15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been ceansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 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. 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
John 15:1-8 (NRSV)
The 15th chapter of John is probably the most important chapter of scripture for the Society of Friends. Within this chapter we have pretty much the entire summery of our beliefs or testimonies. The testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality are all present in this one chapter and it is from this one chapter we procured our name. We are Friends, and we are Friends because we endeavor to live out the commands of Christ. That command is simple, “Love one another.” We will get to that particular section next week. This week we have an introduction to what a life with Christ will look like.
This section of the Gospel of John is what many call Jesus’ farewell discourse. This basically means that this is the last session of teaching that Jesus has with his closest followers and disciples prior to his arrest, execution, and resurrection. This makes it all the more intriguing. Jesus knows that his time is short, he knows that this very night he will be arrested and yet he takes his time to teach his disciples about something very important, to give a summary of what being his disciple is. I do not know if you happened to catch that important teaching as we read it. This entire teaching is basically summed up in one phrase, Abide in me.
To begin this teaching Jesus uses something very important to the culture. He says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” There are several things going on in this one statement but the first is that Jesus uses I am. To use the term, I am, is bold in their culture. To say that I am anything in the Jewish culture of Jesus’s day was to say that you are entirely self-existent. What I mean by that is that you exist in and of yourself, that all your achievement, knowledge, property, and life itself was created exclusively by you. To us this may not sound too crazy, but to the first century mind this was equivalent to a claim of divinity. Their understanding is that only God is I AM. Only God exists exclusively himself all other beings emerge out of the community. Your knowledge was passed down to you from the knowledge of others. Your life was given to you and was nurtured by others. Your achievements were an evolution and cooperation of the investments of every person that you interacted with. And your property has been entrusted to you because of the trust and respect others have in you. Ultimately all of this comes from the only one that exists both within and outside the community, God. And it was God who entrusted everything anyone has to them. In their understanding, people may have special gifts and talents, but no one is a self-made individual, they are only wise stewards of the investments the community and God has provided to them.
Jesus says, I am. He is saying that he can make that claim and he then gives is reasons. “I am the true vine,” he says. The vine in this ancient culture and even today is one of significant importance. A vineyard is something that exists for generations. A properly maintained a vine can easily live over 120 years, there are actually vines still alive today that were first planted in the 16th century. If you are simply wanting the fruit planting a vineyard will be most abundant from the fifth to approximately the twentieth year. After the twentieth year the fruit yield declines, but the quality increases, and for people that know wines and vineyards, it is said that vines that have been managed for over fifty years provide the most concentrated and tasteful juice for wines. It is those “old vines” that become the most profitable, the juice and wines from these vineyards are filled with exotic richness of the earth, water and air of which it lives, giving it value beyond a simple yield of fruit but of heritage. Vines are long lasting. They have lived through trials and hardships, and they endure. For someone to plant a vineyard is to say that my wealth is secure and I will maintain this estate long enough that my children and grandchildren will inherit the investment I make today. Vines endure when properly managed, but vines will quickly decline if they are neglected.
Wisdom is often illustrated as being a vine. Wisdom endures through generations, it builds and draws from environment it lives and exudes an essence that is blended from a deep rich heritage and contemporary experiences. “I am the true vine,” Jesus says. With this Jesus is saying that he is the embodiment and the essence of true wisdom. He is the true vine of wisdom that has existed from the very beginning and will exist even to the end of the ages. He is the vine, the very source of life. All things that were created were created through him and nothing was created without him. He is the vine. Everything including our accomplishments, our property, our knowledge, everything we might hold as valuable to us including our very life, exist only though him. He is the vine the source of life.
“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and my Father is the vinegrower.” This one sentence contains deep theological implications. Jesus says that he is the source of life, but it is God the Father who is the one that provides the intent. It was the Father who said, “Let there be Light.” It was the Father that said let us create man in our image. It was the Father who invested in our future by establishing the vineyard of life. We can read all about the cultivation of the vineyard in the pages of scripture. He looked at all the various beings of life He created and said this is good. Then as things grew he notices somethings were becoming destructive and others were promoting abundance so he domesticated humanity through Noah. Out of Noah came three lines and from one of those he again chose a line to invest greater attention too, Abraham. As seasons progressed he would clip off some branches and would graft in others. Rehab and Ruth are two examples of this both of which are individuals that were from outside heritage yet the Father saw it fit that they would be included in this linage this vineyard that he was cultivating. From them through the linage of Judah was established the vine of David whose root came from Jesse and from this root we see Jesus emerge, God with us. He was there from the beginning being, the essence of Jesus was there from the very beginning because everything was created through him, and at the moment when the timing was most beneficial God grafted divinity into the vintage. The Father is the vinegrower. That implies that in some way God is active in our lives. Carefully tending the vine he has cultivated from the dawn of time.
This is where we come to abide. It’s actually kind of funny, on Wednesday evening while we had a query discussion we discussed this very same word. In the course of that conversation we looked at a passage from 1 John and John asked in that passage, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  How does God’s love abide in anyone? John listened to his teacher and after years of practice he wrote those words. How does God’s love abide in us if we do not abide in him? The word abide means to continue or to stay, in some instances the word that is translated as abide was used to describe fortification. The idea of God’s love abiding in us is that His love saturates our beings, filling us like water fills a sponge. Filling that love sponge to such a degree that when ever someone touches you the love just gushes out of us like water pours out of the sponge while you wash dishes. Jesus says that the only way that saturation can occur is if we are attached and abide in the vine, the source of the love and wisdom of God.
The vinegrower walks around in his vineyard, he inspects the plants thoroughly. Through every season the vines are observed. Which branches are bearing fruit, which are only growing leaves, which leaves are feeding into the fruit and which are just taking valuable resources. As these observations are being made the vinegrower makes calculated decisions as to which branches are necessary and which are not. He then goes to the vines with pruning shears and strips away all the unnecessary growth. This pruning ensures that the water, sugars, nutrients, and environmental trace elements will be concentrated into the fruit. Making the vine more efficient with the use of the resources and preventing the vine from putting on growth that will not be beneficial to the intended purpose of the vineyard.
These same concepts are present in our lives as well. We live in a certain environment containing stresses and benefits that are not present anywhere else, this adds a richness to our lives that is attractive to some and not to others. God will take those available resources and graft people into our lives. People that are encouraging to make us stronger. He will watch how we interact with those people and if it is good they will remain, and this is how you met your spouse or how you will. But occasionally like with vines the graft does not always work. There might be a reaction between the parts and instead of encouragement, necrosis sets in. In a vineyard this might be called a “dead arm”, and those dead arms are removed. And where necrosis sets in extra trimming must be made so that death does not spread. At times we might put on an abundance of fruit, and the growth seems to be phenomenal, there is an abundance of resources and we thrive. Followed by a period of slow growth, and limited fruit. If the resources are too limited he begins to cut back the branches to make sure that all the available resources go to the parts that bear fruit. Carefully the plants are observed and carefully maintained. We do not always understand the reasons but we know that a good vinegrower is wise in the ways of the vine.
Years of plenty and years of stress, yet the vine grows. Each year, due to the various environmental factors, produces juice that is just a bit different, some better and others not so much. This is why those that cherish wine will say things like, “That was a good year” when speaking of wines. Those good years might actually surprise you. They are not always the years with the greatest amount of rain, because that might dilute the flavor. They are the years of just enough. A relationship between the environment and the wisdom of the vinegrower. Jesus tells us that God will cut out the branches that do not bear fruit, he will prune the good branches so that they will bear more fruit. He is cultivating in our lives a place where we are at just enough or contentment. This is a state of abiding. We are not outgrowing our ability to be fruitful, and our branches are trimmed to just the right place that we can fully engage the ministry he has called us to. We are not seeking greater things on our own but we patiently wait and seek the leading of God moving through us as we abide. Content with what he is giving us at that moment, and enduring the pain of the shears when He deems it necessary.
I look at this passage and at our meeting, thinking a great deal about it. I have asked why certain things have been happening while I have prayed for others. I have wondered if there are grafts of bitterness that are taking hold in our branch what are causing a “Dead arm” or if we are experiencing the pruning for something better in the future. I have struggled with the statistics and reports I fill out and I wonder if we are doing what we are supposed to do? Because I want to see growth, I want to see fruit that is abundant and overflowing, but what if we are not ready for this yet? What if we still need to learn lessons in abiding. Our ultimate goal as a meeting is not to be big, but to be true. Our ultimate goal is to know the will of Jesus and to act accordingly. Our ultimate goal is to be a society that is Friends of Jesus. If we reach that goal, if all members together focus on being with Christ and living our lives with him then there is only one thing that can happen. That one thing is to bear good fruit. Fruit that is filled with quality juice. Filled with flavor and rooted deeply in the vine that was before the world began.
You see it is not about what I think is right or what you think is right. It is not about programs or studies. All of those things bring spice to vintage, but what the Meeting and the Church is truly about is to follow and abide in Christ and to respond to the will of the vinegrower. It is his will not ours. It is his vineyard and his church. All that we have and all that we are, are products of his careful tending. Will we abide in him and he in us? Or will we grip tight to our own wisdom. Will we hold to the ideas that I am of myself, cutting ourselves off from the vine and allowing ourselves to wither and our community with it. Will we abide? We have everything we need right here right now to do what God is calling us to do. We have the very power that rose Jesus from the grave coursing through our veins, but that means nothing if we do not abide in him and he with us. It means nothing if we do not respond to his leading. It means nothing if we do not fill those people around us with the encouraging juice produced by the vine. It does not matter, if we do not love one another as Jesus loves us.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as friends let us consider what it means to abide and to be an abode of Christ. And as we consider it let us allow God to remove those areas from us that cause harm. Let us confess the areas where we have hindered growth because of our own desires and let us repent so that we can abide in him our true wisdom and vine.
Image shared from: https://nalm.org/resources/co-workers/