“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 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. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15.1-5.
In yesterday’s post, I said in passing that the gospel writers had no difficulty in seeing Jesus as the embodiment of all that Israel was meant to be and in applying to him the prophecies made about Israel as God’s “servant” in Isaiah. Now, from the opening words of this morning’s reading, it is very clear that Jesus himself had no difficulty in seeing himself as the real Israel too. For the vine had been used as a picture of Israel throughout the Old Testament.
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill,” says Isaiah. “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (Isaiah 5.1-2). What was this vineyard? “The vineyard … is the house of Israel” (Isaiah 5.7). But because of the vineyard’s inability to produce proper fruit, God would lay it waste, said Isaiah (Isaiah 5.5-6). And that is what happened. Israel went into exile so that, in Psalm 80.8-19, the psalmist was left lamenting the fact that Israel, the vine which God had brought out of Egypt and planted in the fertile soil of Palestine to bear fruit there, had now been ravaged, cut down, and burnt with fire.
“But that was not the end of it,” Jesus seems to be saying here, 600 years after the exile. “God still has a vine. I am the true vine. I am the real Israel. I, in my very self, am God’s chosen, fruitful people.”
I put the collective noun “people” into Jesus’ mouth there rather than “person” because, of course, what lies at the very heart of what Jesus is saying in this passage is that, while he might have many followers, many millions who, over the centuries, will commit their lives to him, there is and only ever will be one vine. He does not say, “I am the vine and you are all vines too”. No, he says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”
When will I really get it into my head and heart that there is no fruitfulness outside of Jesus. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” I can become detached from him and try to be a vine in my own right but if I do I will end up yielding only wild grapes — bitter, blighted, false fruit — that will never become the sparkling wine of joy and life that the world is waiting for.
“Abide” is the key word here. The Greek is meno which means “to remain, to continue to be present, to dwell”. So in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, “Abide in me, and I in you” becomes, “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you” (John 15.4). Being a visitor is not enough — not even if the visits are regular. I need to have “moved in” to Christ and to be “settled” there with no other home to go to. I need to have all my stuff there, and if it won’t fit there or doesn’t look right there, it will need to go.
But it is the Father who will get rid of it. It is the work of the Father to “prune” me. The word is kathairo from which we get the English word catharsis, and it means “to cleanse, to purify, to purge”. So it is the work of the Father to get rid of all that hinders fruitfulness in my life and in the lives of all who are in the vine … the true vine that is Jesus.
Note: I shall now be out of the country for a week so there will be no more posts until 15 December.