Growing in the Vine

Text: John 18:1-8

Finally! At least with the weather this week, we can say that spring is here. Well, truth is, growing up here in Calgary, we don’t really get spring, or fall for that matter, what we get are summer and winter getting into fights. This year, winter has had a bit more staying power. We’ve gone from piles of snow, to the grass around us turning green inside of two weeks!

During Easter, So much of the imagery from scripture is about new life and new hope, emerging from the darkness of death and despair… some of that is in the more tangible stories of the resurrection. But there are other images and metaphors, with themes of life and growth, maybe we don’t pay as much attention to as we should. There’s something practical about them, because at this time of year, there are many of us who are getting out into gardens, either toiling away, or simply appreciating the spring flowers and budding leaves. The biblical metaphors of growth are there, and we can be reminded of them so easily simply by being outside.

John speaks about Jesus as the one true vine… and it’s not the only place that we have the gospel stories using the metaphor of a growing plant to teach us something about the kingdom of God. It is an enduring image, because even two thousand years later, we can still see these images when we walk out the door. Even for those of us who aren’t that keen on gardening, it’s extremely hard to miss. Spring is very much in our face. Soon, crocuses and dandelions will be springing up from the ground.

When she was younger, Megan loved to run into the fields of yellow. Where we would only see weeds, she would say “look daddy, flowers!!!” and then she’d run into the field and began to pick and smell them.

I’ve experienced it with Ian too, although in a bit of a different way. As much as their fresh eyes have really helped me learn to appreciate the world with God’s eyes, Megan once did something that reminded me about our own nature. Away from the dandelion fields, when we lived in Milton, we had tulips in our front garden. We had to work with Megan as she was often tempted to pick the tulips in the same way she did the dandelions. Not only that, for the tulips that haven’t bloomed yet, we would catch her trying to force the bloom open!

For our gardeners out there, is it a good idea to pull open a tulip that hasn’t bloomed yet? I didn’t think so. It will actually damage the flower, and it won’t actually bloom or at very least not to its fullest potential. And yet, when it comes to the church, sometimes I think we want to pull blooms open before they are ready.

When the Bible uses all these images of growth, it isn’t a simple shallow image. When Jesus speaks about things like the mustard seed, the sower, the vine, he is doing it amongst people who lived in a society that was agricultural. It was all about the plants. It was all about growth. They knew this. Jesus used these metaphors, these images extensively for a good reason.

“Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I 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.”

The vine grows, it bears fruit. We know this image. It is familiar for us. If any of you have ever done a winery tour in BC, you’ve seen this in action. Often it takes years of pruning and preparation of a plant to produce the best and richest of the grapes… provided, of course, that it is a grapevine that we are talking about here.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.

These are powerful images: God as the vine grower, Christ as the true vine… These metaphors are among the most vivid and layered of all the ones that appear in John’s gospel. In using the image of the vine, John draws upon one of the most treasured images in Israel. John’s Jewish-Christian Community would have grown up with this image firmly planted in their hearts and minds. While he sows a new seed by naming Jesus as the true vine, he is already cultivating a well-groomed faith within that community… helping them experience their relationship with God in a fresh way.

The vine image that John uses most often brings to mind, of course, the grape vine. As I said, living not that far from wine country here, we know how this works. Vineyards are the backbone of the wine industry. When we hear “I am the vine, you are the branches” we most often think of ourselves as the branches of the vine, physically linked to the stem… It’s the most common image, and certainly not a wrong one.

John’s gospel goes on to speak about the branches bearing fruit… bearing much fruit. Fruit, of course, is a source of food for us. So when we talk about fruit, we tend to think of that stuff that ends up in a fruit bowl. It lends itself well to images of food, and feeding people. Yet there’s another part that we often forget about… it probably is the most important part about what fruit is and what fruit does. At its core, the reason and purpose a plant grows to bear fruit is to produce the seed for another plant. In other words, the fruit of an apple tree is not an apple, but another apple tree. So what does that say about us as Christians? Or as the church? When John tells the story of Jesus as the true vine. What does that mean for us?

I think we stand to learn a lot when we use the vine as a metaphor for growth. The plant grows and bears fruit simply by being what it is. As long as the circumstances are healthy, the branches bear fruit not because there’s a conscious will on the part of a branch to do so, but because they do exactly what they were designed to do. A branch doesn’t simply decide “I’m going to bear fruit today” –rather, if the circumstances are right, and if it is healthy, the first stages of that growth simply happen. Through their leaves, they absorb the rays of the sun, they breathe in what they need from the air the air, through roots absorb the water and nutrients of the soil. If those circumstances are right, then these branches also create the seeds that eventually fall away from the plant, and become new plants all on their own.

When a branch ceases to bear fruit, or its leaves no longer generate nutrients for the larger body of the plant, the limbs simply dry up, and new branches spring up elsewhere. When tended by a vine grower, the one who takes care of the plant often prunes away at the branches that aren’t bearing any fruit… so that those branches that do bear fruit use the resources of the plant to bear even more fruit.

What strikes me most about all this is simply how natural it all is. Really, if the lesson to be learned about our faith it should grow as natural as a plant or a tree that grows. As long as the conditions are right, then we will grow and bear fruit. Maybe that’s where we need to go with this. Maybe we do what we can to ensure that the conditions are right. Maybe this is what John was getting at when Jesus says “abide in me as I abide in you.” Maybe better translated as “live in me as I live in you.” “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it lives in the vine, neither can you unless you live in me.”

This not only encourages us to deepen our personal spirituality, but how we need each other to grow in faith. After all, a tree or a vine is made up of multiple branches, all interdependent upon each other. A branch that is off on its own withers and dies. We cannot grow in Christ if we think we do it all by ourselves. As simple as this metaphor or vine and branches seems to be, the closer we look, the deeper and more profound it becomes. Our faith in God is something that needs to be nurtured and grown… On one hand it’s not something that we can force open, like my daughter once did with the Tulip blooms… but at the same time if we don’t take the time to nurture ourselves and to deepen our faith together, then we are in danger of drying up and withering away.

The real good news out of this flows from a sense that at its best our relationship with God should be as natural as the air we breathe, the water we drink, the sun we feel. It should simply be a part of who we are, and from that, if it is authentic, then we may be surprised to find that we are indeed bearing fruit!