Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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.
5“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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:1-8, NRSV)
Esther and I have some exciting news to share. After several years of trying, I am so proud to announce that we are finally expecting our first lemon. For years we didn’t have time for fruit trees. Life was just so busy and full. Frankly, we weren’t sure we’d be able to provide the attention that we know this sort of responsibility requires. But then a couple of years ago we both realized that we weren’t getting any younger and so, on a whim, we planted our first fruit tree, a lemon tree, in our back yard. As first timers often are, we were, I admit, a bit overzealous, hovering constantly over this little tree, watering it, and pruning it, keeping all those nasty weeds away from it.
In spite of all our loving efforts, however, the first couple of years produced nothing. Not one stinking lemon. But then this summer we finally had a breakthrough. I’ll never forget the day. I came home after work one afternoon and my wife had that twinkle in her eye which always tells me she has especially good news to share. Taking my hand she led me outside to the lemon tree. Carefully she lifted up a branch, and there it was. It was tiny but there was no doubt, our first little lemon. The news got even better as the summer progressed and it became apparent that this was going to be a multiple birth. In fact, today our little lemon tree is now heavy with lemons. It’s really starting to show.
Of course, like any proud parent, I brought pictures to show you. Aren’t they beautiful? Here’s a sample of the birth announcement we’re planning to send off once that first lemon ripens. Some friends of ours are throwing a shower this next month to help us celebrate. Just a little get-together. We’re planning, of course, to serve lemonade. Fresh squeezed, I hope.
In all seriousness, this has been quite an amazement to me. Never in my life have I had a fruit tree in my own yard. I get all my fruit from the produce section of the grocery store. So to me it truly is awe-inspiring to have been able to plant a tree in my yard which is actually producing read fruit. If I was a farmer I hope I would never tire of the wonder of it all.
Now admittedly, as trees go a lemon tree is not all that beautiful. In fact, we did not plant this tree for its ornamental value. It has none. We planted it to produce lemons. And I can say with confidence that if year after year this tree failed to produce lemons, we would rip it out and plant in its place something that would make better use of that particular patch of soil. Fruit trees are meant to produce fruit. When they fail to do so, they miss their very purpose.
In the passage we just read, Jesus takes a very simple illustration from daily life and uses it to teach us something of ultimate importance. This morning my hope is to help us understand what it is Jesus is trying to teach us here when he talks about fruit.
To begin with, when we think of the church, the community of Jesus’ disciples seeking to follow him in this world, Jesus wants us to imagine a vineyard. So let’s do that. Let’s think of Faith Presbyterian Church as a vineyard. And in this vineyard, God is the farmer. Now I know that if we want to be technically correct in this illustration we should call God the vintner. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s just call God the Grape Farmer.
Simple question. What is the purpose of a vineyard? To produce grapes, right? So what would you say about a vineyard which never produced grapes? Even if such a vineyard was beautiful, especially in the fall when the leaves changed, if for years on end it never produced a single grape such a vineyard would be deemed a waste. And the grape farmer of such a vineyard would be considered a failure.
As the farmer in this vineyard, God’s job is to produce fruit. Sweet, abundant, healthy fruit. But what is that fruit? It’s obviously not grapes. So what fruit is God aiming to produce in this church. Well, here is where Paul can help us. In Galatians 5 Paul is writing to the church and describing the Christian life, what it looks like to live by the Spirit of Christ. At one point he writes these famous words: “The fruit of the Spirit – [the fruit of life in Christ] – is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Understand, God’s primary aim in this or any church is not to produce inspiring sermons and music, wonderful programs, beautiful buildings, or helpful projects. Nothing wrong with those things, but they are all secondary to the primary aim of the Grape Farmer which is to nurture people who are ever-increasingly more loving, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle and self-controlled. For, you see, God knows that when he produces this sort of fruit in a whole community of people like this one, that community, by resembling Christ, will bring glory to God and be a light to the world around us.
With this in mind, here’s something which you really ought to carefully consider. Ask yourself, “As time goes by am I, by the grace of God, becoming a more loving person? Am I more patient this year than I was last year? Am I more generous now than ever? Am I more self-controlled now than I was when I was younger?” These are great questions to ask yourself. As you do, remember that the question is not whether you possess these qualities more so than somebody else possesses them. God doesn’t compare you to other people so don’t do it yourself. The comparison, rather, is always between yourself now and yourself before. Is this fruit emerging in my life more today than it was yesterday? Keep that question in mind as we move on through Jesus’ illustration. It’s the question that will really help to bring this all home.
