From last week:
Jesus had started to teach them again, this time using the grapevine as his illustration. ”I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.”
Israel was known throughout the Hebrew scriptures as the vine planted and tenderly cared for by God. But Israel failed to be the fruitful vine it had been intended to be. Now Jesus portrayed himself as the true vine.
Once again, Jesus had taken a familiar metaphor and added a completely new and unexpected twist. Where would he go with it?
A Troublesome Saying
Every branch in me not bearing fruit he lifts it up [or] removes [αἴρω], and each of the fruit bearing he cleanses and prunes it, in order that it would bear much fruit.
Already you are cleansed and pruned through the word (logos) which I have spoken to you.Jesus to the disciples, John 15:2-3
αἴρω = “Remove” or “Lift Up”?
One way to teach these verses is to point out Jesus was now talking to the eleven disciples who had true faith. Judas, a fruitless branch, had already been removed by God.
In two different parables in Matthew 13, Jesus described the church as being filled with both those who truly believed and those who only seemed like believers, as Judas had, but were not. It is only for God to remove those fruitless branches.
In 1 John, the writer seemed to be talking about this kind of people when he explained that those who went out from among them never really belonged to them, or those people would have remained.
According to this interpretation, nonfruit-bearing branches are removed by God to prevent them from sapping the strength of the other fruit-bearing branches.
It is a troubling teaching, however, to consider that some might be grafted into Jesus, fail to bear fruit, then be taken away. Could this be true? Is there a way that we might forfeit our place in Christ?
The Work of Real Vinedressers
Another explanation is offered in Bruce Wilkinson’s book “Secrets of the Vine.” According to a vinedresser he interviewed, the correct translation should be “lift up,” because real vinedressers know that new branches have a tendency to trail along the ground. Such vines will not be able to bear fruit in that condition, getting coated with dirt and dust, hidden from the sun, and made vulnerable to mildew, lying constantly in the wet mud.
Vinedressers, who have invested a great deal of time and money in their vines, know the potential of these new shoots. They carefully go over each vine, lifting up the tender young branches, washing them off, and wrapping them carefully around the trellis, even tying them in place so they may get the best benefit of the clean air and warm sun.
The analogy unfolds with ease!
God as the true vinedresser lifts up every new believer, who is just learning to live by faith, to trust in Jesus, and to bear fruit. God cleanses such a one, lifting them up from their old life, where bearing fruit as unto the Lord would not be possible.
For John, this is a core and foundational teaching for choosing and continuing to live by faith in Christ. Filled with the Spirit, and in the hands of God, you and I are loved, our lives have meaning, we have a purpose in the world.
Because we matter, what you and I do and say matters, so we take responsibility for that. And when unrighteousness has happened in the past, or happens now—either by our action or others—then we take that to God in confession*, and God promises to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, healing, restoring, and making holy. This includes even the unrighteousness left in our lives by others in the form of trauma, twisted coping mechanisms, lies we have been made to believe, and so on.
This is the secret power spoken of in John’s first letter,
If we say we have not sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, if we [are acknowledging of] our sins, trustworthy and righteous [is the one] who forgives us and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.1 John 1:8-9
You and I are sometimes left holding the bag, that is what it means to be made a victim in a situation, and others’ sin is left in us. It is no use to say it is not there. It is, in the form of trauma and pain. Yet, if you and I are willing to start processing that with the Lord, and with wise and empathetic counselors, trustworthy and righteous [is the one] who forgives us and cleanses us.
It will often be painful, as we confess and repent, as we process and grow in both understanding and maturity, as we also break away from old ways of living and learn and embrace new.
Through this means of cleansing, God carefully weaves the life of each tender new believer into the trellis, anchoring them there where they can get the full benefit of the wind of the Spirit, and the healthful light and warmth of God’s light.
O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.Psalm 43:3 (NRSV)
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path . . . The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.Psalm 119:105, 130 (NRSV)
Those receiving Jesus’ teaching were to see themselves as already cleansed and carefully tied into the trellis. God, the true vinedresser, had already lifted them up and made them ready to bear much fruit, because they had been receiving—and heeding—Jesus’ words, his logos.
No Fruit, Fruit, More Fruit, Much Fruit
As Jesus continued with his illustration, he showed how the vinedresser expects an ever-increasing harvest.
- Verse 2, The young shoot that bears no fruit is lifted up that it might begin to bear.
- Verse 2, Branches that bear fruit are carefully pruned, trimming back the good producers to preserve their strength and enable them to bear even more.
- Verse 5, Now firmly anchored into the vine, drawing on the rich, lifegiving sap, mature branches will bear much fruit.
Just as the cleansing away of the muck from our old life is a process that takes time, and is often painful, so also is the pruning that takes place, as God clears away those things in our lives that distract or drain us from the best God has in store.
What do you think of when you hear, “I am only human” Or “To err is human, to forgive is divine”?
What I hear is that we are finite, we have a finite supply of inner and outer resources, so we need to be wise in how we expend ourselves. Sometimes we make unwise commitments, sometimes our priorities are not God’s.
So, God prunes our lives even as you and I offer our lives to God to be pruned. And it can be so hard to tell the difference, sometimes, between God’s careful pruning, God’s careful cleansing, and what seems like God’s correction.
They all hurt!
They all feel like punishment!
But cleansing and pruning are not God’s punitive correction, rather they are God’s wisdom at work, creating within us the character, and developing within us the capacity to bear much fruit.
Abide and Remain
Abide and remain in me, even as I also in you. Just as the branch is not able to bear fruit from itself if it does not remain in the vine, thus neither you all if you do not remain in me. I am the vine, you all the branches. The one abiding and remaining in me, even so I also in them, that one bears much fruit, that apart from me is not able to do anything.Jesus to the disciples, John 15:4-5
Jesus spoke carefully. the only way to bear fruit at all, let alone bear much fruit, is to remain fully connected to the vine, spiritually dependent upon God.
*Confession, in this sense, is the vulnerable and transparent heart-to-heart with the Lord, laying bear all that has happened, all the pain, and the awfulness, all the secret things that are so hard to even think about, let alone put words to, but which grow like mildew if left in the dark recesses of our minds.
[Grapevine Trellis | Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons]