In our garden in Ayrshire there was an old apple tree. It had clearly been there for years and (in a good year) produced lots of apples with a lovely flavour. The only problem is that they were small and most of them rather scabby. No matter, Anna peeled, cored and pulped them. Then put the appley pulp in the freezer and used it to make pies, and other delicacies, perhaps with a supermarket apple for decoration.
Now wouldn’t it be lovely is we could have apples that taste like those, but that grew bigger and more healthily. Well there is a way and some of you will know what that is. What we did was buy some vigorous root stock plants from a nursery. Then we took some bud cuttings from the old apple tree and tried grafting them onto the root stock.
The root stock plants would then be responsible for extracting nutrients and water from the soil and passing all this good stuff on to stems and leaves that grow out of the grafted buds. Well that’s the theory, but we haven’t yet had much success in making it work, but we live in hope.
“I am the vine, you are the branches.”
The theme of God’s vine is common in the Old Testament, it’s in Hosea, Ezekiel, the Psalms and in Jeremiah and not always in the most complimentary of terms:
“Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?”
What Jesus is saying in the parable of the True Vine is that Israel has turned degenerate and become a wild vine with branches that are doing their own thing and not producing God’s fruit. One might say that they’re producing small and scabby fruit, way short of their potential. Jesus declares that He’s God’s true vine and his disciples are the branches, the grafts that will produce the fruit of God’s Kingdom. But to do so, they need to become established as grafts and receive water and nutrients through Jesus, the vigorous rootstock which feeds them spiritually for the work of producing God’s fruit.
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
This seems to be a staggering promise. But don’t forget about the ‘IF’ clause. To truly abide in Him, we need to let His teaching guide our whole lives. To abide in Christ is to have a deep relationship with God and through and in that to find the secret of effective prayer.
The overwhelming theme of our passage is fruitfulness. The words ‘bear fruit’ appear six times in just eight verses. Fruit-bearing isn’t something that the branches do by themselves, the fruit appears because the vine is true and the gardener is good. But the branches of this passage do choose to abide. ‘Abide’ like ‘bear fruit’ appears repeatedly – eight times in four verses. What John means by abiding is where the love of God means mutual indwelling.
In one of John’s most famous verses:
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places”
means in the Father’s house are many abiding places. So the disciples of Jesus each have their own places prepared for them in God, so also the Son and Father will have their abiding places in the disciples. And the Holy Spirit will also abide in them. So the vine image is another way of talking about abiding places (places where one feels deeply at home), and both the vine and the abiding places are ways of talking about love.
This parable is sometimes explained as a description of the intimate entwining of the lives of all of us. So we must all work to be faithful and produce fruit or God will cut us out in the sort of pruning that one might do in the garden.
The fruitful ones will be saved and the rest will end up in eternal damnation (wailing, gnashing of teeth and plenty of flames). But it’s a very short hop from this explanation to ‘those who are good, or more religious, or more successful, etc. are the true followers of Jesus and the rest are failures.’
That isn’t at all what Jesus is saying in the parable. What Jesus is saying is that the true ‘Christian’ life is lived through Him, by drawing on his teaching, by living a life in imitation of him and by developing a relationship with the Father like the one he cultivated. He and Christians abide in each other because they share a common life. The branches (that’s us) whilst living on the sap of the vine (that’s him) need to be tended. The tending is the work of the Father who tends the vine, but the branches can only produce fruit if they remain firmly attached to the vine, so that they’re properly fed.
Of course the branches of a vine are inter-twined, but it’s the fact that they are all connected to the root that’s key, not that they are all entangled and mixed-up. To abide in Christ is to abide in love. God isn’t simply the loving-one, isn’t simply the perfect fulfilment of love, God is love itself. So to abide in God is to abide in love and to have God abide in you is to have love abide in you.
We as individuals are part of a community of faith based on the experience that we have of God’s forgiveness and God’s love. There are things that we can do for ourselves, but for the rest we have to rely on God in Christ. He’s the sap from which we draw: our strength, our courage and an understanding of who God intends each of us to be.
All of this is underlined in the first letter of John in which he tells us that Christ is the foundation, the only foundation on which a community of love can be formed.
“God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”
Being Christians doesn’t make us immune from sin, but sin confessed and forgiven can free us to develop relationships of unconditional love, abiding not only in Christ, but with each other. To be fruitful in this vine, we simply need to abide. It’s not for any of us to judge branches that seem to be fruitless. We’re after all just branches ourselves. We can’t possibly know what’s really happening with the rest of the vine. For all we know, what looks like removal or fruitlessness is actually pruning for abundant fruitfulness. But whatever’s going on with the other branches is the responsibility of the vine grower.
In all this viticulture metaphor, it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that the fruit the branches produce isn’t for the branches themselves. The fruit is they produce is for someone else, but who isn’t our concern. Let’s hope that our attempts at apple grafting finally see the connection and abide.