Now, as Jesus goes on he teaches us here that in the middle of God’s vineyard there is a great Vine and that he is that Vine. The whole passage begins, in fact, with this statement, “I Am the true vine.” In saying this, Jesus, as he does in other places, takes the sacred and long-held name for God, I Am, and uses it for himself. In fact, the statement really ought to be read, “I Am. The True Vine.” Understand, this is nothing short of yet another claim of divinity. Jesus is declaring here that he is the source of all life, the one through whom all creation finds its being. He’s telling us here that there is no life in the vineyard apart from him. Jesus Christ is the one true Vine.
This means, as Jesus teaches here, that we in the church, his followers, are the branches which must be connected to the Vine if we are to bear the fruit we are supposed to bear. It is only through Jesus Christ, specifically only through our intimate connection with Christ, that we are able to produce the sweet fruit of the Spirit which is the glory of God and the light to this dark world. If we are to become loving, joyful, peace-filled, patient, kind, generous, good, faithful, and self-controlled people that will only happen through our connection to Jesus Christ.
Are you with me so far?
Here is where Jesus gets practical. He teaches us that there are two types of branches connected to the vine. There are branches which bear good fruit and there are branches which bear no fruit. He also teaches us that the Grape Farmer is walking through the vineyard taking his shears to both types of branches.
In verse 2 the Vine plainly tells us that, “[The Grape Farmer] removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.” This is a hard statement Jesus makes but we must not soften its intent. If there is somebody who sits in the church year after year after year and does not ever demonstrate an increase in the fruit of the Spirit in their life, never becoming more loving, or patient, or generous, or kind, then that person will be removed by God from the Vine and, ultimately, from the vineyard itself. This is a hard truth. Out of his love, Jesus means it to be. He’s warning us here that those in the church who are not continuously connected to Christ, walking with Christ, and growing with Christ, are ultimately not in Christ. Regardless of whatever else you accomplish in life, religious and otherwise, the only thing that ultimately counts in your life is that you are increasingly becoming a person shaped in the character of Christ. Apart from this, nothing else counts in the end.
Understand, however, that even if you are a branch that is bearing good fruit, you are not exempted from the Grape Farmer’s shears. As verse 2 continues, the Vine tells us, “Every branch that bears fruit [the Grape Farmer] prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
One thing I am learning about the Christian life is that God never leaves us alone. God is never done with us. The Christian life is never simply a matter of I trust Christ, receive salvation, and then wait around for God to take me to heaven. The Bible never talks like this. Jesus never talks like this.
A grape farmer never plants a vineyard and then just sits back and watches it grow. If he did, the vineyard would soon be a complete mess. Season after season the grape farmer tends the vines, even the healthy ones, pruning them so that the fruit they produce will be increasingly more abundant and sweeter. In the same way, the great Grape Farmer is always at work in our lives, cutting away the parts of our lives which are rotten or sick, parts which keep us from becoming the people we were made to be.
As I suspect you know, sometimes this pruning is painful. Usually it is. Like you, I can think of times when I know God has led me through some difficult circumstances I never would have chosen myself. In His wisdom, however, He knew that when I came out the other side of the trial I would be shaped in beautiful ways. It’s said, for example, that if you pray for patience God doesn’t just make you patient. Instead, God will probably send trying circumstances into your life which will give you a golden opportunity to learn how to be patient.
In verse 3 Jesus tells us, “You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you.” We miss it in the English, but in the original Greek the words in this text for “pruned” and “cleansed” share the same root. In other words, Jesus uses them interchangeably here. He’s teaching us that the pruning which God does in our lives often comes through his “word”. The scriptures, as they are often described, are sharp and are used by God to slice deeply into our hearts and, like a surgeon’s scalpel, cut out those parts of our lives which have infected our spiritual health. Most all of us here have had the experience where God’s Word, either leaping off the page as we read the Bible alone or captivating us in our seats as it is preached on a Sunday morning, has cut deeply into our hearts and lives and led to wonderful change and growth. That’s what Jesus is talking about here. This is what it looks like when the Grape Farmer walks through his Vineyard, pruning as He goes.
All this brings us to the heart of Jesus’ message here. In verse 4 the Vine says to us, simply and in a way that sounds a whole lot like an invitation, “Abide in me as I abide in you. This is God’s vineyard. My Father is the Grape Farmer wanting to produce sweet fruit. I’m the Vine. You are branches. All you must do is simply abide in me as I already abide in you.”
Now, we don’t talk like this anymore. Nowadays nobody ever says, “Would you like to come and abide with me?” No, that’s not how we talk. So putting it in our terms, Jesus is saying, “Come home to me, just as I have come home to you. Come live with me as I have come to live with you.”
