Remaining in Christ
As we settle back to hear what God has to say to us today, I would suppose that most of us are hoping that we will hear some word of comfort and encouragement to help us get through the struggles of this past week and to make a new start this coming week. And the reading from John 15:1-17 doesn’t let us down. Jesus has word of comfort and encouragement for us.
“I am the vine,” Jesus says, “You are the branches.” “Remain in me”, or as another translation says, “abide in me”. That sounds very secure and warm. And we could use some security and comfort because life presents us with our fair share of insecurities. “Abide in me”. It’s a nice image of what it can be like following Jesus. It’s a picture much like the one we had on Good Shepherd Sunday. “I am the Good Shepherd, Jesus says. “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” The image of a shepherd lovingly carrying a lamb and guiding his flock to safe green pastures is certainly a comforting and pleasant image to have of Jesus.
Psalm 1 speaks about the person who is rooted in God like a tree planted by a stream, a tree that cannot be uprooted, a tree that stands sure and solid because it has its roots firm and secure in the river bank and watered by a flowing stream. The psalm reads, “Happy are those who ... are like trees that grow beside a stream. ... They succeed in everything they do” (Psalm 1:3). What a wonderful thought. Safe and secure grafted in the Lord. We long for that kind of security, and we find it in Jesus.
Today we hear Jesus’ image of a vine – he is the vine; his Father is the gardener, and we are the branches. He says, “Remain in me and I will remain in you” (John 15:4).
Jesus uses the word “remain” or “abide” 8 times in these few verses, so I think he is trying to make a point. By repeating the word for “abide” or “remain” he is stressing the relationship, the connectedness that needs to exist between the vine and the branch, between Jesus and us. We cannot live a complete life without remaining in Christ. In a relationship with Christ there is hope, there is comfort, there is strength to face the unknown, there is forgiveness when we are hard on ourselves for our failures, there is light when there is only darkness, there is a reason for doing something even when it’s hard going and everyone else has given up, there is love that will cause us to do some exciting and amazing things for others.
Jesus said, “Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you”. There is something cosy and comfortable about that and at the same time something exciting and adventurous. Being close to Jesus and having Jesus close to us - that’s a great feeling. He is continually present. There is a constant connection like a branch on a vine. His life and our lives are interconnected.
But Jesus doesn’t stay with this cosy feeling. This is where it starts to get more challenging. Before I go on first let me first ask, “What is the purpose of a grapevine?” Is it to give shade? Is it the kind of plant you put in your front garden as a feature? Silly questions really because we all know that if we plant a grape vine in our gardens the only reason we do so is because we want to harvest some grapes. And for the branches of the vine to grow fruit, fruit that is rich, and beautiful, and delicious the branches must be connected to the vine and be nourished by the vine. There is a relationship here between the branch and the vine.
Fruitfulness is a natural consequence of the relationship with Jesus. Jesus says, “Those who remain in me and I in them will bear much fruit.” He does not say “Those who work their guts out at being fruitful, at being loving, just, peaceful, gentle, self-controlled, patient etc. will by doing so find themselves connected to me.” The equation runs the other way round. Be strengthened by your connection to Jesus Christ, be grafted firmly on to the vine, draw deeply on the sap that is God’s Spirit and you will be fruitful.
There are some Christians who have taken the attitude that living the Christian life, bearing good fruit is just a matter of pure determination, right attitude and willpower and they can produce loving and gentle behaviour and a generous, positive, and compassionate attitude toward other people. All that is required is good motivation and just a little bit of Jesus and the church for good measure if needed. That’s their style of Christian – you know the independent, do-it-yourself, not too religious kind of person.
And some people do a pretty good job at it – for a while. With no real connection to Jesus, they set about becoming the most Christ-like people they can be – polite, gentle, generous, cheerful, reliable, forgiving. They are remarkable. They keep it up for a while, even years, but if there is no connection to the vine, no ability to draw on the life-giving sap of the Spirit, then sooner or later the energy is gone.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen vibrant active Christians fall suddenly like a dry branch on one of those gum trees outside. We see what happens to a branch that is snapped off completely or is broken and hangs by a few fibres to the tree. The once green and supple branch becomes dry and lifeless and snaps at the first pressure or temptation. Jesus said, “You can do nothing without me”. Likewise, without the relationship, that connection with Jesus it only takes a small puff of wind, a small issue or test and the branch snaps off completely; faith and its fruit are lost.
