Remain in the Vine John 15:1-8
The Who Cares survey last year taught us about the many challenges that so many of us face in the Valley with over 40% of our population with problems with relationships and 16% with negative emotions. So many of our people are not flourishing: they don’t have the freedom and joy which they could have by relationship with Jesus Christ.
Psalm 1 gives this image: ‘…a tree planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in season…’ This is the image of the person who is happy or as we would say in Christian parlance ‘blessed’. It is also an image which bears a striking resemblance to the image that Jesus gives in this passage in the Bible of the vine.
When we are looking at New Testament imagery, its easy to forget that Jesus was speaking into a community which is much more familiar than we are with agricultural imagery. The vine was the symbol of Israel: a great golden vine trailed over the temple porch but it was also what everyone had in their back garden. Cultivating grapes would have been as familiar to the Jew of the first century as cutting the grass or growing our vegetables is to us.
So to see if there were some hidden depths to this analogy which Jesus uses, I thought I ought to go and see our own local viticulturists Robert and Augusta Raimes of Tichborne http://raimes.co.uk who cultivate the grapes which turn into Raimes sparkling wine.
Gussie kindly spent a few minutes on Wednesday morning going through for me the approach that Raimes take to growing and pruning vines
The basic principle that they follow is taking a disease resistant rootstock from the United States they graft a vine (in their case a French vine: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or Chardonnay). Its a very tight fit male/female and encased in wax so that it never separates from the root stock. Shoots grow up from the trunk of the vine (which has been cut back each year to the ground) and Gussie tells me that you are looking for two shoots to become the branches. Two shoots in particular pointing upwards from the trunk of the vine like horns
which are well positioned so that they are closest to the sap of the vine and growing in the right direction. The selected branches mustn’t be too wide nor too fat – about finger width….so that they can be bent to the three horizontal wires of the growing frame .
Gussie said that she was looking for ‘two nice athletic canes’; the rest are cut off. Then she bends these shoots (as they become thicker) but still malleable on to the wires of the growing frame. These become the branches (shown above as the ‘cordon’) and from those branches the shoots will grow upwards in the sunshine and will produce the fruit.
So, how does Jesus use this metaphor?
First of all the role of the grower Robert and Gussie Raimes is taken by God…God is the ‘viticulturist’ – Jesus is the vine and the branches are us….
Like the Raimes, God is looking to identify branches to shoot off from the vine. Branches which are closest to the sap of the vine which are going to be fruitful, branches which he can bend to the framework of his purposes. He is looking for the athletic shoots to become branches. Not athletic in a physical sense otherwise half the clergy and quite a lot of the bishops would be swept away, but athletic in a spiritual way….so not complacent that they are unwilling to change or to learn from him.
He is looking for potential ‘fruitfulness’; he is looking for people who are teachable; not people who know better, who are metaphorically sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting ‘la la la la’ so as not to hear anything which might change them.
The athletic shoots which the gardener is seeking to identify are teachable ones because they are willing to bend to the gardener’s purposes; to the framework of the Kingdom of God; they will be willing to keep his commands; they will be fruitful….
I don’t believe that God minds how fruitful we are…he just wants us to be fruitful to some extent….because he has a plan to help us to become more fruitful, which I will come onto in a moment…
But what does fruitful mean? Fruitful I take to mean producing fruit for the Kingdom of God: so we are talking about bringing people into the Kingdom. Of course this is principally the Holy Spirit’s work, as we heard from Bishop David at the Licensing, the Holy Spirit is like the wind, we don’t know where it is going or where it is coming from.
But we have our bit to do as well: how we live our lives because we draw people into the Kingdom by our personal conduct.
How do our lives draw people into the Kingdom? Everything we do and say…for example: the way we deal with unfair treatment; how forgiving we are; how gracious we are when reason tells us we are entitled to get cross; how much we do for others; how much courtesy we show people, particularly people, who depend on us; who work for us or with us: how friendly and relaxed and chatty we are.
How do our lives give an attractive picture of the Kingdom of God to the rest of the world? To our neighbours? So that others are drawn to us and ultimately drawn to the Kingdom of God as well, most particularly when things are difficult for us so that others ask of their own volition ‘what motivates you to do this, to behave like this in these circumstances?’