I picture two lovers here. The man is on one knee, driven there by a heart captivated by the woman before whom he kneels. He is ready to sacrifice everything for her. In his heart, he already has. His sole desire is to be with her, to go through life with her, to share everything he has and is with her. And so he asks a question, a question full of with hopeful anticipation, “Will you marry me? Will you be my wife? Will you go through this life together with me?”
The one true Vine has come to live among us. The Vine has sacrificed everything for us. Buried in the ground, it has sprung forth to life in the midst of the Vineyard. Through his life, and death, and resurrection, and through the subsequent coming of his Spirit, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come not only to make his home in our world but to make his home in our hearts. And now he is bidding us to come and make our life with Him, to unite ourselves to Him, to walk forever with Him. If we do, he promises that through him our lives will bear tremendous fruit.
In verse 4 Jesus says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” It cannot be overemphasized that whole thing rests on this connection. The Christian life, the whole purpose of your life, hinges on whether or not you are a branch which is abiding in the Vine.
You see, a branch cannot produce fruit on its own. No grape branch disconnected from a grape vine has ever, in the history of the world, produced grapes. In fact, you might actually say that the job of a grape branch is not to produce grapes. That’s its purpose, but that’s not its job. The job of a grape branch, rather, is simply to remain connected to the vine. For if it does, producing grapes comes naturally, even effortlessly.
Dallas Willard writes, “The Christian life is what you do when you finally realize that you can do nothing.” Did you know that you cannot make yourself, for instance, a more generous person? Did you know that? On your own, you simply cannot bring about that fruit in your life. Sure, by sheer effort you can make yourself do generous acts or give away generous amounts. But only for a time, and only on the surface. If you dig deep enough your generous acts, when produced from within yourself, will always be rooted in selfish motives as you either look for something in return or as you find yourself taking pride in how generous a person you have become. Truly generous people are generous without ever expecting anything in return and even without being aware that they are being generous in the first place.
Have you ever tried to be more loving by sheer effort alone? How’d that go for you? It doesn’t work, at least for long. This is why God never asks us to try to be more loving, joyful, patient, kind, generous, and the rest. It’s not our job to produce this fruit. It’s our job, rather, to stay intimately connected to the Vine, to Christ. We don’t try to love; instead, we set our hearts on Christ and experience in him a love towards us and others we never imagined was possible and then that love flows through us. Remember Jesus’ commandment a few weeks ago to love one another as I have loved you. The source of the grapes is not the branch. It’s the vine. If the branch would simply abide in the vine, to the point where you can’t tell where the branch ends and where the vine begins, then such a branch cannot help but produce, over time, sweet and abundant fruit.
Which leads us, of course, to the question. How? How do we abide in Christ? As branches in this vineyard, constantly being pruned by the great Grape Farmer, how can we make sure we stay connected to the Vine so that we produce this fruit in our lives?
The answer is no secret. Put simply, intimacy with Christ which leads to the fruit of the Spirit in our lives comes about through diligent commitment to spiritual practices which God has given to us and which the church, for 2000 years, has found to be tried and true. There is no definitive list of these practices as they are many and varied. There are, however, a few foundational ones which can be of great value to us all. This morning I want to give you three.
How will you ever glorify God by becoming a more loving, joyful and peace-filled person? It cannot happen unless you constantly spend time in God’s Word. We must set aside time regularly, even daily, to get alone in silence and let God speak to us through the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. We must read, and listen, and meditate, and memorize, and reflect. As Jesus said, “People do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” If the pages of your personal Bible are not becoming increasingly worn, it is likely that your connection to the Vine is feeble at best.
How will you ever glorify God by becoming more patient, kind and generous? It cannot happen unless prayer becomes a habit of your life, woven in and through even the most mundane activities of your day. We must learn to practice the presence of God in our lives, setting aside time of focused prayer but also learning to pray spontaneously as we go through the day. King David knew this secret and once wrote in Psalm 16, “I have set the Lord continually before me; because He is at my right hand I will not be shaken.” If prayer has not become a persistent habit in your life, it is likely that the spiritual fruit being produced in your life is meager at best.
How will you ever glorify God by becoming more faithful, gentle and self-controlled? It cannot happen unless you remain an integrated part of God’s vineyard, which is the church. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian and no possibility of a Christian who grows in isolation. Since no vine just has one branch, one of the primary ways we abide with Christ is by abiding with others in whom Christ abides. And so I ask you, are there others in this church with whom you are meeting together regularly to pray, and confess, and encourage, and challenge, and love. If you remain on the fringes of the church, relationally isolated from those who share the pews with you on Sunday morning, you run the danger of becoming the sort of branch the Grape Farmer ultimately cuts from the Vine.
