"I am the Vine, You are the Branches"
Mar.29, 2009 Jn.15:1-17
It's been a long winter, and we're all ready for spring. But perhaps nobody's more ready for spring to come than the goldfish in our pond. [photo of fishpond] All winter they've been frozen in by a solid layer of ice probably half a foot thick. Oh, the first winter I tried making an airhole by jabbing a metal rod through the ice a couple of times, then gave up after it kept freezing over. They survived. Judging by this photo, they've even thrived! I counted about 90 fish the day I took this photo, including adults and young'uns; obviously being locked away for months on end beneath a layer of ice did not dampen their reproductive capability. They've obeyed the Creator's command to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the water in the seas..." (Gen 1:22)
Now, isn't it interesting that we as human keepers had nothing at all to do with this, all winter long? No food, no extra inputs - they were all just isolated by themselves, locked away beneath all that ice. It happened 'all on its own'. I didn't have to convince the fish to be fruitful, or explain how to go about it: they already knew in their 'fishiness'. God had designed them to already have the potential to be fruitful within them.
What was one of the earliest Christian symbols? The fish, ichthus in Greek - acronym for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour." In today's lesson, toward the end of His earthly life, Jesus commands His followers to be fruitful - just like these goldfish have been fruitful (though Jesus wasn't referring primarily to biological reproduction!). Bearing fruit isn't something we manufacture, or require lots of external inputs for: like the goldfish shut in beneath that ice, it comes from something internal, already there, our 'fishiness', our Christ-connectedness: remaining in Jesus the true Vine, our source. This is particularly relevant for us today as we find ourselves culturally in a postmodern 'vacuum' following the collapse of Christendom, and the subsequent modernist trust in education and science. Connected to Christ, we are already supplied with what's needed to have a positive impact in society's spiritual vacuum.
SIGNS OF AN INVISIBLE SUPPLIER: JOHN 13-16
Before we look in more detail at Jesus' imagery in chapter 15, let's step back a minute and get the big picture, what the context is for this chapter. In John 13-16, the dialogue around the Last Supper Jesus' last evening with His disciples, there's one big mega-theme that influences the main points Jesus wants to get across.
That big mega-theme - what Jesus can't get off His mind, is that He's going to the Father. He's about to be crucified, though that hasn't registered with the others; following the resurrection He'll be returning to His heavenly Father, hence not available to the disciples any more on a day-to-day basis. You see this theme mentioned over and over again: 13:1, "Jesus knew that the time had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father." V3, "Jesus knew...that He had come from God and was returning to God..." 33, "Where I am going you cannot come." 14:2 (as we saw 2 weeks ago) "I am going [to my Father's house] to prepare a place for you." 12b, "...I am going to the Father." And many other references, winding up the whole discourse in 16:28, "Now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father." (13:31; 14:4, 28; 16:5,7,10,17b)
So this overwhelming reality - that He's leaving and going to the Father - influences the whole passage. When He goes, what's going to be left? Will this whole Kingdom-project fall apart? What will remain? What will be left for the disciples, or will there just be a gaping hole?
Jesus assures His followers there will be at least 7 signs of His invisible presence as their supplier from behind the curtain. They won't see Him (at least not in the same way), but He'll be there, continuing to give evidence of His reality, His truth, that He's 'really real'.
First a sidebar here - John's gospel has been referred to as 'the book of signs': although fewer of Jesus' miracles are recorded here than in the other gospels, they're made a big thing of as signs or evidences of Jesus' glory and uniqueness. 2:11, turning water into wine was 'the first of His miraculous signs' that revealed Jesus' glory. 4:54, healing the official's son 'was the second miraculous sign'. 6:14 refers to the miraculous sign of feeding the 5000; 9:16, restoring the sight of the man born blind; 11:47, the 'miraculous sign' of raising Lazarus back to life. So the miracles are signs, they back up or give credibility to Jesus' claims to be the Light of the world, the Bread of life, the Resurrection and the life. Today we come to one of His "I AM" sayings that has no immediately obvious miraculous sign to back it up: "I am the true Vine." Hold on a minute - are you ready for this? YOU are the sign! Did you get that? I repeat - YOU are the sign of Jesus in the world today!
