Last week, we heard part of the parable of the Good Shepherd. This week we hear, Jesus tell part of the parable of the True Vine. These two are the great parables that help us to understand our relationship with Jesus, our relationship with God. We call this relationship, covenant.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower...
From the very beginning of the parable, Jesus makes the relationship between himself and God the Father very clear. A vinegrower's main concern is the life and health of the vine. He wants the vine to produce fruit. If this was a grapevine, the fruit would be used to make wine. Wine, as we know, is a symbol of joy in the Bible. We might say that the True Vine exists to bring true joy to the world.
Jesus is also clear about who we are in this covenant:
I am the vine, you are the branches.
A vine, we know, is made up entirely of branches. Together, the branches carry the all life of the vine. Jesus, of course, has Risen Life. Together then, as branches of him, we carry Risen life in us. In a regular vine, sap carries life throughout the plant to each of the branches. In the True Vine, what is the sap? What carries life to each of us? Or maybe we should say, who?
Jesus tells us what God the Father is doing as vinegrower:
He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
If a branch is not producing fruit, God removes it. We wonder what this could mean. If a branch is not bearing fruit, there is something wrong inside of it. The sap is not flowing within it. Something has gone wrong. There is no joy. We wonder why this could be.
God the Father prunes the branches of the vine that are already bearing fruit. This is what good vinegrowers do. If the vine is not pruned, the branches will grow in all sorts of directions, putting energy into growing and not necessarily into producing fruit. The vinegrower focuses the life of the vine by pruning--cutting parts of the branches away--so that the branch does not spend energy growing in many different directions. The branch grows according to the will of the vinegrower. As a result, the branch bears even more fruit.
You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.
This sentence does not seem to fit at first. Jesus first talks about God the Father pruning branches; now he seems to be talking about cleansing. However, the Greek word for pruning and for cleansing is the same. So when Jesus says "You have already been cleansed," he means we have already been pruned. God the Father focuses the life within us through the Word that Jesus speaks. The Word of God prunes us; it causes us to grow according to the will of God. (It is good then, that we spend time each week thinking about the Word of God!)
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.
Here is Jesus' great invitation to us.
Abide in me, make your home in me, remain in me.
Here also is Jesus's great announcement to us.
We are already together. I in you. You in me.
Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
This is how the sap of the True Vine is able to flow from Jesus to each one of us--by abiding, by remaining. This is how that sap produces fruit in us, this is how we do the will of God, this is how we bring joy to the world--by abiding, by remaining.
Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
This is the difficult part. What is Jesus saying? A branch that does not abide in the vine has cut itself off from the life of the plant. Of course, a regular branch of a regular vine cannot choose to cut itself off. But we can. We can choose not to live in covenant relationship with God. We may think that we will find joy away from God, but Jesus makes it clear that this is not so.
So what happens? Is this a warning about hell? Possibly. But Jesus tells this parable to the disciples at the Last Supper--before his arrest, before they desert him, before they betray him, before they deny him.
A vinegrower will cut off a branch that carries no sap within it. The rest of the vine cannot make the branch grow. Something is wrong within it, and leaving it on the vine could affect the health of the other branches. A vinegrower will take the dead branch and burn it to purify it, to get rid of anything within it that is diseased, that has gone bad. Then the ashes are taken and mixed into the soil. All the nutrients that remain in the ashes go into the soil to feed the life of the vine. This does not sound like hell. It sounds a bit like purgatory. It sounds something like forgiveness and second chances.
It sounds exactly like the mercy of God.
We worry about people who have rejected God. We worry about people we know who do not care about God. As branches of the True Vine, what can we do?
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
We abide, and we pray. The vinegrower cares for the branches.
The question then is, how do we abide in Jesus? How do we remain on the True Vine? We can think of ways. We have already mentioned a couple.
And what if we are concerned that we have made choices that have blocked the sap of the True Vine? What if we need more of that Risen life to feed the growth of our branch?
My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
It is unfortunate that the Gospel reading ends there this Sunday. Because in the next verse we hear what we have always known:
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
We are loved. I am, and so are you. He loves us.
This is where we remain--in his love. And here Jesus tells us how:
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.
Finally, we hear that it really is all about joy:
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.