If you’ve never toured a vineyard it’s certainly one of those experiences worth having, even if you don’t enjoy wine. The sights and smells are rich, and full of an earthy-beauty (plus for people like me, it’s a chance to pretend for a moment like you’re traveling in Tuscany and not southern British Columbia!)
As you wander through the long lanes, with branches straining under the load of luscious grapes, even a casual observer can see that there is an interconnectedness about what you’re looking at; a syllogistic pattern of vines planted in the earth, branches attached to the vines, and grapes exploding in slow motion out of the vines. Remove the vine and you have no branches or fruit. Remove the branches and you have no fruit. Remove the fruit and … well, you make some wine!
Something that you’ll miss however by a single visit is the seasonal changes a vine goes through. Come in late Fall and you’ll see rows and rows of fruit ready for harvest. But come in winter and you’ll see the vines trimmed down to almost nothing. Or come in spring and you’ll see the slow climb up the trellis as the branches spring from the vine and reach for the sky above and it’s nourishing light. The thing to take away here is that even healthy, fruit-bearing branches have seasons where you see no fruit on them at all!
The last thing to notice is the pile of branches that have been pruned. It takes a trained eye to see it, but even a seemingly healthy branch that bears no fruit needs to be cut away so that the healthy branches can have room to grow unhindered and produce more fruit. It seems cruel perhaps but the vinedresser knows what is needed to produce the best crop. These branches that are cut away are then simply piled up and burned.
In John 15, Jesus draws from these same observations we’ve just made and makes the following connections to Himself, the Father, and to us: He says, “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.”
A verse later He says, “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.”
Finally, He says, “I am the Vine, you are the branches (avoid the temptation to hear cheesy 80’s worship chorus here). Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” He then goes on in sobering terms to describe the branches that do not abide which are cut away, wither, and are gathered and burned.
And as we consider what it means to have union with Christ and, ultimately, to abide in Him, the analogy of the vineyard has striking revelations for us:
*note – i do realize that, technically speaking, “abiding” in Christ and “union” with Christ are separate things to be sure. I am merely moving past the obvious connection that if one is not first united with Christ, they cannot abide in Him.
The first, and most obvious, revelation seen here is that bearing fruit requires being connected to Jesus. The analogies are many and sundry. A fish can’t live out of water. We can’t live under water. And fruit doesn’t grow in the air. It needs to be attached to something to grow at all. And bearing fruit is always connected in Scripture with life in Christ. The one who bears no fruit at all (and i want to stress that point at all, for – as we saw above – fruit growth has it’s seasons) is not united to Christ, no matter how many WWJD bracelets, bible memory verses, or church attendance pins they may have. A story i never used to get, but that illustrates this point strikingly, is found in Matt. 21:18,19 where Jesus curses the fig tree and it withers. The key to understanding it is in seeing that the tree Jesus comes up to “looks” healthy (leaves growing and, i assume, figs are supposed to be in season). But when Jesus sees that there is no fruit, he curses it and it withers (sound like anything we just read in John 15 about branches w/o fruit being cut off and withering?) So with us: no matter how healthy and spiritual we may appear to the world around us, God is not fooled, and our complete lack of fruit shows the true health and life of our soul (or rather the lack of it).
The second, and perhaps not as obvious, revelation is that – as the branch itself that is separated from the vine could not bear fruit and withers – so a man or woman separate from Christ – the true Vine – can not only not bear fruit, but has no life in them. Earlier in John 6, Jesus used striking words to make this same point when He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” In Colossians 3:4, Paul says of Christ that He “is your life“, and that when He appears, we will also appear with Him in glory. As those united to Christ by faith and seeking to abide in Him always, we are meant to be nourished by the true Vine; to feed on Him by faith through the Word and the sacraments, in order to have His life in us. So that we finally begin to see and understand, as He says, “apart from Me you can do nothing.” Here Jesus goes beyond the fruit part even; He says in effect, ‘forget the fruit bro – you can’t do anything apart from Me!’
So critical is this union with Christ to our eternal life and salvation that John Calvin began book three of his Institutes of the Christian Religion – Calvin’s main section relating to the application of redemption – with this statement, “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from Him, all that He has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us.”
May it be said of all of us who profess Christ, that we did not only wear the ‘clothing of the branches’, but that we – truly united to and abiding in Christ – bore ‘fruit in keeping with repentance’, and produced a bountiful harvest to the glory of God.