Jesus may be leaving the earthly picture, but His disciples are the testifiers, the signs that will go on being evidence of the invisible supplier persisting behind the curtain, off in the wings of this earthly 'stage' if you will. Throughout the passage He identifies 7 signs that will be noticeable in believers' lives that will go on pointing to Him.
First off and most important: the sign of loving each other. 13:34-35, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. [NOTE - HERE'S THE PART THAT SHOWS IT'S A SIGN] By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Also in chapter 15:12ff, "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." [and again in v17] "This is my command: Love each other." So, the love Christians have for other believers is the first and foremost sign of Jesus' ongoing existence.
Second, when we ASK the Lord to do wonders that are beyond us, He will empower us to do things that honour Him. 14:12-14, "...He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." And in chapter 16(23f,26), "...my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name...Ask and you will receive..." So our prayers and resulting answers will be an ongoing sign.
Third, while believers love one another, they will also love the Lord and obey His commands. It's not just 'obey' by itself, as for a tyrant, but 'love-and-obey': a relationship of loving that responds to Jesus' and the Father's love for us. In chapters 14 & 15, "If you love me, you will obey what I command." "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love." "You are my friends if you do what I command." (Jn 14:15; 15:9f,14 NIVUS) In loving and obeying, we come to realize and experience for ourselves personally fellowship in spirit with Jesus and the Father; Christ has promised God will come to us and 'make His home with us' as we love-and-obey.
Fourth, the fruit disciples bear will be evidence of Jesus continuing behind-the-scenes (ch.15 vv2, 4-5, 8, 16). V8 is clearest on the 'sign' quality: "This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." Fruit here can take various forms. There's the 'fruit of the Spirit' in Galatians 5(22f) - love, joy, peace, patience, and so on - the last one there a contrast to society's IMpatience, wanting things 'now', 'road rage'. There is numerical fruit, winning souls; Paul writes to the Colossians (1:6), "All over the world the gospel is bearing fruit and growing." A few verses later he can talk about 'bearing fruit in every good work' (Col 1:10). And to the Philippians he talks about being "filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ" (1:11). More on bearing fruit later.
The fifth sign in this section is the Holy Spirit. In believers - dwelling in us, teaching us and reminding us of what Jesus said, guiding us into all truth, making us bold to testify about Jesus (14:17,26; 15:26f; 16:13ff). Also the Holy Spirit will be active in the world, convicting people about sin, righteousness, and judgment (16:8-11).
Sixth - this is the most unpleasant sign involving believers: "In this world you will have trouble." (16:33) Unbelievers are going to misunderstand, not accept, and be convicted and made uncomfortable by genuine Holy-Spirit-filled Christianity that's not ashamed to testify to Jesus. The gospel takes away people's excuse for sin, exposes their guilt, and the Spirit inwardly convicts them of guilt; that's not going to make you popular! (15:22,24; 16:8) So the last half of chapter 15 and beginning of 16 mention several dangerous outcomes: the world will hate you; they will persecute you; you will be put out of the synagogue; "in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God." (16:2) They will treat the servant the same way they treated the Master - and you know what they did to Jesus! (15:20f)
So the sixth sign is extremely unpleasant; persecution of Christ-followers happens around the world today. Yet the seventh sign flows right out of that 'trouble' believers have in the world - and is a more remarkable sign because of it. Surprisingly, despite all that unjust hardship, Christians will experience Jesus' PEACE and JOY. 14:27, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you...Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." And the end of the section, 16:33: "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.In this world you will have trouble.But take heart! I have overcome the world." (Joh 16:33 NIVUS) Joy is introduced in 15:11, "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete." Jesus wants us to experience COMPLETE joy, not some half-baked quickly-passing variety. In ch.16(20,22), "Your grief will turn to joy...I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy...Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete."
