The Abiding MENOnite - November 6, 2014
This is a Sermon that I prepared for Preaching at Rosemary Mennonite Church on August 10, 2014. It discusses ideas of living the holy life and abiding in Christ. abiding.mp3 [5.1 MB] (Sermon Audio Copyright Rosemary Mennonite Church All Rights Reserved)
As a little boy, my parents would ask me to clean my room and pick up my toys. If I ignored these instructions long enough, consequences began to get attached to my failure to comply: consequences such as “you cannot go out to play until your room is clean”, and other dastardly things. One day, my mother gave me such an ultimatum, and angry little Calvin decided that she had gone too far this time. I was not going to take this tyranny another minute! So, I angrily announced: “I’m running away!”
As I walked off out lot on Railway Avenue, I didn’t get quite as far as the ditch across the street from where the Firehall is now. And that was where I sat, where I intended to stay… that was as far as my planning and ambition got me. After about 5 or 10 minutes at my new place of residence, I came home to a tearful re-union.
Let us suppose, however, that I had been more determined in my endeavor to run away – and let us suppose I ran off somewhere that I could not have relied on the kindness of strangers. Several problems become readily apparent: I had no means of acquiring food or clean water on my own. Come winter, any shelter I could cobble together would hardly be adequate.
At such a young age and with next to no outdoor survival skills, I would not have lasted long on my own. Like most young children, I was entirely dependent upon my parents to meet all of my basic needs. But unlike out total dependence upon our parents which we generally grow out of, we will never grow out of our dependence upon Jesus in order to live out our faith. Let me say this again: If we want to live fruitful lives as Jesus’ disciples and bring glory to God, we will have to be totally dependent upon Jesus. But – and this is almost comical in a dark sort of way if you stop and think about it – we (or at least, I) often behave as though we might grow out of our dependence on Jesus some day and be able to go it all on our own.
In John 15, Jesus and his disciples had just left the upper room where they had eaten the passover meal together. While his disciples seemed fairly oblivious as to what was about to happen, Jesus knew full well and was trying to prepare his disciples for the next steps of their walk with him.
In addition to his crucifixion, he knew they would face persecution and adversity. So as to prepare them in order that they would not fall away when the going got tough, he gave what many refer to as the fair well discourse, in which he prepares them for what lay ahead. And it is in the midst of this “fair well discourse” that we find today’s text:
John 15:1-11 (NIV) “1I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3You are aready clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
5I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
9As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
3. First Point: The Vine
3.1. Vineyard Imagery
Throughout Israel’s history, she has repeatedly been metaphorically referred to as a vine. The most notable instance of this is found in Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard in which the vineyard of Israel failed to produce fruit that she ought to have. As commentator Barclay explains, this imagery of Israel as the vine was so deeply ingrained that they adopted the symbol of the vine to represent themselves – even stamping this image onto their coins in the time of the Macabean rule.
Jesus, however, puts a new spin on this idea as he says that HE is the true vine. Israel was given a mandate to bear fruit and bring glory to God. But as we look through the scriptures, we see again and again that Israel has failed to produce the fruit it was intended to produce. Jesus, on the other hand, through his life lived obediently to God perfectly fulfilled Israel’s mandate – bearing the fruit that she would not.
In addition to the historical and cultural significance of Jesus using vineyard language here, there is also the practical component of the metaphor to be considered.
The nature of a vine is that it produces a tremendous amount of growth, but a lot of it does not actually contribute to the growing of fruit. In fact, a lot of the growth that grape-vines produce will actually hinder the production of the desired fruit by putting the plants energy towards maintaining fruitless foliage and shading itself from the sun rather than towards the branches that will produce fruit.
