Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
One of many areas in which I possess near-total incompetence is gardening. I am not a gardener. But I can mow the lawn, pick berries, and maybe even keep a cactus alive for a bit. After I bought my first house in Windsor, it was time to cut the grass for the first time. I decided that the flowerbed was not worth the effort, so I mowed it right over and left to be grass. My wife thinks I’m a terrible person. Thankfully, the picture of the Vine in our Gospel reading isn’t an instruction manual for gardening. The image of the Vine takes us out to wine country. Think of Niagara-on-the-Lake with its rolling vineyards lush with grapevines. Fruitful branches thick with grapes growing on an old, gnarled vine with roots that reach deep into the ground. Jesus is that true Vine, the only Vine planted by God. You, baptised Christian, are one of the branches. This is a metaphor, a story that describes the nature of our relationship with Jesus.
Looking for Fruit
The big point of the passage is fruitfulness. What God, the gardener, wants to cultivate is fruit. He wants to see you bear fruit. Fruit-bearing is not something that the branches do because they tried hard. The fruit develops because the Vine is true and the gardener good. Fruit comes because the branch is connected to the Vine. Sap comes from the Vine to the branch making it fruitful.
We can only bear fruit if we are connected to Jesus. “I am the vine… apart from me, you can do nothing,” says Jesus. Whenever the Good News of Jesus is preached, God’s Spirit goes to work, and people are renewed, and they are given new spiritual life. The first sign of that new life is their trust in Jesus. The branches cannot produce fruit on their own. We bear fruit not by squeezing it out of ourselves but because we are extensions of the Vine. The Holy Spirit creates the fruit in us.
When Jesus speaks about fruit, to what is he referring? In his letter to the Galatians (5:22-24), the Apostle Paul tells us. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” That’s the fruit that God is looking for in you. Branches don’t live off their own fruit because it’s for someone else. Branches live off the Vine. There must be something of the life of the Vine in us if we belong to God! There must be Christlikeness. There are certain attitudes, behaviours, habits, and virtues that God is looking for in you. The fruit God looks for is Christ’s own life at work in us. Like the Vine that conveys the vital sap to its branches so they may remain productive, so Christ functions as the source of life for his people. As long as the connection remains, there will be spiritual fruit as a result.
Pruning the Branches
Some things can stop the flow of sap from the Vine to a branch, and cause the branch to wither and become fruitless dead branches. Dead branches are what God’s pruning clippers are after. Going back to Galatians, we might say that the dead branches is our sinful self that gets in Jesus’ way. “They are such things as sexual sins, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, bursts of rage, selfish ambition, factiousness, divisions, moods of envy, drunkenness, wild partying, and similar things.” Take a deep look inside, and you will discover within yourself all kinds of evil, which will wither you up if allowed full rein. These are the things that Jesus died to take away from us. These are the things we died to in our baptism. This is what Jesus absorbed into His death and buried in His tomb.
The fruit God is seeking does not suddenly appear just because someone has believed in Jesus, has prayed for God’s Spirit. It does not come by sitting back and waiting for “fruit” to arrive. It’s not automatic. For fruit to grow, there has to be a gardener. The gardener has to tend and prune the Vine. He has to cut away weeds and other parasites that suck the life out of the Vine. The gardener cuts away dead branches. Good branches need to be pruned back to produce even more fruitful wood.
We need to be pruned if we are to bear the fruit of the Spirit. God’s pruning clippers are the Law by which He confronts our sinful desires and actions. Pruning can be painful. We have dead branches that need cutting away. Growth will come when God prunes us. There are things you need to stop doing. You also haven’t been doing things that you need to start doing. You have evil desires that you need to kill. When God confronts you with his Law, he is not a mean and vengeful killjoy. No, He is giving thought to your long-term spiritual health. God is undoing the dehumanising effects of sin in you. He wants you to repent. Paul says right after the fruit of the Spirit, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
Abiding in the Vine
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the Vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” What happens when a branch is broken from a tree? It dies. Not right away, perhaps. It slowly dries up. And it certainly doesn’t bear fruit. What happens to the believer when they cut themselves off from Jesus? What happens without the Word or without the Body and the Blood? When we cut ourselves off from the Vine, when we refuse the gifts Christ sets before us, why are we then surprised when we feel dried up, withered, fruitless?
Sometimes we barely notice the withering in our day to day habits. We just kind of slip away, lose touch. We’re not at the Lord’s Table as often, we don’t read the Bible as much, we go through the motions of religion but we’re not hearing. And what happens? We dry up. Faith withers, like that branch cut off from its source of life. Faith doesn’t necessarily die right away. It just dries up and shrivels. And it’s all so unnecessary. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
To abide is not a sporadic thing, something that happens once a week for an hour or so and we can’t even wait for the benediction to get out of here. That’s not abiding. To abide is to dwell, to reside, to have your home and place somewhere. To abide in Christ is to live in Him through faith. It’s an organic union, a fruitful communion where Christ feeds us and makes us fruitful. Through baptism you have been grafted into the true and living Vine. We abide in Him. God’s Law trims us, and We cling to His Word of forgiveness. We eat and drink His Body and Blood. What happens here in the congregation each Sunday morning is “vine and branches stuff.” Jesus the Vine, feeding and nourishing and refreshing the branches to be fruitful. Christ is your life. There is no life apart from Him.
The urgent question, then, is this. How do we ‘remain’ in Jesus? What does it look like in practice? We must remain in the community that knows and loves Jesus and celebrates him as the Life of the World. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. We can’t go it alone. But we must also remain as people of prayer and worship in our own private lives. Branches that decide to go it alone soon discover their mistake.
If you try to live without the life of the Vine, you will wither and die. If you’re all dried out and fruitless, it’s not God’s fault, it’s our own fault. The Vine is always there, giving us life. We’re the ones who cut ourselves off and say no. But Jesus is always faithful, always forgiving, always urging and welcoming. Apart from Jesus there is only death and destruction. And the hell of it is that it’s all unnecessary. Remain in Jesus, as He remain in you. 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 wants each of us, all of you, to be fruitful, to live a life of Christian virtue, to live freely in His forgiveness. He desires that for each of you. It’s to His Father’s glory that you bear fruit, much fruit, that your lives be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and that you be His disciples, trusting Him in life, in death. You are the branches; He is the Vine. In Him, you are fruitful.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.