So, these seven signs are mentioned repeatedly throughout chapters 13-16 as indicators or pointers to Jesus' persistence invisibly in today's world, between His death/resurrection and His return. Jesus has gone to the Father; but WE (believers) are the evidence He still lives. In 15:9-17 all of the seven except trouble-in-the-world are listed or implied one after the other. Vv9-10 &14, sign 3, love-and-obey; v11, joy; vv12-13, love each other; v15, 'making known' the Father's business (the role of the Holy Spirit); v16, fruit, and asking; v17, sign 1 again, love each other.
Jesus has entered His glory, returned to the Father's side; He's given us His new birth and life to be walking talking signs that He's still alive, if invisible.
This week I noticed when I pulled up the lever in the car for the right turn signal, it clicked unusually fast. I got out of the car with the blinker on, stood at the front of the vehicle, and sure enough - the right front turn-signal light was not working. Bought a new bulb at Radford's, replaced it, and now oncoming traffic can again be made aware of my intentions. But when the bulb was burnt out, that wasn't happening - I could turn on the blinker all I wanted, and it SEEMED to be on - the clicker was clicking and the dash light was blinking - but the message wasn't getting through. As long as that bulb was cooked, that turn signal just wasn't happening.
How good a signal are YOU of the Master's intentions? Jesus has great plans, Kingdom possibilities, ready to turn the world upside-down - but is His communication hampered by burnt-out bulbs? Are others seeing His signal through you?
SECRETS OF FRUITFULNESS
Bearing fruit was the fifth sign. The first 8 verses of chapter 15 focus in more on that, with Jesus' awesome saying, "I am the true vine...I am the vine, you are the branches." Here's where I want to zero in and spend some time for application this morning. What are the secrets of fruitfulness - really shining brightly and living in a way that brings Jesus glory?
First, there's a little phrase that occurs repeatedly in these verses - v4,5,6,7 - at least 5 times in various forms. What is it? "Remain in Me"; abide in Me; be in Me at all times. Stay connected, keep plugged in, be joined to. A tomato can't keep developing if its branch becomes broken off the main stem of the vine.
This suggests being located near the vine, right next, touching: a commitment to physical proximity, placing ourselves near the Supply. It is a discipline to carve time out of our schedule for daily devotions, giving our attention to God's word, being quiet and still enough to hear the Lord's voice, to adopt a posture of prayer when so many other things in today's world clamour for our attention. If there's not much fruit seems to be happening in our lives - how much time are we spending near the Vine? Or has our branch been dis-located? Jesus says pointedly in v5, "Apart from Me you can do nothing." Zilch.Rien. Grab that remote, turn off the distractions, and get yourself to where you need to be in order to 'abide' in Him. Susannah Wesley, sitting in the kitchen surrounded by children, threw her apron up over her head - and the kids knew not to bug her when she did that. Whatever works for you.
Next, give special attention to Jesus' words. V7, "If you remain in Me and [here you expect He's going to say 'I' as in vv4-5, but He doesn't!] - if you remain in Me and MY WORDS remain in you..." The Bible is God's gift to us helping our thoughts, our minds, our attitudes and views to become shaped after His pattern. "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." (Rom 12:2) "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that [here's the connection to fruitfulness] - so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2Ti 3:16-17 NIVUS)
If you would be fruitful, be Biblical - give attention to Jesus' teaching. Lately our Elders have been reviewing our church's most recent Natural Church Development survey. Our lowest-scoring 'minimum factor' this time? "Passionate Spirituality." What were our poorest-scoring questions in that area? Two of the 4 lowest scores this group were question 84, "I enjoy reading the Bible on my own;" and question 72, "The Bible is a powerful guide for me in the decisions of everyday life." If we want a more powerful experience of being connected to Christ, maybe we need to give more priority to having His words remain in us. If it's puzzling to you on your own, invest in a good study Bible, or join a group! Persist in Bible study and it will start to unfold with a richness of meaning God has waiting for you.
