I Am the True Vine
In 1927, the silent film “King of Kings” was released. Cecil DeMille was the director. And he cast British born actor H.B. Warner as Jesus. Warner would later play the druggist in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Well, he was kept on a really short leash during the filming of King of Kings. DeMille was concerned that any behavior by his lead actor that seemed inconsistent with the image of Christ would result in negative publicity for the film.
Because of that, he put some really strict rules in place to make sure that Warner kept up a good Jesus-image (or what DeMille thought would be a good representation of Jesus). Both Warner and his co-star Dorothy Cumming (who played Mary, the mother of Jesus) had to sign agreements that barred them for five years from appearing in film roles that might compromise their “holy” screen images. During the filming, Warner was driven to the set with blinds drawn on the vehicle windows, and he wore a black veil as he was delivered to the set. He was separated from the other cast members, even forced to eat alone every day. Warner couldn’t play cards, go to ballgames, ride in a convertible, or go swimming.
Unfortunately, the regimen of rules and regulations didn’t make Warner more holy. Instead, all of the pressure to be more Christlike without having the power of Jesus seemed to drive him over the edge. During the production of King of Kings, rather than act more like Jesus, he relapsed into his addiction to alcohol.
So let me ask you this: why didn’t following a bunch of religious rules help Warner? Isn’t the point of being a Christian to do good things, become a better person, to better myself? Jesus answers that question with a resounding NO! Those of us who follow Jesus are supposed to do good things, to seek justice and mercy on behalf of the oppressed, to live differently than those who aren’t following Jesus, but we don’t do that by ourselves.
Now, I don’t know about you, but there have been some times in my life when I have been a lot like Warner, trying my best to do the right thing, to live the right way. Instead of allowing the strength and transforming power of Christ to flow through me, I’ve tried to become more Christ-like, or at least look more like a good Christian is in my mind supposed to look, by myself.
I mean, have you ever wondered, like I have, “Why is there so often so little difference between me and the people who don’t know Christ who I hang out with? Why does there seem to be so little Christ-likeness in me?” I claim to be a Christian, to place my trust in and follow in the way of Christ. Why does that so often seem to have so little impact on my life?
Truth is, in the American church we’ve been really good at building an audience, but we’ve failed to make disciples of Jesus. We come claiming to worship God, and instead focus completely on ourselves. We’d rather be entertained than engaged in worship. We’d rather be confirmed in our complacency rather than challenged. We’d rather leave feeling good about ourselves than good about what Christ has done and is doing in us. So how do we really grow toward a life of fruitful maturity in Christ?
In our passage for today, Jesus sets before us the key to following him and the image he uses is that of a lush grapevine and its branches. This is the seventh and final of Christ’s “I Am …” statements recorded in St. John’s Gospel. Jesus has already told them …
I am the BREAD OF LIFE
I am the LIGHT OF THE WORLD
I am the GATE FOR THE SHEEP
I am the GOOD SHEPHERD
I am the RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
I am the WAY, TRUTH, AND LIFE
… and now he tells them I am THE TRUE VINE, and my father is the vinedresser. Turn with me to John 15:1-11. We don’t realize this, but this statement would have made his disciples stop in their tracks. You see, of all of the national and religious symbols used by the Jews throughout history, the vine was perhaps the most significant. It was stamped on their coins. The image of the vine was at the core of their psyche and their identity as a nation. Throughout the Old Testament, the nation of Israel had been depicted as a vineyard lovingly planted and tended by God. It was a powerful symbol, similar to our own “Stars and Stripes,” deeply imbedded in their national history.
In Psalm 80, the Psalmist Asaph says “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the River” (Vv. 8-11).
And the prophet Isaiah says, “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 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 …” (5:1-2).
Central to Israel’s self-perception, from the earliest days of the Old Testament to the time of Jesus was the concept of being a grapevine in God’s vineyard. Vineyards with ripened fruit, overflowing with wine, were a symbol of God’s hand upon them blessing them. One commentator tells us that “In the temple at Jerusalem, above and around the gate, seventy cubits high (that’s roughly 115 feet!), which led from the porch to the holy place, a richly carved vine was extended as a border and decoration. The branches, tendrils and leaves were of finest gold; the stalks of the bunches were of the length of the human form, and the bunches hanging upon them were of costly jewels. Herod first placed it there; rich and patriotic Jews from time to time added to it, one contributed a new grape, another a leaf, and a third even a bunch of grapes … this vine must have had an uncommon importance and a sacred meaning in the eyes of the Jews. With what majestic splendor must it likewise have appeared in the evening, when it was illuminated by tapers.”