There are, of course, countless other practices God has given us to stay connected to the Vine, but these three, scripture, prayer and community, are among the most essential. Add to them, worship, and the sacraments, and fasting, and service, and frugality, and a host of others. A spiritual practice is any practice which we can do that then enables us, by grace, to then do what we other could otherwise never do. For example, I can’t love my enemies on my own. I can pray for my enemies, however. And maybe through my prayer I find myself more deeply connected to the One who does love his enemies and can, by grace, love my enemies through me.
Now, undoubtedly many of us will leave here today wishing we could become people who daily read scripture, and pray, and live in community and, as a result, bear wonderful spiritual fruit in our lives but we will hang our heads as we go because, for two reasons, we fear this will never happen.
For one, we fear that we just don’t have the time. With such busy and full lives, how can we possibly find even thirty minutes a day to be alone to read our Bibles and to pray? It seems like such a legitimate question until we realize it’s like the branch which is so busy trying to produce grapes that it simply has no time to stay connected to the vine. The person who never gives time to that which truly matters will find that that to which they did give their time does not, in the end, matter at all. We all have time. It’s a question of what we choose to do with it and nothing is more worth our time than nurturing our connection to the One who is our very source of life.
Our second fear when it comes to these practices is that we don’t know how to use them. The Bible is confusing, we say. Prayer is a mystery. Connecting to people is hard. And I would agree, all this is true, especially if nobody has ever showed you how to practice these things. If you are somebody who finds yourself truly desiring an intimacy with Christ that leads to spiritual fruit in your life and you are open to learning whatever practices will lead to such a life but just don’t know where to start, I want you to go immediately outside after the service is over and sign up for the Life Together course. This course is designed for exactly this purpose because we recognize that these things are not easy and that it is the job of the church to help one another learn how we can develop practices which help us stay connected to the Vine. There are many ways to do this, but the Life Together course is one proven way that is available to you right now.
All this is of immense importance and time and ignorance will not count as viable excuses. Jesus is so concerned for us along these lines, in fact, that in verse six he repeats his warning, “Whoever does not abide I me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” As St. Augustine said years later, “A branch is suitable only for one of two things, either for the vine or for the fire.” Jesus takes our individual responsibility here very seriously and does not soften his words of warning. Destruction awaits those who reject the life that is offered them in Him.
For those who receive that life, however, for them awaits the fulfillment of promises beyond what we can now imagine or understand. “If you abide in me,” Jesus concludes, “and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read John 15:1-8. Jesus has some vivid images here. What strikes you?
Why does Jesus put so much emphasis in this illustration on the production of fruit? What’s the big deal?
Is God really going to cut off branches from the vine that don’t bear fruit? What does this mean?
Can you think of a time in your life when you felt like God was “pruning” you so that you could produce more “fruit”? Is there something in your life now which you recognize needs pruning?
When Jesus tells us to abide in him as he abides in us, what does he mean? Are you currently abiding in Jesus?
As time goes by are you a person who is increasingly bearing more spiritual fruit in your life? Are you becoming more loving, joyful, peace-filled, patient, kind, generous, good, faithful and self-controlled person as you get older?
Dallas Willard says, “The Christian life is what you do when you finally realize that you can do nothing.” What do you think he means? Do you agree?
Are the spiritual practices of scripture, prayer and community (among others) currently a vital part of your daily life? Would you like them to be?
Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.
Monday: Psalm 53 ~ Exodus 20:1-7
Tuesday: Psalm 54 ~ Exodus 20:8-17
Wednesday: Psalm 55:1-2a, 4-8, 22 ~ Exodus 32:1-6
Thursday: Psalm 56:1-4, 12-13 ~ Exodus 32:15-24
Friday: Psalm 57:1-3, 5 ~ Exodus 33:12-23
Saturday: Psalm 58:1-5, 10-11 ~ Exodus 40:1-8, 34-35
Sunday: Psalm 59:1-3, 14-17 ~ Leviticus 10:1-3, 8-11
 Galatians 5:22-23, NRSV.
 See, for instance, Hebrews 4:12-13, where God’s Word is compared to a double-edged sword.
 From a marvelous article by Dallas Willard entitled “Personal Soul Care.” I would highly recommend reading the entire article at http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=106
 Matthew 4:4.
 Psalm 16:8.
 I credit Dallas Willard for this brilliant description of spiritual disciplines.