John 15:1-8 Common English Bible (CEB)

I am the true vine

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

This is the word of God for us the people of God, thanks be to God.

Life in the Vineyard

What an amazing picture this scripture paints for us!  Imagine walking through a beautiful vineyard under a deep blue sky on a warm spring day.  Imagine that the sun is shining down on you, and you are walking among a glorious tumble of vines, and leaves and fruit.  Imagine the vines producing a bounty of fruit – and the grapes are at all different stages of growth.  Some of the grapes are giant purple grapes ready to harvest, some aren’t ripe yet.

But some of the vines are too young, and don’t have any fruit yet.  In fact, some of the vines are pretty scrawny because they’ve been pruned back so far.

“When Jesus drew his picture of the vine, he knew what he was talking about.  The vine was grown all over Palestine as it still is.  It is a plant which needs a great deal of attention if the best fruit is to be got out of it.  It is grown commonly on terraces.  The ground has to be perfectly clean.  It is sometimes trained on trellises; it is sometimes allowed to creep over the ground upheld by low forked sticks; it sometimes even grows round the doors of cottages; but wherever it grows careful preparation of the soil is essential.  It grows luxuriantly and drastic pruning is necessary.  So luxuriant is it that the [trellises] are set in the ground at least 12 feet apart, for it will creep over the ground at [fast] speed.  A young vine is not allowed to fruit for the first three years and each year is cut drastically back to develop and conserve its life and energy.  When mature, it is pruned in December and January.  It bears two kinds of branches, one that bears fruit and one that does not; and the branches that do not bear fruit are drastically pruned back, so that they will drain away none of the plant’s strength.  The vine cannot produce the crop of which it is capable without drastic pruning—and Jesus knew that.

Further, the wood of the vine has the curious characteristic that it good for nothing.  It is too soft for any purpose.  At certain times of the year, it was laid done by the law, the people must bring offerings of wood to the Temple for the altar fires.  But the wood of the vine must not be brought.  The only thing that could be done with the wood pruned out of a vine was to make a bonfire of it and destroy it.  This adds to the picture Jesus draws.”  (William Barclay on John, volume 2, page 174).

The overarching image in this scripture to me is one of abundant growth – I imagine huge, prize-winning grapes!  But Jesus clearly reminds us that there is a cost to winning that prize.

One of the costs that this scripture describes is that the branch must remain in the vine.  If Jesus is the vine, we as followers must remain in him.  Last week, we talked about this same idea – how do we remain in Christ?  It seems rather mysterious, this idea of remaining in Christ.  But, we Methodists like to make things real and practical and living.  And so there are actually many things that we can do every single day that help us to remain in the vine.  We do it by attending upon the ordinances of God – when we practice staying in love with God, we are abiding or remaining in Christ.  We can work on the spiritual disciplines like as those you have listed on your bulletin as the five step plan for spiritual growth.  We remain in the vine when we worship, receive Holy Communion, pray, search the scripture, meet with a small group, serve in the church and the world, and even when we tithe and practice being generous people.

But I want to ask you to think a little bit deeper on this subject this week, because there is a huge element of dependence that’s part of remaining in Christ.  There is an element of dependence on God in this scripture.  After all, what happens to the branch when it gets separated from the vine?  If we tear a branch off a vine, will it live?

Jesus says: “Without me, you can’t do anything.”  Without me, you can’t do anything.  You see there is a cost to bearing fruit.  There is a cost to being a true follower of Jesus.  Life in the vineyard is not always easy because we have to give up our independence.  We have to give up doing things our own way.  If we are going to remain in God, we can’t independently go about our lives without a thought of what Jesus might want us to do, and how Jesus might want us to live!  When we do that, we are replacing our own will with the will of God.  Don’t we say every week and maybe daily “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We don’t pray, “God, let me do my will.”  If we are praying for God’s way, it means our way is irrelevant.  We have to trust that God will take care of us, and experiencing God’s perfect love serves to cast out the fear that comes from giving up the idea that we are “in control” of our lives.

Life in the vineyard is not something we do alone, though.  God calls us to work in partnership – like an intertwining of the vine and the branches and the grapes.  The branch can never bear fruit if it’s torn apart from the vine.  We cannot do life without God, and God is counting on us to share his light with the world.

I was recently involved in a conversation where a person was talking about how she had been extremely busy with her career as a pastor.  And she had planned to take two days off, but some really important things came up and she couldn’t.  And she hadn’t taken a 24 hour period off in two weeks.  This person was feeling guilty about taking time off, and she wanted her friends to help her to not feeling guilty for taking some time to rest.

