Today we speak of connections and the importance of remaining connected. At Calera First we think that is important. So much so that we use a puzzle piece to illustrate the importance of connecting on a regular basis. We talk about having a place where everyone can fit.
Jesus thought connection was important too. He spoke of it to his disciples but instead of puzzle pieces Jesus used the illustration of vine and branches.
Grapevines were important to Israel’s identity as a nation. Vineyards were everywhere as wine was a staple of the economy and everyday life. Prophetic metaphor in the Old Testament likened Israel to God’s special vineyard, where he planted and pruned and harvested fruit.
The symbol was so prevalent that it is said the temple in Jerusalem had the image of a vine and branches, with clusters of grapes, carved in gold over the doorpost of the holy place. Synagogues throughout the country had similar carvings to indicate they were part of the vine, connected to the whole.
With vineyards everywhere and so important to daily living everyone was constantly reminded of the truth that Israel was the vine and everyone was connected to it for life and identity. And God lovingly tended to his vineyard to produce fruit.
But something went terribly wrong. Isaiah spoke of a choice vine that produced wild or sour grapes despite the vintner’s best efforts. Frustrated he asked, “What more could I have done?” He vowed to take it down and burn it.
So on his last night with the disciples, during the Passover meal dinner conversation, Jesus changed the metaphor and identified it with himself. “I am the true vine,” he told them. “And my Father is the vinedresser.” He described how the Father expected good fruit, just as he had from Israel in Isaiah’s prophecy, and would cut off unproductive branches and prune productive ones.
He then said to them, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing.”
Here he gives them, and us, the secret of being fruitful: abiding in Jesus and allowing Jesus to abide in us. In other words, being connected. Abide translates the Greek menō, which means to remain in a given place. To stand firm, remain committed. Planted.
This is hard for us to relate to in a postmodern culture where individualism and getting the most blessing for the buck are high values. We don’t really understand or appreciate authority, especially when we disagree. And the first time things get a little too uncomfortable we don’t hesitate to cut loose and head off to the next place. We like the superchurches because they can put on a better show, and we can slip in and have a good time without ever really having to connect. We can design our own spirituality based on personal preferences. That produces a bland, unproductive spiritual life that is always needy and never fruitful. Sort of like those unproductive branches, suckers they call them, that take life from the vine but never produce fruit. The ones Jesus said should be removed.
All of this begs two questions. How do we connect to the vine? And what is fruitfulness?
As Jesus pointed out, connecting to the vine means connecting to him in a give-and-take committed relationship. We are taking the life he brings, and we are giving fruit. And Jesus chooses to connect to us through his church, the embassy of his kingdom on earth. There is no way around it. We receive life and bear fruit through committed relationships with fellow Christ-followers in several formats. I am asking my congregation to connect to Jesus through regular worship for word and sacrament, small groups for study and fellowship, and mission reaching out to others. These must become priorities. It is through giving in these ways that we truly receive.
As for fruitfulness, I note that the rabbis were in agreement that a fruitful life was one that was lived in righteousness and holiness. Paul echoed that when he said the church would help us “all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). He spoke of setting aside the works of the flesh and bearing the fruit of the Spirit. That fruit is love, manifested as joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Things we learn only by being in community with others and dealing with issues that challenge us to develop the character of Christ.
Jesus said to the disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” Abide in Christ. Be connected.