In the gospel story we’re about to read, Jesus talks about growing grapes. I can tell you that just about everything I know about growing grapes comes from this story.
Many years ago, I did a children’s message about it. For “show and tell,” I brought some grapevine that I’d cut from the wildly overgrown grape arbor in our back yard. The grapes were there when we moved to the property. We didn’t know how to care for them, so we let them grow pretty much willy-nilly as food for the birds.
As people were leaving that morning, I was approached by a lady farmer who never hesitated to share her thoughts. She was a true saint but she had a sharp tongue. She shook her head and said, “You sure don’t know much about growing grapes.”
Happily, the story Jesus tells pretty much explains itself, so we don’t need to know much about growing grapes in order to understand it. In John’s gospel, this is part of a long speech that Jesus makes to his disciples right after the Last Supper. It comes just as they are leaving the Upper Room on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane. So this is important stuff that Jesus wants to make sure he shares with his friends.
Here are his words, in John 15:1-8, from the Message version by Eugene Peterson:
I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.
Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.
I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant.
Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire.
But 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. This is how my Father shows who he is – when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.
In previous messages in this series about Living the Resurrection, we’ve talked about seeing and touching and listening to the risen Jesus. Today our focus is on abiding with him.
This message is titled “Abide in Me” because in most translations of the passage we just read, the word “abide” appears seven times in eight verses. Rather than repeat the word “abide” seven times, the Message version uses several synonyms. That’s apt because the Greek word for “abide,” meno, has many associated meanings: indwell, remain, persevere – or, as we might say today, hang in there.
In the Message version, Jesus tells us to live in him, make our home in him and be joined with him. He’s talking about such an intimate connection that if the connection is broken, we will wither away and die the way a branch of grapevine withers away and dies if it becomes disconnected from the vine.
We are branches, and the vine is our lifeline. We get all our nourishment from the vine. Separated from it, we can produce nothing. Separated from it, we die.
A less organic way of expressing this in today’s terms might be to compare it to electrical wiring. If we’re not plugged in, not much is going to happen. Furnace, refrigerator, hair dryer, TV, computer, you name it, it’s gotta have juice, and if you’re not plugged into a source of power, you are powerless.
Fine and dandy. We can understand that well enough. But what’s this stuff about pruning? That’s when you take those garden shears, right, and you whack, whack, whack and cut back the rosebush or the spirea bush or whatever it is. Or maybe you use the hand clippers and go snip, snip, snip.
Whatever you use, when you’re done, what’s left may not look pretty. It may look like you’ve killed it. But if you’ve done it well, that bush will green up and grow like crazy and produce a bumper crop of blossoms.
That’s what you want, of course, and that’s why you cut it back. It needed pruning, the way some prairie grasses need burning in the spring. You’re helping a natural process, even if it seems unnatural at the time.
Pruning is necessary for all of us. Remember Bo Jackson? He played baseball for the Royals at the same time he played football for the Raiders. As incredible an athlete as he was, even he struggled to excel in more than one sport.
Over our lifetimes, we all have to learn to narrow our interests so we can focus our energies more effectively on what we do best. Pruning is necessary not only to remove deadwood but also to enhance growth and promote fruitfulness.
To explore this process more closely, I want to change the metaphor from grape growing to house construction and work with a quotation attributed to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It seems like every blogger and columnist and opinionator in the world has mentioned this quote in the last few weeks.
I don’t know why it’s suddenly popping up everywhere, unless it was just made up, the way a lot of things are these days. Possibly it’s like a lot of quotes attributed to famous people. They might have agreed with it, but likely they didn’t say it. As Abraham Lincoln has been quoted as saying, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.
Wright is said to have given these four cautions to prospective clients before they signed on the dotted line. Though building a house is a one-time deal and abiding with Christ is a long-term proposition, I think you’ll see how Wright’s counsel applies.
Caution No. 1: This will take longer than you planned.
Some people think that all you have to do say “yes” to Jesus, and you are instantly transformed into the living image of Christ. I hope you have never toiled under this delusion. Being formed in the shape of Jesus takes a lifetime.
The Apostle Paul has a great way of describing it. He suggests that you “put on Christ,” the way you put on a new coat or other piece of clothing (Romans 13:14). Let’s say you buy a custom-made suit or dress. This is not something that fits right off the rack. It’s made to fit your unique dimensions. It’s tailored to fit your body.
When we put on Christ, the opposite happens. He is the perfect pattern, and we are tailored to fit his dimensions. That means we need to be trimmed here, let out there, shortened here, lengthened there. A whole lot of pruning, as it were, has to be done before we fit the pattern of Christ.
As Wright warns, this will take longer than you planned – a lot longer. It will, in fact, take a lifetime.
Wright’s second caution is one you probably have experienced with many home improvement projects. It will cost more than you figured. Likely it will cost a lot more than you figured. Count the cost before you start building, Jesus suggests (Luke 14:28), or you may run out of money and end up with only half a house.
Wright’s third caution: This will be messier than you ever imagined. Face it, you are not just a fixer-upper. You need more than a few boards replaced and some new paint. You need a total and complete makeover.
You’ve seen it many times on those house-flipping shows on TV. The contractor gets to rolling and things are going great and then – wham! Who put all that black mold in the walls? Home come nobody noticed that huge sewer leak before? What do you mean, we have to replace all the wiring? Oh, this is going to be messy!
If you think it’s not going to be messy with you, I suggest that you are falling way short in the self-awareness department. Of course, it’s going to be messy! You’re a mess! Fixing you is going to make an even bigger mess.
Finally, Wright’s fourth caution: It will take more patience, perseverance, and determination to get through it than you ever dreamed.
That’s where abiding comes in. Remember that abiding also means persevering, hanging in there, not giving up, whatever roadblocks you face, despite the cost of overcoming them. Also remember that you’re not in this alone. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says (John 15:4). Or, as the Message puts it: “Make your home in me just as I do in you.”
See how that works two ways? You make your home in Christ. You abide in him. Similarly, Christ makes his home in you. He abides in you. You are not just connected downstream – Christ’s blessings flowing to you. You also are connected upstream – your blessings flowing to Christ.
The nourishment you need as a human being who is a follower of Christ flows to you from Christ. This nourishment keeps you alive. If it is cut off, you will wither and die. But this is a two-way street. Branches are intimately connected to the vine. Branches are extensions of the vine. They are one organism.
You and Christ are not separate. You and Christ are one. What affects one of you affects the other. If you become separated from Christ, Christ also is separated from you. You will wither and die. Christ will not die, but Christ will be diminished. Christ will feel the loss of not being connected to you.
You want to remain connected not just for your own benefit and the benefit of Christ but also for the benefit of others. One point of growing, after all, is to reproduce. The point of being a branch on a grapevine is not just to look pretty but to produce grapes, to bear fruit. That is what we do when we are mature disciples. Witnessing to our faith to others, we help create other disciples.
So remember, this extreme makeover in Christ’s image is going to take time, it’s going to cost you, it’s going to be messy, it’s going to require endurance – and it’s totally going to be worth it!
Through it all, Christ will be with you. He will abide with you as you abide with him. He will live in you as you live in him. He assures you of his continued presence. He says, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15.11).
Living with us and within us is a joy for him, and he promises that it will be a joy for us. However long it takes, however costly our makeover is, however messy it is, however much patience it requires, it’s a joy to be a branch connected to the True Vine and growing stronger every day and producing fruit the way we are intended.
Abiding in Christ, living in Christ, and him in us – that’s the key to Living the Resurrection!
This message was delivered May 2, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas.