What does it mean to 'bear fruit', and what does Jesus mean when he says he is the 'true vine'? How do we recognise growth and fruit in ourselves and others?
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples" John 15: 1 - 8 (NRSV)
An elderly woman walked into the local country church. The friendly usher greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps.
"Where would you like to sit?" he asked politely.
"The front row please," she answered.
"You really don't want to do that," the usher said. "The pastor is really boring."
"Do you happen to know who I am? she declared indignantly, "I'm the pastor's mother."
"Do you know who I am?" the usher asked.
"No." said the woman.
"Good," he answered.
copyright S^S (creative commons)
Do we know who we are? Where do we find the root of our identity? People like to define themselves and others in all sorts of different ways, social background, employment, politics, even taste in music. The church is no different. We manufacture labels to define ourselves and to define others, to keep ourselves in and sometimes others out. Not that there is anything wrong with labels – they are just language. It is how we use them and respond to them that is important.
For Jesus however identity it is simpler.
"I am the Vine, You are the Branches."
I wonder - what does the image conjure up for us? – Life, energy, growth, and fruit - rich fruit that can be made into the wine that is such a potent symbol in the scriptures. If Christ can turn water into wine, can offer wine as his blood, then we too can be transformed and bear fruit as we abide in Him.
That word abide has a strength, perhaps lost in the English translation. It is an imperative – like 'Stop!' Or 'Go!' It is not a temporary arrangement, not a lodging, but something settled.
In marriage you abide with your husband or wife, but you do not abide when you pop into see friends for tea or for coffee. It is telling that Jesus says 'Abide in me as I abide in you.' We abide in Christ as Christ abides in us, not fickle or fleeting but sure and certain.
The on-going sense of this decided abiding has no hiding. It is bearing fruit.
When I first arrived at my current post three years ago I was away at a conference and I was praying with someone about how to minister in so many places. The advice/word they shared with me was 'Go where the fruit is'. At first I thought this sounded like a cop out, but over the years I have seen that it is not so much the easy route but rather a challenge.
The first challenge is that sometimes we can miss entirely the fruit that is growing up among us. If we are expecting large bunches of dark red grapes but instead see only small collections of fine white grapes we may miss the fruit entirely. Reading commentaries on this passage highlights this danger; some suggest the fruit Jesus described is internal, in the spiritual life, others that the fruit is external in service to others and in people coming to faith. I hope we can learn to recognise all of these.
The second challenge is this. Vines like any cultivated plant can grow wild and unruly. For them to fulfil their potential and bear the maximum fruit they need the expert touch of a gardener.
Jesus says "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes* to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed* by the word that I have spoken to you".
The words clean and prunes are the same root word in Greek. People still use the term 'cleaning their vines' today.
Although Jesus is clear about the Father removing dried up and fruitless vines it is the pruning and cleaning that many Christians experience and struggle with. 'To go where the fruit is' is to also to go where the pruning is so that more fruit can grow, and when we ask God for more fruit in our lives, in our families and in our churches we are also asking to be pruned and cleaned by the Father through his living Word. Such pruning, corporate or individual can be painful and difficult, but it is not a sign of failure, rather it is the sign of the divine gardener preparing us to bear more fruit.
And this is something that we experience not as individuals but together, because we are all a part of the same vine. We are not separate plants in different vineyards, but one plant with many branches, spread far and wide but all Abiding in Christ the Vine. We are in Communion.
You may have heard of the Greek term Koinonia. It is translated in many different ways in the New Testament sometimes as communion, sometimes fellowship, or sharing. Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Koinonia (κοινωviα) comes from a verb which means to communicate and share in the same realities or even problems with another person. Koinonia is different from the Latin societas, from which we take the term Society - this refers to an agreement and means a partnership. Koinonia however is deeper meaning an intimate relationship, an internal affinity and likeness.
This cup of blessing, this bread that we break is also our highest worship or offering. The Greek term used for blessing by Paul is equally rich, Eulogia from which the word Eulogy comes – the words we say in praise of someone and their great life. Our Eulogy this morning, our words of praise and blessing that we share over the bread and the wine are not for a human being who lived and died, but for Jesus, the son of God, who rose again, and invites us all to abide in him, an intimate relationship, an internal affinity and likeness.
This then is Holy Communion, no mere sign or symbol, but an intimate sharing in the blood and body of Christ, a participation together in Him the one true Vine. As we say:
We break this bread to share in the body of Christ.
Though we are many, we are one body,
because we all share in one bread.
Edward Green is a Church of England Priest based in Oxfordshire. He blogs regularly at The Future Shape of Church
May 8th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Edward Green