Third, ask God in prayer for what's needed. V7 again, "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you." That's our prayer life; once we've heard from God's word, talk to Him about it, plead with Him for everything you need. Psalm 37:4 has this promise: "Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart."
Fourth, start bearing fruit even modestly - take baby steps of obedience - lest you find the supply cut off. V2, "He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit..." and v6 warns that disconnected branches wither, and are thrown into the fire! Before the servants in John 2(5) saw the miracle of water being turned into wine, they had Jesus' mother urge them, "Do whatever He tells you." The Vine can bear fruit through us if we set ourselves to be obedient.
This week I heard someone in our congregation mention they were taking supper to a family outside our fellowship in which one member is very limited by a physical disability. It's a family I myself had thought I'd like to visit but hadn't quite gotten around to. Bringing supper in is an example of fruitful love-in-action - I'm glad somebody was doing it!
Last of all, those who would be fruitful can recognize and accept patiently the Gardener's pruning. Vv2-3, "...every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.You are already clean [pruned - same verb in the Greek] because of the word I have spoken to you." The truth of the Biblical 'word' helps us develop good form; but God can also use the discipline of experience and trials to cleanse us of distracting 'suckers' that would interfere with fruit-bearing.
An email I received not too long ago had a cartoon drawing of a variety of individuals each carrying a cross as they walked along, the bottom of the cross dragging behind them. One character stopped and had the bright idea of sawing a bit off of the end of his cross. After, it seemed lighter, so later he stopped and sawed off some more. Then some more, until his cross was noticeably shorter than the others.
That worked fine until the group came to a big chasm. Then someone realized they could use their crosses as bridges to walk across. All except for the fellow who'd sawed chunks off his cross along the way. The moral of the story - the crosses God gives us to bear, the prunings and tests, may be preparing us to cope with even greater challenges and Kingdom-tasks that lie ahead. Branches that do bear fruit, God prunes, so they may be even more fruitful.
CLEANSING LOVE GETS ITS HANDS DIRTY
The Lord intends for us to be signs, bearing fruit in His absence, so the world may notice His goodness and beauty through us. Our deeds don't need to be sensational; in fact, some of the most humble sorts of gestures of love may be what gets noticed.
What was the Number 1 sign, the one Jesus emphasized most? "Love each other as I have loved you." (15:12) At the beginning of these 3 chapters, how did Jesus show His disciples 'the full extent of His love'? (13:1) He grabbed a towel and basin and washed their dirty feet.
Doug Koop in ChristianWeek comments on this action, showing how it was loving and cleansing (pruning) at the same time. He writes: "In this act Jesus explicitly took on 'the form of a servant' and set about the undesirable task of washing the feet of household guests. Humble work, it is. Some consider it humiliating. At the sight of the Ceo doing janitor work, a sudden hush hit the room. Oops. Not cool, guys. The championship coach is picking up dirty socks in the locker room. The supreme chef is rinsing coagulated gravy from the dishes. The cathedral architect is scrubbing the toilets.
But Jesus was following a master plan that turns the ways of the world on their head. Jesus knew that cleaning was necessary, and He did something about it. Of course, the guys realized immediately that they'd slipped up. But despite their protestations, Jesus insisted on continuing the task. The cleaning He had in mind wasn't just the dirty feet. He spoke to the cleanliness of the heart as well, to purity of motive. He was setting an example of the ages.
Consider the needs of others and serve them, He was saying. Help each other stay clean. Wash one another's feet. Take up the towel and serve. Take note of the dirt. Clean it up. See the soil. Remove it before it stains too deep. 'I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done unto you.'"
May the Lord grant us ability to see how even the most menial tasks, done in love, can be evidence of Him that bears much fruit. Let's pray.