It was an image that reminded them that they had been planted by God and were under his loving care and guidance. But something had gone wrong in the vineyard. Something had gone wrong in Israel. Isaiah goes on to say, “and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. (Now God is speaking). What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!”
That was God’s perspective. The Psalmist Asaph gives us Israel’s perspective. “Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.” Psalm 80 is a psalm of lament. Of pain and struggle as the people of God were brought to judgment because where God looked for good tasting, healthy, cultivated fruit, all he found was the bitterness of wild grapes. Useless.
In saying, “I am the TRUE VINE,” Jesus was doing two things. The first was to make it absolutely clear, to those steeped in this imagery and world-view, that Israel herself was no longer going to be the means for the peoples of the world to encounter the goodness of God. Jesus was taking that upon himself. HE, and he alone, is now that vine, that conduit, through which the life of God flows to us. He was saying, “I am the source of life and fruitfulness. I am the fulfillment of our deepest identity as a nation.” He was also making it clear that if he is the true vine, there are also counterfeit vines, things that we turn to for life that only lead us to death.
One of my all-time favorite authors is John Eldridge. Several years ago now, John wrote a book with a good friend, Brent Curtis, who has since passed away. In that book, The Sacred Romance, Brent wrote, “If I’m not abiding in Jesus, then where is it that I abide? I once asked myself. I began to notice that when I was tired or anxious, there were certain sentences I would say in my head that led me to a familiar place. The journey to this place would often start with me walking around disturbed, feeling as if there was something deep inside that I needed to put into words but couldn’t quite capture. I felt the “something” as anxiety, loneliness, and a need for connection with someone. If no connection came, I would start to say things like, “Life really stinks. Why is it always so hard? It’s never going to change.” If no one noticed I was struggling or asked me what was wrong, I found my sentences shifting to a more cynical level: “Who cares? Life is a joke.” Surprisingly, by the time I was saying those last sentences, I was feeling better. The anxiety was greatly diminished. My comforter, my abiding place, was cynicism and rebellion. From this abiding place, I would feel free to use some soul cocaine, watching a violent video with maybe a little sexual titillation thrown in, having more alcohol with a meal than I might normally drink, things that would allow me to feel better for a little while. I had always thought of these things as just bad habits. I began to see they were much more; they were spiritual abiding places that were my comforters and friends in a very spiritual way.
The final light went on one evening when I read John 15:7 in The Message. Peterson translates Jesus’ words on abiding this way: “If you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.” Jesus was saying in answer to my question, “I have made my home in you, Brent. But you still have other comforters you go to. You must learn to make your home in me.” To what false vines do you turn for life? Where do you go when you are tired and anxious?
This is an image of Christ alone as the true vine, the source of life, and those who place their trust in him alone are connected to him, for the sap that runs through the vine runs through its branches as well. God the Father walks along the vine, lovingly pruning its branches and tending to his vineyard so that it will bear fruit and bring him glory.
So how do we do that? How do we abide in Christ? Jesus tells us that if we have placed our trust in him, he has made his home in us. Look at v. 3. He already abides in us. How do we abide in him? Look now at v. 7. Christ abides in us through his Word. Does the Word of God abide in you? Do you read, study, and meditate on the Word of God? Am I doing things to enable the Word of God to sink deeply into my heart?
And Jesus gives us the model for abiding in Christ. Look at v. 10. He ISN’T saying “I will love you IF you keep my commandments.” What he IS saying is that as we abide in him, as his word begins to dwell in our hearts, HIS character, the fruit of HIS Spirit, begins to emerge in us. Our lives will be marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control. Obedience, following Christ’s commands, is the mark of abiding in Christ. As the sap from the vine nourishes and strengthens the branches, so Christ’s power and life flows into us. When the branch is connected to the vine, and is pruned by the gardener, it WILL produce fruit.
Often we assume it is our responsibility to produce fruit, that it is our responsibility to become Christ-like, to mature in faith. But it isn’t. That’s God’s job. Jesus wants us to focus not on fruitfulness, but on abiding in Christ, because when we abide in Christ, the fruit will come.
