During the season of Lent we’ve been exploring together a series of metaphors in the gospel of John that Jesus uses to talk about who he is and what he’s doing. So far we’ve heard that he is the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the gate for the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, and the way, truth, and life. This morning we come to the final metaphor.
This metaphor is in the middle of Jesus’ long speech, which lasts from chapter 14 through chapter 17. In John’s gospel this is the last night of Jesus’ life. He’s already entered Jerusalem although we won’t tell that story until next week. He has washed his disciples feet and eaten with them for the last time. Judas has deserted them and Jesus has predicted that Peter will deny him. He has reassured them that even after all of this turmoil, they will continue to carry out God’s plan to restore creation and reconcile all people to God. In fact, these four chapters are mostly reassurance and encouragement for the disciples. Jesus is giving them everything he possibly can before he is crucified, even though they don’t yet know exactly what’s coming. Part of that encouragement is this morning’s metaphor, which is followed by the only commandment in the whole gospel of John.
Let us listen now for the word and wisdom of God in the gospel of John, chapter 15, verses 1 through 17.
“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.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.John 15:1-17
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
My friends and mentors are always reminding me that there’s a difference between doing and being. They’re always doing it because I need the reminder. And that’s because I happen to be especially good at doing. Anyone else with me? Any other Type A folks? Anyone else who loves nothing more than to finish a project with visible results? Get bored easily if there isn’t anything to DO? Want to sit down at the end of the day and know that you DID something? Anyone else who might secretly suspect that just maybe their value in the world is based on what they can produce in a day? I’m good at doing, friends. But I struggle with being. With resting. With feeling like I’m worthy of existing at all, or worthy of being loved, if I didn’t accomplish anything tangible today.
And this week, as I was preparing for worship, I found a commentary written by someone who seems to feel the same way as I do. Because through the whole article about this section of Scripture, the author kept referring to “the works of love.” “The works of love that are required of Jesus’ followers. … The disciples are commissioned to go and do the works of love.”
And as much as I love to do things, as I continued to read about “the works of love,” I felt the Holy Spirit make it clear to me that this commentary’s author was getting ahead of herself. The word that is used most often in this pericope, this little section, isn’t “do.” It isn’t “go.” It isn’t “bear fruit.” It isn’t even “love.” The word that is used most often in this pericope is … “abide.” Abide; remain; stay; wait; endure; not depart; not leave … perhaps we could even say “not do.”
Abide. That’s God’s invitation to us. Not do. Just be. Notice that most of the work that’s being done in this section is being done by the Gardener. The Gardener is tending to the true vine, Jesus. The Gardener is pruning the branches.
Let’s think for a minute about this gardening metaphor. As I was working on this I was thinking about Mark Miller and his roses, so Mark feel free to correct me if I get off course here. Any plant that is designed to produce something specific produces much better with some tending, whether it’s roses or an apple tree or a grape vine, like the example we have here. Everything in our universe devolves towards chaos and left on their own these plants are going to grow wild. The Gardener amends the soil, pulls the weeds and tends the plant. Branches that are producing well can be strategically cut back so that they produce even more. And branches that aren’t producing are cut off so they don’t suck the life out of the plant with no results. Unless something has gone wrong, bearing fruit, or flowers, is the natural result of being connected to the main force of life in the plant. Branches that are producing fruit aren’t thinking hard about producing fruit. They’re not trying hard to do the works of fruiting. It’s natural; they bear fruit simply because they are connected to the vine.
If we can remember that bearing fruit happens naturally to branches which are connected to the vine, then we can avoid the trap of getting obsessed with what’s happening with the other branches. Some of us were raised in families or traditions where there was a lot of pressure to bear fruit. So we are naturally a little anxious about the branches that get cut off and burned.
The way we keep from being anxious about this is to keep things in the right order. If we are worried about whether we are producing enough fruit to keep from being cut off, then we have missed the first principle about abiding in Jesus and his love. The question is not, “Am I producing enough fruit?” The question is “Am I abiding?” The question is not “Am I doing enough?” but “Am I being?” Any work we do that glorifies God, stems from the love we have received. It will happen naturally. That doesn’t mean that it won’t take any thought or effort, but it does mean that this process of fruitfulness doesn’t start with our trying really hard to be fruitful.
This image of some branches being burned is not God’s attempt to shame us or scare us into good behavior. If you don’t believe me, look at verse 11: Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my JOY may be in you and your JOY may be complete.” That word “complete” in Greek is where we get our word “plethora.” Jesus has said these things about abiding and fruitfulness so we may have a plethora of JOY. And that’s how I know it’s not about shame or fear. God knows how we are wired, and God knows that shame and fear will never bring us joy and will never help us grow.
Also, I want to tell you as a pastor that if you care about whether you are fruitful enough, you are already on the way. Anybody who might living in such an unfruitful way as to be cut off and burned, in my pastoral experience, those people don’t care about whether they are being fruitful. So basically, if you’re worried about getting cut off and burned, whatever that means, it’s probably not going to happen to you. God doesn’t try to motivate us with shame and fear. God knows we only grow when we feel safe and loved.
That’s why the only “command” Jesus gives us is to love one another as he has loved us. Which is hardly even a command. When we are connected to the true vine, all the love of the universe is flowing into us and out through us to the rest of the world. The fruit we bear is the fruit of love, the fruit of the Spirit, which we do as a natural result of abiding in the vine. Abide. Start there. Don’t start by trying, don’t start by doing. Start by being: being with Jesus, being connected to the Vine, being in a relationship of trust with the Gardener. Every good thing grows from there.
I love that we wound up with this vine imagery on a day when we are celebrating Communion, our ancient ritual that includes the fruits of the vine. Communion is always a tangible reminder of God’s great love for us demonstrated in the life and death of Christ, and this morning we have this added reminder of the fruit that comes from Jesus the true vine. Friends as we approach the table for the last time in this Lenten season, I want to remind you that although this moment can be somber, it is also joyful. When our ancestors testified about it, they insisted that this is the joyful feast of the people of God. Where people of all ages, races, and sexes – people in every type of body – come from the north, south, east, and west and gather around Christ’s table.