You see being connected to Jesus makes us more resilient, more willing to be tolerant, less judgmental, more willing to forgive, more open to guidance from others and from the Holy Spirit, more willing to accept the failings of others and less likely to lose it when our opinion differs from others.
Connected to the Jesus, the Vine, we are more supple, we can get bent out of shape and not break. It’s easier to knock back Satan’s temptations when connected to Christ and when we do give in it’s easier to bounce back because we know that we belong to him and are joined to him in baptism and receive assurance of that forgiveness in Holy Communion. Whatever life throws at us, it’s easier to face connected to Jesus, the Vine. Without the vital nutrients of the Vine, we would become brittle and break.
Jesus said, “Those who do not remain in me are thrown out like a branch and dry up; such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, where they are burned.” When the connection with the vine has been severed and there is no fruit, the branches are useless. If there is no “fruit”; if there are no results from our discipleship, then there is a cost to pay.
The question remains how do we remain connected to the Vine, Jesus, so that we are able to bear good fruit?
Firstly, as we have said, is to realise that a branch doesn’t grow itself. It comes from the vine; it’s a part of the vine and it can’t exist separately from the vine. The branch has no life without the vine. Likewise, as Christians we have no life apart from Christ. We are uniquely and intimately interconnected with Christ. At any time when that connection becomes anything less than what Jesus intends it to be, then you can be certain there is something happening in our lives that is choking our relationship with Jesus.
That leads me to the second point. Jesus talks about the gardener cleaning up the useless foliage on the vines. If there is something that is stopping us from bearing fruit it is all the useless foliage in our lives that needs to be cut away. We may think this foliage makes us look attractive especially to the world but will not help us in any way to bear fruit that will bring glory to God. We may think that to be successful in business we need to have a zeal that rides roughshod over people, to have no regard for the feelings of people or for their needs. We may think that to be successful we need to trust no one, look out for ourselves first, take what you can get or else someone else will get it. We may think that we are winning our children’s favour by giving in to their every want. To bear the kind of fruit that Jesus is looking for means to prune away all this foliage so that the Holy Spirit can cause real fruit to grow – the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control.
Thirdly, how do we remain connected to the Vine, Jesus? The answer is this – we can’t do it by ourselves. Like a branch on the vine, we need the nutrients that come from the vine in order to be happy, healthy and fruitful. Those nutrients that we need come to us in the form of God's Word and the Sacraments. They are the key ingredients for us as Christians and we need a constant supply for our well-being.
That’s why regular attendance at worship is so important. When we gather here feeling withered and drooping Jesus takes us and re-grafts us into himself; refreshes us with his Word and Sacraments; it’s here the green shoots and leaves begin to sprout. Reading and studying the Bible and devotions are essential. When we read and listen to God's promises we are given the strength and vitality that are necessary for our survival as Christians. The Bible helps us choose what is God’s way and what is the world’s way. When things go all wrong for us God's Word gives us the assurance of Jesus’ love and the joy and peace that comes from knowing that we can face anything with him by our side.
In Baptism and Holy Communion, we are certain of the special relationship that Jesus has with us and of the special and intimate love that he has for each of us even when we let him down so badly. We are loved and forgiven and so we are able to love and to forgive others in turn – bear the fruit that is an essential part of our Christian life.
“Remain in me”, Jesus encourages, “I will do the rest, my life will flow into you and you will find all you have been searching for and much more”.
Take time to read through these verses again from John 15 slowly. They are words that bring encouragement and comfort, but they also lead us to acknowledge that too often we become disconnected from life-giving nutrients of the Vine, Jesus. May these words of Jesus lead us to be fruitful branches, deeply grafted into Jesus the vine and bear fruit to the glory of God.
True Vine – Andrew Murray
Shaping the Heart: Reflections on spiritual formation and fruitfulness - Pamela Evans
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Fruit of the Vine – Betty Dobson
Trusting God - Jerry Bridges