“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower” John 15:1
What can we learn from Jesus when he talks about him being the vine and his followers being the branches?
What about the soil? Vines will grow in many different types of soil, sometimes in dry and rocky conditions where many crops would struggle, the vine will establish itself and grow and bear fruit. Jesus’ followers would have been familiar with seeing vines growing in land that would seem unpromising to us. When Jesus talked about being the vine, those listening would have thought about the vines they had seen growing under the baking heat of the Mediterranean sun, they would have thought about the vines they saw growing with little irrigation, they would have thought about the vines growing in land that would seem like a desert to us.
Jesus is saying he is the vine and that, being like a vine, he can be present in the most difficult of places. It should be an encouragement to us, that no matter how difficult our place may be, no matter how spiritually rocky the ground may seem, no matter how much of a spiritual desert in which we may feel we are living, Jesus can be present and his followers can grow.
What about the roots? If we think about the soil in which the vines grow, we will know that vines have to develop strong roots in order to survive, strong roots to reach down and find moisture in the arid ground in which they were planted. Jesus’ listeners would have understood that when he talked about being a vine, he was talking about being a plant that they knew had deep a strong roots, roots that would enable the vine to survive in harsh circumstances.
What does that tell us about our own faith? The vine depends upon strong roots if it is to endure; if we are part of that vine, then we need to be able to draw upon those roots. In Saint John Chapter 15 Verse 4, Jesus reminds us that we need to be part of the vine if we are to live the lives that he wants, he says “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.” Sometimes we think we can go our own way, have our own religion, choose which parts of our faith suit us and ignore the bits that are inconvenient, Jesus warns us against such an attitude, saying, in Verse 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.” To be the people we can be, we need to be connected to the vine and we need to have strong roots. Jesus promises, in Verse 7, that if we stay connected to him, then he will respond to us, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
What about the shoots? In Verse 1, Jesus says, “my Father is the vine-grower.” Keeping a vineyard was not a passive activity, it demanded a lot of work. A vine grower was someone who would have spent many, many hours tending the vines, the hardest work being the laborious task of pruning. The pruning was necessary to remove deadwood and the shoots that would bear no fruit and so to direct the growth into shoots on which grapes would grow. In Verse 2, Jesus explains, “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Pruning was not a pleasant task, in times when everything was done by hand, by the end of the day, the vine grower would have been aching in every joint, little wonder that Jesus says, in Verse 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.”
What do Jesus’ words about the branches say to us? If people who bring no fruit in their lives are seen as being like the shoots of a vine that are pruned and then thrown onto a bonfire, is Jesus expressing a sense of frustration at people who do not respond to God? If we look at all that God has done for us, and then we ignore him, how does he feel? If we turn away from him, can we complain if he regards us as branches to be thrown away? God’s grace towards us cost him his Son, what do we give in response?
What about the fruit? The point of growing vines is to produce fruit. No vine grower would have grown vines simply for the sake of having vines, what would have been the point? The work involved in cultivating the ground, in planting and tending the vines, in all the hours of pruning, was about the fruit that was produced. Jesus is looking for followers who have faith whatever the ground, followers who are rooted in him, followers who are shoots from the true vine; Jesus is looking for such followers so that they will produce the fruit for which he is looking. In Verse 8 he says, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
The test of whether we are followers of Jesus is what we produce in our lives. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus unless we are prepared to be the people he wants us to be. Look at the order in which Jesus puts things: “you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” It is through living our lives for him that we become his followers.
“I am the true vine,” a vine that flourishes whatever the ground, a vine that is deep-rooted, a vine of which we are part. Do we bear fruit for that vine?