So the gardener will need to prune away any branches that do not produce fruit. Jesus says that “every branch in that does not bear fruit, takes away” (15:2 NASB). This introduces the uncomfortable question of who Jesus is referring to by mention of such fruitless branches. One of the commentaries I read presented a number of possibilities ranging from the apostate (those who have fallen away from Christ) to Jews in Jesus’ time who chose to reject Jesus, to Christians whose lives bear no fruit. The specifics of who and what might be up for some debate, but I do know this much: I DON’T want to be one of those unfruitful branches. And I DON’T want to be stubborn and refuse to bear fruit and so be lifted up from Christ. Again, Jesus says in verse 6 “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned” (NASB).But commentator Burge tempers this thought before it can be taken to all kinds of extremes. He says:
Note carefully, however, what the metaphor is not saying. Fruit-bearing is not a test; that is, a branch does not have to demonstrate a level of productivity to be safe from destruction. Rather, fruit-bearing is a byproduct.
Now, for those who choose to remain in Jesus, for those who choose to remain in the vine and live a fruitful life, they will be pruned or cleansed. The word many of our English translations render as “prune” can also be rendered as “cleanse”. Our heavenly father, the gardener, will cleanse us of anything unhealthy or sickly that is holding us back so that we can bear a great deal of fruit. Anything hindering or stunting the production of fruit in our lives can and probably will be pruned or cleansed: bad habits or attitudes, things we turn into idols, and as N.T. Wright suggests, certain “goals and ambitions”, to make a very short and incomplete list. As at least one commentator observes, God often has to prune distractions from our lives, things that take our attention off of him and consume our energies.
4. Second Point: Remaining
4.1. No branch can bear fruit by itself
Now, as I read through this and the surrounding passages of scripture, where Jesus keeps repeating in various ways “If you love me you will obey my commandments”, I found it really easy to start thinking “so, what I need to do is try harder”. And out of that kind of thinking would come a terrible sermon in which we all get lambasted for not trying hard enough, and it would result in a very dark irony considering that today’s passage isn’t at all about US trying harder, but about remaining in Jesus and allowing HIM to make us fruitful. Indeed, Jesus says “Just as the branch is not able to bear fruit of itself if it does not remain in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4 HYBRID), and again in verse 5 “Apart from me you can do nothing” (NIV 2011).
The Greek word here which we translate as “remain” or sometimes “abide” is meno (hence the title, the abiding MENOnite). As I looked through definitions for this word, what seemed to generally come out was a sense of persistence or of remaining for the long haul. And as I reflected upon this, it seemed at once both profound and terribly obvious. Of course abiding or remaining in the vine – remaining in Jesus – is the type of thing that you do for the long haul… just like breathing is the sort of thing we do for the long haul.
4.2. “Remain in me (and my words in you)”
Jesus knew that, like us, his disciples could not be fruitful on their own – which is why he told them as much and instructed them to remain in him. And as I was trying to wrap my head around what it really looks like to remain in Jesus, it dawned on me that this business of remaining or abiding is not a one way street. Jesus says in verse 4 “Remain in me, as I also remain in you”. Not only do we seek to abide in Jesus… he abides in us. And I think that if it is impossible to be fruitful by my own strength, then it is going to be – at the very least – extraordinarily difficult to remain in Jesus, to remain in the vine, by my strength alone. Perhaps I am somewhat off base here, but I think we need Jesus to help us take even the most basic step of remaining in him.
Furthermore, Jesus says in verse 7 “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (NIV 2011). Now, in the New Testament we often will find that when one of the authors refers to “the word”, it is often referring to the scriptures – that is, the Old Testament. But the word used in this instance which we translate as “words” is a word that tends to refer to the spoken word rather than the written word. Commentator Burge suggests that this refers back to Jesus repeated exhortation in the previous chapter to obey his commands (418). But beyond just his commands, I suggest that Jesus is inviting his disciples to allow the entirety of what he has spoken to them – what in turn was distilled into the gospels we have today – and to carefully allow it to abide in them.
