Committing one’s self to faithful discipleship in Christ is not for the faint of heart.
In the story of God with us, in the process of our spiritual resurrection, in the fueling of our discipleship, the Cross of Jesus takes center stage, and our willingness to let our everyday lives be shaped by that Cross is what makes all the difference in the world – literally and figuratively.
Over the past few Sundays, we’ve heard Jesus throw down challenges to his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. The Lord’s commanding invitation means that the Cross of Christ wields power to re-make and re-fashion us into new creations, dead to beliefs and behaviors that once defined who we were, alive in the fullness of peace and grace that now govern a life fashioned in the image of Jesus.
The sparking catalyst for such dazzling resurrection is honest repentance – turning your life in a more Christ-like direction. And with that change of course comes a change of perspective that reveals the Kingdom of God in your midst, and suddenly, without even trying, you start seeing the world differently – with Kingdom eyes that allow you to see God’s Creation in a wholly different, more compassionate and loving light.
The Kingdom of God is here, yes, but we know full well that there’s a lot that remains broken, incomplete, and wounded – either in our own lives or in the lives of those around us.
Yet, we’re able to get ourselves out of bed in the morning and get through each difficult day, because we hold onto God’s Kingdom vision that allows us to see the world differently, with the eyes of heaven. And we cling to Christ, the peace that God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit gives to us – peace not in the sense of the absence of hardship or conflict, but peace in the sense that God will see us through hardship and conflict.
“I AM the good shepherd,” Jesus declares, and “I AM the gate.”
Jesus not only locks up behind us to keep us safe, but as we learned last Sunday, Jesus himself also unlocks and swings open, allowing us to enter into a life dripping with more fullness than we might ever imagine. Jesus intends that fullness to flow from a new commandment: Love one another as I love you.
And now, in this morning’s lesson, Jesus helps his followers understand what that kind of love looks like and how that kind of love behaves.
Listen with all your senses for the living, breathing word of the Lord in John chapter 15, which begins with the revealing of another amazing reality about the Lord: I AM the vine, and you are the branches.
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.
“He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide 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.
“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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:1-15)
The people who live deep in the damp jungles of northeast India don’t build bridges. They grow them!
Their impressive bridges are living things, created and maintained with the root-like branches of the ficus tree. Ficus branches cling to large boulders along the edges of rivers and streams, and they’ll actually grow out horizontally over valleys and ravines. Folks long-ago figured out how to weave together these strong branches to form natural bridges – some of which are more than 100 feet long.
These vine bridges are pretty sweet deals.
Because the branches remain connected to the main vine, the bridges they form actually get stronger over time as existing branches grow and sprout new branches. It takes 10 or 15 years for these natural structures to become safe, fully functioning bridges, and it takes some effort. Residents must coax and train the branches to grow together in just the right ways, and they lop off branches that don’t cooperate. There’s no tolerance for limbs with minds of their own.
In essence, the branches that do cooperate come together to form a kind of community – a sturdy, reliable community that is stronger together than any of its individual members can be on its own. In a way, each branch gives up its individuality to join forces with others and serve a greater good. As the branches come together, one branch becomes indistinguishable from another, making it hard to tell where one stops and another begins.
Yet each branch serves an important purpose, spreading out the workload among many and accomplishing something impossible to do by itself. And these branches – individually and collectively – only do what they do because they remain attached to the main vine.
It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out where I’m headed with this.
When Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches attached to him, it is that vital connection between him and us that makes truly amazing things happen. When Jesus is our vine and we are his branches, that is when you and I start producing fruit.
Only in Christ are we truly fruitful.
Only in Christ are we able to produce something that is sweet, nourishing, helpful and beneficial.
Only in Christ are we bearers of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
That means our life-giving connection to Jesus the Vine isn’t just sweet, nourishing, helpful and beneficial for you and me as individuals. Our connection to Jesus the Vine is really more about you and me growing together as a community that is intimately interrelated.
