Scriptures: John 15:1-17
This is the Sunday before Pentecost, so it is the last Sunday that we will look at Jesus’ last I AM statement in John. So, for just a little quiz. Let’s start naming some of those I AM statements that Jesus said. Now, we didn’t preach on every one of them, so if we miss one or two, that is ok. Who can name one?
Great! Now remember, each and every time Jesus used one of these statements, he connected it to something going on around him. Most tie an image of Israel’s past to something the disciples are looking at or experiencing at that moment. And Jesus uses that image and experience to teaching about who he is, who God is, and who we are in relationship to God in Jesus Christ.
And this is so true in this morning’s passage, which is part of Jesus’ long farewell discourse he gives his disciples right before his arrest and crucifixion. It is the Passover festival and the disciples and Jesus have just left the temple and are on their way to the upper room to celebrate the Passover meal. In leaving, they pass by a prominent symbol of Israel that hung over the entrance of the Temple. This symbol was made of gold wire and beads, delicately twisted to look like a huge golden grape vine. It was huge, intricate and beautiful, overflowing with golden grapes. The reason this symbol was so important and placed in the entrance to the temple is that within Jewish tradition, the vine was a picture of Israel. God had plucked Israel the vine out of Egypt and planted it in the promised land. Psalm 80 uses this imagery when it says, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.” Scripture paints the picture of God as the protector of this choice vine, keeping it safe from wild animals, tending to its growth so only the best grapes are produced. The vine represented the covenant people of God, planted, and tended by God so that Israel would bear fruit for the world, spreading God’s love into all the nations of the world. It represents all that Israel is to be and do. God has a plan and a purpose for Israel to be the light of salvation to the world in and through his care and nurture.
But, there is another image of the grapevine in scripture when Israel doesn’t fulfill that calling. It is the image of the wild grapevine, vines that have grown reckless, sprawling over the grown and producing either little good fruit or sour fruit. I don’t know much about grape cultivation, but in studying this passage I learned that the best grapes grow close to the vine. When the branches are not controlled, the shade of the branches stunts the growth of the grapes and production actually decreases. Both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah have God lamenting the growth of these wild grapes. Jeremiah says, “I have planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” It is kind of like a tomato plant. The biggest, bushiest plants don’t produce the best fruit. There are these little sucker leaves that grow out of splits in the leaves that steal nutrients from the fruit. They need to be cut. So, for the disciples, there is the image of the beautiful, choice vine that has an over abundance of grapes, an image of all that Israel was to be and become in the hands of God, and then the image of the wild vine when they turned from God’s care and protection.
Now, Jesus turns this imagery on its head when he says he is the ‘true vine.’ The vine is Israel. This can only mean that he is, in himself, the true Israel. This would have been shocking to the disciples ears. All that God planned for Israel and Israel’s calling in the world now rests in Jesus. He is God’s true planting and God was and is always eager to see fruit come from his garden…and the true vine produces branches. Jesus’ followers are members of God’s true people. His followers are the branches. The image of the vine is about who Jesus and his people really are, and what is now going to happen to them as a result. Remember, the first people that would have heard these words from John’s gospel had been kicked out of the synagogues and told they were no longer a part of covenant people. They would have found comfort from Jesus in knowing that yes, even though they are no longer part of that community, they are a part of a bigger community known in Christ, the true vine.
Within the farewell discourse as a whole, Jesus’ words about being the true vine opens up a whole new dimension of what Jesus wants to say as he takes his leave of his closest friends. He has already talked about being in the Father and the Father being in him. Now we see what that means, not only for Jesus, but also for his followers. On the one hand, it is a way of speaking of himself as Israel-in-person, and of his followers as God’s true people because they belong to him. On the other hand, it is a way of speaking of the intimate relationship with him that they are to live into and enjoy. Branches that decide that they can live a life separate from the life of the vine wither and die. They are good for nothing but the fire. Branches that remain in the vine and submit to the pruner’s knife when necessary, live and bear fruit. That is the prospect that Jesus holds out to his followers, to all of us.
Jesus as the true vine and this imagery as the Father as the master gardener raises some important questions. How do we remain and abide in him? What does it look like to abide in him? Abiding is intimate state of being. And we have to realize that abiding is an intimate choice, a choice on God in Christ’s part and a choice on our part. Now, I firmly believe that in Christ, God has said yes to every human being. But not all will say yes back. And when we do say yes, “I choose to abide in Christ,” it is a lifelong commitment that we have to remind ourselves of everyday. Two ways we do that are by being a part of a community that knows and loves him and celebrates Jesus as Lord and Savior. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. I remember meeting a young man in Alaska who said, “I don’t need a church, I have Jesus.” But Jesus is the church. Despite all the brokenness and disagreements, it is in and with the body of believers that Christ is experienced and found. We abide in Christ by actively being part of something bigger than ourselves, his community of faith, the church.
But the other part of abiding in Christ comes about as we become people of prayer and worship in our own intimate, private lives. We must make sure to be in touch, in tune, with Jesus, knowing him and being known by him. Will we spend time in prayer? Will we open the Bible and encounter the living Word there? Will we be focused on Christ? How will we spend our time and our money? There is an extraordinary promise about prayer with a sharp warning in these words about being part of the vine. If we abide in him, Jesus will give us whatever we want! Then, why wasn’t my prayers answered? I recently came across a cartoon from agnusday.org of two sheep who talk religion. Now, I had never seen this cartoon before, but the one I found has them talking about prayer. The first sheep says, “I used to be frustrated when Jesus didn’t give me everything I prayed for.” The second sheep responds, “But now?” The first sheep says, “I realized that we don’t give Jesus everything he prays for.” “Ouch,” says the second sheep. As Christ abides in us, our prayers become his prayers, not our prayers. They become focused on his will and not what we would want.
But the warning in this passage is also that, though it always hurts, we must be ready for the Father’s pruning knife. God is glorified, and so will we be, by bearing lots of good quality fruit. For that to happen, there will be extra growth that will need cut away. That, too, is an intimate process. The vine-dresser is never closer to the vine, taking more thought over its ling-term health and productivity, than when he has the knife in his hand.
I think Jesus’ last I Am statement is the most personal, the most intimate, the most loving of them all. It shows the deep interconnectedness between Jesus and the Father and between Jesus and us. We are connected to God in a way that is deeper than we can understand or imagine. Apart from him, we can do nothing. There is an invitation in his words. Abide in him and we will bear much fruit. Amen.