Finally, Jesus instructs his disciples to remain in his love. Verse 9 says “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (NIV 2011). Now, some might look at this and say that remaining in Jesus’ love is entirely separate from remaining in him. But consider this: Can we really remain in Jesus if we do not remain in his love? I, for one, do not think it is. I think remaining in Jesus and remaining in his love go hand in hand. Then in verse 10 Jesus clarifies things a bit: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (NIV 2011). Remaining in the vine would seem to be – at least partially – contingent upon obeying him. And just as we cannot bear fruit on our own strength, I do not think that we can be obedient by our strength alone.
In summary, we are being called, as one of my professors might have put it, to steep in Jesus words, his teaching, his commandments, and his fierce love for us. We are being called to steep ourselves in Jesus and to allow him to fully permeate us and to make us fruitful.
5. Third Point: Fruit
That is the point of remaining in the vine, of all the pruning that we undergo in God’s hands: for us to bear much fruit. But the question arises: what, exactly, is Jesus talking about when he talks about fruit?
5.1. Galatians 5:22 & the fruit of the spirit
While Jesus does not seem to explicitly define what all the fruit is, I think an excellent grocery list can be found in Galatians 5:22-23 where Paul writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (NASB). While this list may not totally encompass everything Jesus had in mind when he spoke of being fruitful, I am sure it is at the very least a good start.
Now, one danger when reading this list is to make this fruit something that is borne only in the privacy of our homes, away from the prying eyes of the public. To be fair, some of them start there and may inherently be more evident there. Self control, for instance, may become more evident in private as you choose to reject the temptations you face while browsing the internet. But others – such as love – I believe are inherently active and will naturally result in outward deeds towards others. As James wrote, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:15-16 NASB). Can you truly love your neighbor and, having the means to help, choose to do nothing for them when they are in need? I put fourth that we cannot.
And so I believe it goes with the other fruit – they begin to manifest (perhaps privately to begin) in our walk with God and then proceed to spill over into the rest of our lives.
5.2. The Purpose of Fruitfulness
But what is the purpose of this fruitfulness? In verse 8 Jesus says, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (NIV 2011). A huge part of the reason for fruitfulness is to glorify God. Commentator MacDonald puts it quite nicely when he says:
As the children of God exhibit the likeness of Christ to the world, the Father is glorified. People are forced to confess that He must be a great God when He can transform such wicked sinners into such godly saints.
Now, some of us may be thinking, “Well, this glorifying God stuff is well and good, but what’s in it for me?” I think we sometimes get it into our heads that the devout Christian life is a masochistic one, or as being necessary but not all that enjoyable – kind of like going to the dentist. If you have ever felt this way, listen closely and hear what Jesus has to say in verse 11: “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (NASB). A large part of the reason Jesus has been telling his disciples these things – about the vital importance of remaining in Him, about bearing fruit, about remaining in Jesus’ love – is so that his joy may be in them and, by extension, in us. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Joy is the serious business of Heaven”. And apparently, Joy is a serious part of the business of abiding in the vine and being fruitful here on earth.
#6. Conclusion/Application: In summary, Jesus is calling us to live in intimacy with him – to allow his power and life to infuse our own, so that we will become increasingly fruitful, bringing glory to God the father and in turn being filled with the joy of Christ. And we have a choice: we can choose to embrace this life-giving intimacy with our creator, or we can choose to be cut off from it and go our own way and whither up and die.
So let us prostrate ourselves before our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, asking him day by day to help us remain in the vine. Let us also not isolate ourselves from the rest of the people of God and so make our journey to remain in Jesus more arduous. As N.T. Wright says:
We must remain in the community that knows and loves him and celebrates him as its Lord. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. We can’t “go it alone”. But we must also remain as people of prayer and worship in our own intimate, private lives. We must make sure to be in touch, in tune, with Jesus, knowing him and being known by him.
And finally, if we find that we are not producing as much fruit as we would like, or not as much fruit as our neighbor, let us not become too caught up in this. Remember, our job is not to weigh the quantity of fruit we are producing: our job is to seek day by day to remain in Jesus, remain in his love, allow his love to remain in us, allow his word to remain in us, and to humbly seek to obediently live as he taught us to live.