“I am the vine, and you are the branches.” This is another of the great “I am” statement by Jesus. Last week Jesus told us he was the shepherd and we are his sheep. We discovered that the sheep know the shepherd’s voice and will only go where the shepherd has gone before out of fear of what lies ahead, and we are reminded that we have to place our trust in God all along the journey of our life.
A good preacher and teacher will use illustrations that the people hearing the sermon or lesson will understand. Jesus uses examples for the lives of the people listening to him, and so he uses a lot of illustrations around fishing, sheep herding, and now gardening or vine growing. Growing anything that to produce the maximum yield is difficult in the best of circumstances, and today we get gardening tips from Jesus, the master grower. The soil conditions need to be right, there needs be to the right amount of water, too much and the plant will drown, not enough and the plant will dry up. Conditions need to be perfect.
Jesus uses the illustration of the vine, the vine grower, and the branches of the vine. Jesus is apparently the vine as he says so in the passage. God is the vine grower and we, of course, are the branches. There is an assumption that the soil is perfect since God is the grower God would have already prepared the ground.
An excellent vine grower knows that the best grapes are produced closest to the central stalk on the vine. The best fruit is produced there because that is where the nutrients are the richest. The further away from the central stem the lesser the yield and taste. With careful pruning, the vines are made to produce the best fruit possible but, if the vine grower prunes too much it will destroy the plant. So caution is always needed.
I am not the best gardener in the world. I like the idea of gardening and often think of myself as the victory gardener, but that is often not the case. I prepare the soil, select the appropriate plants for my area, stick them in the ground, and hope they produce. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t, but that is farming. But I learned a valuable lesson a few years ago regarding tomato plants; they have to be pruned to produce the best yield. Sure, one can let them grow wild, and they will provide, but for the best return one needs to take the pruning shears to the plant.
Okay, but what does this have to do with our spiritual life? Jesus was not making a Saturday afternoon gardening show after all, and he was not telling them anything that they did not already know. But, he was using the illustration of the vine to point us in an essential direction regarding our spiritual life.
As we have already established, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. We are commanded in the Gospel to go and make disciples. The gospel command is not to go and create programs or sit and wait for people to come to you. No, the gospel command is to GO! Action, we have to do something. But we cannot make disciples until we are disciples right?
So if Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, and we want to produce the best fruit we have to stay close to the central stem of the vine meaning Jesus. If we desire a fruitful spiritual life then the closer we are to Jesus the better off we will be. So we have to spend time every day, with Jesus. It does not matter how much time we spend as long as that time is quality time and produces fruit. Daily scripture reading, meditation, and prayer are the best ways to make this happen in our daily lives. I get that we are busy but we make space for all sorts of things that we find necessary in our lives, and this is very important.
But today’s gospel also speaks of pruning the vine and throwing those branches into the fire. Now, like many other passages of scripture, this one has been used to point to other and call them the withering vine and saying that they will be cast into the fire. Well, I guess that is one way of looking at it, but I want us to look at it from a personal perspective keeping in mind that to make disciples we first have to be disciples.
So the pruning Jesus is speaking of is not other people, although that can be part of it, it is all of those things that prevent us from having a fruitful spiritual life, all of those distractions that call us in another direction and pull us further and further away from the central stem of our spiritual life. These are the things that we need to prune out of our lives, and yes, sometimes those things are people.
In last week’s sermon, I spoke of the sheep, us, knowing and understanding the shepherd’s voice. I mentioned that in all of the craziness of the world a sheep could distinguish between their shepherd’s voice and another shepherd’s voice and they know who to follow. But I also mentioned that sometimes, if the sheep is sick, they will stray off and follow another voice that is not their shepherd’s voice. The same is true in this illustration today.
The world is pulling us in many different directions, and there are so many voices all vying for our attention. They give us advice and tell us what we should and should not believe. Those voices want us to exclude others from the vine, or the heard because they are different then we are or think differently then we do. Sometimes those voices make us afraid of the other and draw us away rather than towards, and it is up to us to know the genuine voice over the false voice, and that happens when we stay close to the central stem, Jesus, and pray for guidance.
I have a rather extensive collection of bibles. English language Bibles, Romanian language bibles, Gaelic, Scots, Russian, and I even have one in Sanskrit. I have study bibles with extensive footnotes that help me drill down on a verse, and I have the Good News for Modern Man version for those days when I just want to read. But some of my favorite bibles are the ones with the red letters in them, you know, the red letters are the passage when Jesus speaks, and the editor of that particular version put those verses in red, so they stand out.
Those are the actual words that Jesus spoke, and there are a lot of them, and I tend to gravitate to those words, not the words about the words that Jesus spoke but the actual words. In historical language, this is what is called a primary source, the words right from Jesus. I guess I would consider myself a Red Letter Christian and only focus on what Jesus has said, the essentials of the faith if you will. When I encounter a contradiction in Scripture, and there are many, my default is to head to the red letters and see what Jesus has said about it. Why do I mention all of this? Because in the world of competing voices the red letters are the voice we need to hear, and we need to understand, all of the others need to be pruned off the vine. When we hear something that calls us away from the red letters, prune it off the vine and throw it in the fine.
In the end, if we stay close to Jesus we will produce the most fruitful spiritual life, and we will be fed with love, joy, and peace that we can bring to the whole world and that is the goal.