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“Finding Nourishment” on John 15:1-11 by Joe Ellis — April 28, 2024

Here, Jesus is evocatively drawing imagery you’ll find throughout the Old Testament — the image of the Vine. You’ll find the image of the Vine appear again and again throughout the Old Testament — Isaiah, Psalms, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Each time the Vine is mentioned, the imagery is used in the same way: the Vine is Israel. And there is always heartbreak when the Vine is mentioned. The Vine is the Father’s, and the Vine is so precious to Him.

Nowhere is this more poignant than in Isaiah 5, where it sounds almost as though the Father has given up on the Vine. Listen here: “Judge, please, between me and My Vineyard. What more could have been done to My Vineyard that I have not done in it? Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned or dug, But there shall come up briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.”  That last line is getting at the cries for help being made by the oppressed. People being oppressed in the very nation that was intended to bring Justice to the world.

In John 15, you can hear Jesus responding directly with this passage, responding with a message of hope. The Father has not given up on the Vine — Jesus affirms that the Father loves the Vine deeply. The Father will keep caring for the Vine, He will prune the Vine, cultivate and help it grow. But Jesus rocks the imagery saying, “I am the Vine!”

I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to hear Jesus audaciously make this claim, “I am the Vine.” “I am the true Vine!” There was a time when Israel printed their own coins, and the image they chose was, you guessed it, the vine. Now Jesus is saying, “I am the Vine.” If Jesus were in America, he’d be saying I am the Eagle — Sorry, I just can’t imagine Jesus being taken seriously in Canada claiming to be the Beaver. And there is a good reason Jesus did not appear in Canada, or the U.S., or any nation other than Israel.

Jesus is the True Vine, the True Israel, the embodiment of Israel, the personification of the nation. God had promised that He would rescue this world through the chosen nation of Israel. God had made the most solemn of promises that the people of Israel would be God’s key instrument through reversing the curse that has infected this world. This is the reason why it's so tragic that the vine has gotten in such bad shape. They are nowhere near being able to live out the calling that God has for them — to be a light to the nations — to be a people that proclaims through their lives the the glory of the one true God. Through calling people to live lives in relationship to the One True God.

The tragedy in Isaiah 5, the Song of the Vineyard, is they were so far from living into this calling. But now, Jesus is saying, “I am the Vine.” God has not given up on the Vine. Jesus, as Messiah, is the embodiment of Israel. And whoever wants to be apart of Israel must be apart of Jesus. Jesus says clearly here that no one can participate in Israel’s calling to transform this world apart from Him. A branch apart from Him is no longer attached to the Vine. Such a Vine will simply wither and die. Jesus, is the true vine. As we attach to Jesus the Vine, we are incorporated into Israel.

This is where the history of Israel and our lives overlap. Jesus says, whoever receives His Word become His disciples and are incorporated into the Vine as His disciples. That means, you and me, who have received the Word of Christ, his Gospel, become attach to the vine. We become extensions of the vine. We then move out into the world and bear fruit. Our fruit is living lives that reflect the love and character of God in the world. We can only do this insofar as life from the Vine flows into us.

Jesus is the Vine, we are the branches, and the Father is the gardener. He prunes His Vine so that we may bear much fruit. Now, let’s remember the purpose of pruning. Gardeners prune plants because they care for the plant and want it to bear fruit. Gardeners trim away excess branches to help the plant put its energy where it really matters — producing fruit. Without thoughtful pruning, the plant will just become an explosion of leaves, with very little tasty fruit.

This passage about pruning can be challenging to us Christians if we don’t really believe in pruning. There are lots of ways to imagine pruning, but in the context of bearing fruit — I image pruning our lives as being thoughtful about where we put our energy. Putting our energy into activities that will truly bear fruit. This will be different for different branches on the vine (faithfulness will look a bit different for each one of us)..

But Christians can often have difficulty imagining that the Father would want us to not be involved in everything. This is how we can get a picture of the Father standing back, looking at all the possible ways a branch could bear fruit, expecting each person to do it all!? And so a Christian gets to work trying to grow fruit in loving our neighbour, our family, along with our need to be more involved at school, and the need to participate in the homeless count, as well as attend the bible study, serve on the mission board or church council, while not forgetting to practice sabbath, and do daily devotionals, and also to volunteer on Sunday, while also coaching youth soccer, while not neglecting to become an expert on current affairs and how Christians should or shouldn’t respond. Christians who feel like they’ve got to do it all, see Father Gardener standing by just watching expectantly. They think that He’s nowhere near his pruning shears. And so you, the branch, start reaching out in all these different directions, becoming spread so terribly thin. Your leaves take on a pale green colour. You bear some fruit, but it's dry and small, nothing anybody really wants to eat. It takes way too much energy to send out these different shoots and you become exhausted. But you keep pushing out shoot after shoot after shoot, sprouting an explosion of leaves that bear so little fruit.

We can forget that we are not the only branch. The picture of the vineyard is the picture of a community. We sometimes think we have to do it all. But thankfully, Jesus was serious about pruning. The Father comes to you, His precious branch. He cuts away all those leafy branches. This is no doubt painful, but necessary, to true life on the Vines.

On the other hand, we can sometimes harbour the suspicion that the Father is an over-anxious gardener, and he is going to prune any sign of life. Sometimes Christians have the conviction any experience of joy or comfort or desire, or really anything positive, should be pruned away in the name of spiritual growth. I grew up Lutheran, and there is a joke that a Lutheran is someone who fears that someone, somewhere, is having a good time. That joke can probably apply to many faith communities. Every stirring of new life in you comes with the anticipation that the Father is going to snip it off because he wants to produce fruit in you. The result is a suspicion of any good thing in your life as somehow getting in the way of the pure being that God wants you to become. What you end up with is a vine branch stripped of all its leaves — you get a pure, raw stick, sad and not remotely close to bearing fruit.

But our Father is not an anxious vine dresser! It is not His intent to prune away every experience of joy and satisfaction. Pruning (while necessary), is only for a season. For most of the growing season, the pruning shears are hung up in the gardening shed. Instead, the Farmer cares for the plant, fertilizing and watering it, so that it may grow.

The conditions for good growth is what Jesus has us focus on as we are a part of the vine, not so much focus on pruning. Jesus calls us to invest our energy (first and foremost) in remaining attached to the Vine, attaching to the Him who give us true nourishment. Jesus says that our attaching ourselves to Him is the only way that in this life we can receive the nourishment that we need. Attaching ourselves to Him is the only way that we can grow and produce beautiful, bountiful fruit. That is really our only concern.

So how do we attach to the vine? How do we draw close enough to the vine so that we actually receive nourishment? There are two ways that Jesus offers in regard to attaching ourselves to Him in our passage. The first way into attachment is found in verse seven — Jesus says “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you… we will bear fruit.”  As we incorporate the living Word of Jesus into our life, his life will flow into us. Thus, a foundational practice of attaching to Jesus is found in meditating on His Word. One of the best way to do this is through the practice of reading Scripture called Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina is an invitation to read a short passage of Scripture slowly, a few times over. You read, expecting God to speak to you through this passage, and when he does, when a word or phrase strikes you as a message directly to you from God, you simply stop and savour the connection. Reading Scripture in this way is like a soaker hose watering a plant. It is slow but goes deep. We first attach to the vine through mediating on God’s Word, and let His Word attach to us.

The other way to attach to the vine is through keeping the commandments of Jesus. In verse 10 Jesus says, “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.”  Here, Jesus is speaking of a fairly specific commandment. In verse 12 Jesus says: “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.” This is the second way into abiding on the Vine — loving one another.

Now this part about loving one another by attaching to Jesus is hugely important. In the beginning of March, I preached a sermon that reflected on the story of the woman at the well. In that sermon, I speculated on how the woman in that story was thirsty for true intimacy, true connection. Jesus approached this woman who had been burned by intimacy and He offered her intimacy with God. She had been burned in intimacy with so many others, but now Jesus was holding out the possibility for true intimacy, intimacy with God. Now, after that sermon I heard a few people say that God is not enough to sustain their desire for intimacy. They were aware of their need for intimacy beyond praying and meditating on Scripture. I’m not sure if those comments were a direct response to my sermon, but I thought them a fair and legitimate push back. These comments helped me to realize that the sermon was a bit out of balance — what needed to be mentioned was that loving one another is one of the chief ways into intimacy with God. Important as it is, meditating on Scripture won’t be enough to sustain our needs for intimacy. Of course, this is hugely important, but it's not enough! That’s by design. That’s the way that God intended it to be!

According to Jesus, if we want to be attached to the Vine — we need to be attached to one another. We need to be attached to His church. We become attached to Jesus by being attached to one another. The Vine has always been a picture of community, Israel — and Jesus does not abandon the communal aspect of this image. If we want to attach to the Vine, we need to love one another. Our relationships with one another shape our experience of being attached to the Vine.

Look at the two misguided perspectives on pruning I mentioned. I talked about the Father as a vine-dresser who never prunes. Where would a person get an idea that God never prunes and expects them to be apart of every single possible Christian activity? Well, a person might get that idea if they are apart of a spiritual community that expects them to be apart of every single possible Christian activity! The church we are in and the family we grew up in, has an enormous impact of our experience of the vine!

Or what about the Father as an anxious vine-dresser who feels it His duty to snip away every sign of life on the branch? Where would a person develop such an idea of God? Perhaps if their family or church family was incredibly suspicious of pleasure, of joyful activities, of activities outside of the church, of soul care or self care, of giving and receiving comfort, of allowing you space to rest, breathe and be human. The result is that every time you experience the gift of life blossoming within you, you feel like you are forsaking your Christian duty and reach for your own pruning shears to snip it off.

We have an enormous impact and influence over each other and our experiences of what it means to be attached to the Vine. That’s why it is so important for us to be a community that meditates on the Word, is shaped by the Word, and is nourished by the Word. Then, when we come together we can nourish each other as we ourselves are nourished by the Word. Insofar as we are a community that is nourished by God’s Word, we can nourish each other. This nourishing relationship with each other and the Word of God then creates the conditions necessary to begin to bear fruit in keeping with the Kingdom. Being apart of the Vine means being attached to Jesus — and it's being a part of the Church. The Vine is still a community (as it always was), a community in Jesus. Nourishment through individual spiritual practices is not enough. But “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us”. Both are necessary to bear fruit — being nourished by the Word, and loving one another. Let us becoming a community nourished by the Word, nourished by our love for God and for one another — this is the only way of producing fruit that will truly transform the world.


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