When someone asks a question is probably the only time for direct evangelism – telling people about Jesus – in a close community like this, where subtlety and sensitivity must rule the day. As St Peter tells us in 1 Peter 3:16 , we must always be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have but do so with gentleness and respect….
So this is what fruitfulness is: behaving in a way motivated by Jesus which draws our neighbours into the Kingdom.
So what does the gardener do with the branches which are not fruitful? The ones which are not bendable to his purposes?
He cuts them off….so that they no longer ‘remain in the vine’.
So what does that cutting off mean? I think it means being separated from the things that God can give us which make our life worth living: the joy (verse 11) and peace and freedom in all circumstances which enable us to flourish which would, if they had it, enable those people who responded to the Who Cares survey as afflicted by difficulties in relationships and by negative emotions to flourish also….the joy peace and freedom which enable us to be the ‘…trees planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in season…’ of Psalm 1.
But what about the branches which are fruitful? the teachable ones?
When the Raimes prune they are cutting out shoots which are not pointing in the right direction or where there are too many shoots thus exhausting the branch so that eventually it is not fruitful at all. They prune so that the remaining shoots get enough of the sun to be fruitful.
God also prunes us so that we will become more fruitful…
Pruning is of a live plant it is not cutting back dead wood; it is bound to be painful.
Pruning may be painful but it is prudent…
What might this pruning that God does look like?
When I was thinking about this an image came to me of the shoots rising up from the branches being like the plans and projects that we nurture for the future. They may be about what we do for the Kingdom or just the direction that we want to take our lives.
And with respect to these plans it seems to me that there are five stages of pruning:
It can be so disappointing, so painful to be stopped in our tracks with one of our plans. But the guy who teaches at the gym I attend says ‘Pain means pause’ and ‘its there for a reason’.
So pain should lead to pause. I don’t mean just physical pain, emotional pain conflict with those we love. Pain should lead to pause.
And when we pause we should pray…
Pray and discern. We may realise that all that is happening is that the enemy trying to stop us, not what God wants.
One Christian friend of mine says ‘When something goes wrong in our family, we stop and say ‘What are we doing right?’’
The enemy wants to discourage us. I think that was the case, for example, during the last vacancy when I blew myself up at a school assembly, the morning before speaking on the Alpha Course that evening.
We need to ask: What are we doing right?
So, following the pain: pause and pray for discernment.
When we pray – we don’t just decide what we are going to do in advance….we pray first before we have decided.
When the plans that we have for our future, when the plans that we have for the Kingdom seem to face endless obstacles, even though we have been praying and praying about them, sometimes God may be saying, as he closes the door: Not this direction- but that!
Or He may be saying ‘you are trying to do too much’ like the Raimes wanting to give the shoots enough light, sometimes we need to back down on some of the things we are doing but we need to pray for discernment to work out which is which. We need to pray for discernment on what our priorities should be.
One psychotherapist friend told me recently, actually on the way to see Gussie Raimes, that the root of many of her patients anxiety was trying to do too much.
Then it’s a question of praying through our priorities. As Christians our priorities should probably be:
spouse and children
ministry – what we are doing for the church, and
We might want to work through these five points to work out what are our priorities.
But sometimes God slams the door shut….and it is difficult to see what is going on, its disappointing.
When I left the law firm in which I was a partner in 2005, I thought that Lucy and I were going to spend our lives doing Marriage Education keeping couples together but after we had spent about 2 or 3 years running the Marriage Course locally attendance just dwindled to nothing…it was disappointing but the door was closed.
God had other plans in store and here we are!
Once we have paused, prayed and prioritised, we can decide what should be pruned and then we cut it out.
So in summary: pain – should lead us to…..pause – what are we doing right? then we…pray – before we decide what to do not afterwards and prioritise – check that we have God’s priorities right and finally we….prune
When we get this right, we will become fruitful and the joy and freedom which are characteristicof the flourishing life in Jesus Christ will be ours.
Jesus the True Vine
15“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 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. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.