The result of our abiding in Christ, the result of his power, through the Holy Spirit, at work in our lives, is fruitfulness. My life in Christ will be marked by vitality. As I abide in Christ and his word abides in me, (St. Paul encourages us to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”), my thoughts begin to become God’s thoughts, and my life begins to look more and more like the life of Christ in me. My actions, both internally and externally, come more and more to reflect the life of Christ in me, never perfectly, but more and more. And what happens when I begin to bear fruit?
First, my prayer life will experience an effectiveness I’ve never known before. Look at the end of v. 7. Jesus isn’t saying that God will become our little genie in a bottle. “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Why? Because as I mature as a vital, fruitful branch connected to the true vine my desires begin to line up with what God already wants.
Second, the Father is glorified in my life. Look at v. 8. God is glorified through me. Things cease being about me and I become a living example of the life-giving power of God.
Third, I will know, deeply, the great love of God for me. In v. 9 Jesus says, “Abide in my love.” As I studied this week I began to realize that for all of my effort in the kingdom of God, I’ve never really understood the depth of God’s love for me. A college classmate practically put words into my mouth when she wrote, “Recognizing, realizing, and experiencing the love of God seems to evade me.” She grew up as a pastor’s kid and has spent her entire adult life working with her husband among the urban poor in nearly 70 countries around the world. And yet she could say, “I’ve never really, deeply, understood just how much God loves me.” And I realized that I could say the same thing. Jesus said, “Abide in my love.” Somewhere, deep down inside, I’ve come to realize that my journey with Christ to this point has been marked by the mistaken belief that God doesn’t really love me all that much, that he tolerates me and perhaps approves when I’m good, but doesn’t deeply love me, in the mess and filth and insecurities of my life. “Abide in my love.” “I love you for who you are, not because of what you do.” I’m just BEGINNING to understand what that really means.
And fourth, I will be filled with joy. Look at V. 11. Joy isn’t happiness. Happiness depends on happenings. It depends on our circumstances. Joy comes from deep within us as we abide in Christ. It is one of the results of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, and it looks more like deep contentment, often in spite of circumstances. Too many of us spend our time desperately trying to become more loving, or patient, or joy-filled, or self-controlled, only to constantly find ourselves falling short. Jesus reminds us that our job is to abide in him. To abide in his love. To allow his word to dwell within us. And when we do that, his Holy Spirit will go to work. God will gently and lovingly prune, and we will begin to become fruitful in the kingdom of God. But it takes time.
The fire alarm rang through the empty school hallways while the kids were in class. Students were excited. A fire drill to get them out of class. Teachers were frustrated by the interruption to their class time. Still, they got their students together and out into the hallway quickly and in organized fashion, as they’d done in dozens of fire drills before. But students and teachers alike were astonished when they got into the hallway and saw smoke. This was no drill. There was a fire in their building. The front lawn soon filled with students and teachers, the fear and anxiety evident on their faces. They watched as flames engulfed their school. They cried when they realized, through head counts repeated over and over again yielding the same results, that not everyone made it out of the building safely.
After the fire, the school board met to determine the magnitude of the loss – not just of the building and supplies, but also the loss of life. They soon discovered that the building wasn’t equipped with a sprinkler system. The new building, construction already underway, would be built with a state-of-the-art sprinkler and fire suppression system. They spared no expense. In the new building, the janitorial staff paid close attention to every nook and cranny of the building. While making rounds one night, one of them uncovered a very serious oversight in their new, state-of-the-art sprinkler system – it wasn’t connected to it’s water source. If a fire did happen to flare, the sprinkler system was useless. One simple step – connect sprinkler system to water source, had been missed by the system installers. The system looked good. Pipes and sprinkler heads and heat and smoke sensors throughout the building led people to believe their new building was safe. But it wasn’t. There was no water in the pipes.
Is your life producing the fruit of the kingdom of God? If not, why not? Do you look good, with nothing in the pipes? Jesus says, “I am the true 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.” Apart from Christ, I’m not just handicapped or at a disadvantage, I’m helpless. Our fruitfulness, and we MUST bear fruit, comes not from human effort or achievement, but from abiding in Christ. Let us pray.