Jesus, and while Jesus doesn’t unpack that metaphor here, we know that if he is the vine then we are called to produce Jesus flavoured fruit. In fact Jesus goes on to tell his disciples if they continue to abide in him that it will result in a fruitful prayer life and in us loving one another as Christ has loved us, love that is sacrificial costly, self-giving service.later Paul will define the fruit the Holy Spirit produces in our lives and as many scholars point out the list of this fruit starts with love and the other eight expand what we mean by love.
I don’t know about you but Jesus saying ‘Ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you’ sort of sounds like a cosmic credit card, Jesus what about that red Ferrari, and people often treat it like that, the whole prosperity ‘name it and claim it’ false theology. We forget that the basis of this is abiding in Christ, is finding our life in relationship with Jesus. A relationship that Jesus quantifies by calling friendship not servant and slave, so part of what makes our prayer life fruitful is that as we are friends and Jesus has revealed all that God is to us that we have common aims and a common vision, which means our prayer life flows out of that relationship with Jesus. Our heart desires reflect those of Christ, we desire like Christ does to bring glory to the Father by what we ask for. Jesus repeats so that whatever you ask in my name the father will give you at the at the end of the reading we had today and the context is Jesus giving his disciples a commandment to love each other as I have loved you, and again it turns Jesus saying on prayer from being self-centred and want centred to an expression of both our relationship with Jesus and an outworking of receiving that and showing it others.
That’s the context of lasting fruit as well, the fruit that will last is to be found in our love for other people. The Christian faith at its core is a very simple faith. In Christ God has shown us what God is like, he has shown us the love God has for us, by giving his life for us, greater love has no one than they lay down their lives for their friends; as we respond and live in Christ we are called to share that love with other people.
The obvious question of course is how we abide in Christ. How do we keep abiding in him? And It would be easy to try and fit this in to us doing things, more things to abide in Christ. But that does not really fit in with what Jesus is saying here. If we use the analogy that Jesus does of the vine it is in clinging to the one who is the source of life. Paul Metzger talks of a type of burn out that he experienced in his life where he tries to do everything in his own strength, and he is a very gifted and capable person, but he finds that he simply ends up empty and dry if at the core of what he does is not a focus on knowing and being known by Christ, Investing in spending time in prayer and scripture reading and silence and stillness to be with Christ. As well as a willingness to do what Jesus commands us and invest ourselves in loving other people.
I’m very blessed to be married to my best friend and to keep that relationship growing and strong I need to spend time with Kris, we need to talk, I need to know what is on Kris’s heart and she needs to know what is own mine. We use certain techniques to do that, we try and have a regular date night for one. It’s the same with our relationship with Jesus there are techniques and disciplines that help us to abide in Christ, daily quite times, spiritual disciplines etc they are not the answer it’s not about doing rather they help us to be, to be with Christ.
The passage also talks of the gardener pruning and cutting off what is not fruitful, and this is part of the process of abiding in Christ. Allowing God to focus on what will bear fruit, opening ourselves up to the discipline of God. I’m an ideas guy, I’m at home in a brainstorming environment, give me a situation or a problem and I’ll thrive coming up with creative solutions, but I’ll also find myself just doing stuff rather than doing stuff that is fruitful and we need to be willing to have the fathers prune us and call us back to what Jesus is wanting to do through and with us.
Towards the end of last year the church leadership went through a visioning process and we came up with a vision for our church here that we are called to be an authentic, vibrant, sustainable community growing as followers of Jesus, and inspiring other to join us on that journey’ it’s a good way to look at all we do and ask the question in light of that what will bear fruit and what needs to be pruned. But also at the heart of that is us as a congregation abiding in Christ. Authenticity, being real comes from knowing the reality of Christ with us. Vibrancy life itself comes from us vibrating in unison with Jesus who feeds us through his presence and by his word. Sustainability at its core comes from dwelling in Christ and finding ourselves centred in him, our energy and our resources overflowing from that core relationship… Community, coming from communing with Christ, growth coming from being disciplined and pruned by the Father. Inspiring other to join us on the journey, coming from being inspired by the one who is our friend on the journey.
Let’s be still this morning and hear Jesus invitation to abide in him. Jesus said I am the true vine.