When we abide, dwell and continue in Christ, Jesus the Vine weaves together intimate connections between your life and mine, between our lives and the lives of those around us. Jesus knits us together so tightly that we abide, dwell and continue in each other as much as we abide, dwell and continue in Christ. What God wills in Christ is that we grow so closely tied with one another and with Jesus that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
On one hand, that’s a heart-warming assurance: To know, sense and actually feel that we are connected to things human and divine that are greater than ourselves. We don’t spend our days walking alone on the road of faith.
But on the other hand, the picture of vines and branches that Jesus paints challenges our cultural beliefs in rugged individualism and self-sufficiency.
Social interrelationship and mutual accountability are at the heart of the living ecosystem that Jesus the Vine desires, creates, and sustains.In making you and me part of this ever-growing web of vine and branches that is both human and divine, what Jesus demands is that you and I remain steadfast in our living, breathing relationship with him and with one another.
That steadfastness – that faithfulness – is measured by the fruit that we produce together as a community. To bear fruit – or more to the Lord’s point, to act in love – is without question the No. 1 thing that Jesus calls us to do together. God in Christ seeks to build, maintain and nourish community, and it is the Lord’s love for that community that becomes the visible expression of his new commandment: Loving one another as he loves us. To live as branches off the main vine of Jesus is to live in organic union with Christ and to let his love for us form and fashion the love we share with others.
Perhaps the hardest part of all this is recognizing and accepting that when you attached to Jesus the vine – when you are one of the branches that forms the larger structure of community, there are no such things as individual accomplishments, private choices, or personal rights.
When you are a branch growing forth from Jesus the Vine – when you are among the many branches of Jesus the Vine, job one for you, me, and everybody is to reveal and share the love of God in Christ Jesus with the help our of trainer and branch-teaser, the Holy Spirit.
As if that’s not enough to wrestle with, Jesus says there’s no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends and neighbors – not always to die literally as an expression of your love for others, although that IS what Jesus did in love for us,but to lay down one’s life certainly to die figuratively – to die to one’s own desires and dreams, preferences and partialities – to set aside the pursuit of things you want to have or things you want to do, so that someone else will see, feel and taste the love of God pouring out of you and into them.
That already-powerful image of faith put into action becomes even more potent when you consider the meticulous, careful labor of a vineyard worker.
I’ve never known nor worked with a vinedresser or vineyard owner. But at various times, I’ve seen the blood, sweat, and tears that go into tending vines and growing grapes: Vinedressers gently using strips of cloth to tie up and train tender shoots and affectionately handling heavy clusters of juicy grapes waiting for their peak of ripeness and their turn in the winepress.
In the movie “Sideways,” the main character, Miles, waxes poetic on how hard it is to grow the pinot noir grape, how that particular variety needs constant, painstaking care; exactly precise weather conditions; and delicate handling to protect its thin skin.
When thoughts turn to farming – and all things green and growing, mental pictures glimpse big, green John Deere tractors tearing up fields or giant combines sucking up plump beans or golden corn.
But the sights more associated with vines and branches – and the production of good fruit – are more tender, more intimate, more communal. That seems to fit Jesus’s own image of heaven’s vineyard quite well.
I AM the vine, you are the branches.
Love each other as I have loved you.
There is no love greater than love that simply gives of itself so that others might simply live.
Jesus sketches a kind of wonderful sequence: The Father loves the Son; the Son loves you and me, and we love each other. When we love one another by deeds of humble service and meaningful sacrifice, we draw a straight and direct line from that love all the way back to the great God of the universe. A holy pipeline of mutual love connects us right to the Holy Trinity of Heaven – sustained in our growing and nurtured where we are not.
When you realize, and recognize, and relish, that the love of Father, Son, and Spirit is what ever-flows into you and me every minute of every day, your estimation of discipleship and Christian living should be mightily magnified by love bursting through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ.
For that is the new commandment of the Lord, woven into the Word of the Lord and held forever in ancient words that are ever true. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, July 10, 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee and Gail R. O’Dea inform the message.