I just couldn’t get this off my mind this week.  Friends, we should not feel guilty about taking a Sabbath.  Really we should feel guilty if we don’t take time to rest and focus on God.  This is a main way that we remain in the vine!  And God commands it.  In fact, it is one of the big ten!  I think this might be one of the biggest obstacles we face to living with God is our failure to take a Sabbath.  And I am not talking strictly about taking time to go to church.  I’m talking about taking some regular time to rest and relax – to spend time with our families and friends, and to spend some time listening to God.  And I admit that I am the worst about this, and I need you to pray that I will internalize my own message.  Because there is only growth in the vineyard when the branch remains fully attached to the vine.

When we live in God’s vineyard, we must remain in the vine.

But there is another cost to growth in the vineyard – in order for the vineyard to grow there must be pruning.  The leaves and stems and branches have to be cut back – those branches that aren’t producing fruit are cut off, so that the plant doesn’t spend too much of its energy making leaves instead of fruit.  A vineyard full of leaves is not the goal, is it?  A vineyard full of grapes is the goal!

Pruning in our lives can be painful.

I imagine the vineyard keeper carefully watching over the vineyard – checking the branches every day and trimming off small things here and there – maybe just a little imperfection that needs to be snipped off.  But sometimes, I’m afraid the vineyard keeper sees a whole branch, and he has to get out his big pruning shear to remove the branch that’s keeping the plant from really producing abundant fruit.  I imagine the vineyard keeper works constantly to transform some gnarly-looking plants into his image of perfection.  I imagine the vineyard keeper works on us little by little seeking to transform us more closely into the image of his Son.  It is through this regular pruning process that we continue to grow more like Christ, closer to perfection.  When we are remaining in the vine, God regularly works to remove those behaviors, habits and character traits that might keep us from fully loving God and people.  It’s been my personal experience that God even prunes people and activities from our lives in the process.  So be ready for some pruning!

But I can’t ignore what Jesus says about the branch that doesn’t remain in the vine – because it dries out, it withers and then is tossed in the fire.  This may be the closest you ever get to a hellfire and brimstone sermon from me.  But the implication from Jesus is that remaining in the vine has not just earthly consequences for us but eternal consequences as well.  We can only grow and thrive as disciples and be useful to God when we remain full attached to God.  One of the commentators I read this week said that a main principle of the new testament was that “uselessness invites disaster,” and “the fruitless branch is on the way to destruction.” (Barclay, John Vol. 2, 174).  The writer went on to say there are three ways we can be useless branches:

We can refuse to listen to Jesus Christ at all.  We can listen to him, and then render him a lip service unsupported by any deeds.  We can accept him as Master, and then, in the face of difficulties of the way or the desire to do as we like, abandon him.  (Barclay, John Vol. 2, 174).

There is a cost involved when you are living in the vineyard.  We have to submit to God’s way, and we are going to face pruning.  But the reward is this intertwined partnership with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  The reward is that we are called to be used by God for real life purposes.  The reward is that because we have remained in the vine and because we have been pruned to become the image of God, we get to be Christ’s representatives in the world – we bear fruit, and everyone sees God in us, and God is glorified through it.

Life in the vineyard is hard and sometimes painful!  But imagine the abundant harvest that results!  Imagine the abundant harvest that results.  Can you see those gigantic grapes on the vines?

Close your eyes for me, if you will; hear the story once more of life in the vineyard:

John 15:1-8 The Passion Translation (TPT)

Jesus the Living Vine

15 “I am a true sprouting vine, and the farmer who tends the vine is my Father. He cares for the branches connected to me by lifting and propping up the fruitless branches[a] and pruning[b] every fruitful branch to yield a greater harvest. The words I have spoken over you have already cleansed[c] you. So you must remain in life-union with me,[d] for I remain in life-union with you. For as a branch severed from the vine will not bear fruit, so your life will be fruitless unless you live your life intimately joined to mine.

“I am the sprouting vine and you’re my branches.[e] As you live in union with me as your source, fruitfulness will stream from within you—but when you live separated from me you are powerless. If a person is separated from me, he is discarded; such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire to be burned. But if you live in life-union with me and if my words[f] live powerfully[g] within you—then you can ask whatever you desire and it will be done. When your lives bear abundant fruit, you demonstrate that you are my mature disciples who glorify my Father.  Amen.