If you’ve lived in South Australia for any amount of time, you’ll likely know that grapes in our state are big business. Growers put in a lot of time and energy to make sure that they are producing the best grapes – and hopefully the best wine – possible. Each branch on each vine must produce fruit, or risk being pruned away for the greater good. The thing is, though, that the branches can do nothing to avoid or control their fate. They have no say over how well they grows their grapes – or if they grow grapes at all! – that’s up to that fantastic combination of the surrounding environment, the grower’s expertise, and the vine’s natural, life-giving energy.
When it comes to our faith, we might imagine God looking down on us as we tend the vineyard of our life, cultivating the fruit, and creating a life we – and God – can be proud of. But friends, I have news for you! We aren’t the gardener, tending the vineyard. We aren’t even the vines! We’re the humble branches, and there’s nothing we can do about it!
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” John 15:1-8
In this passage, Jesus speaks to this truth – that he is the vine, that God is the gardener, and the disciples (and therefore we who have followed) are the branches. This conversation comes at an interesting time; Jesus and his disciples are somewhere between the Last Supper and Gethsemane. Jesus knows he will be leaving soon and, almost as if he knows what the disciples are about to go through, his message to them is “stick with me. Abide.”
In these eight verses, the original Greek word menó is used seven times. Most Bible versions translate this to ‘abide,’ with the NIV translating it to ‘remain.’ The message Jesus is trying to get across here clearly centres on this concept. But what does it mean to ‘abide with Christ?’ And why is it so important?
We know that when you love someone, whether platonically or romantically, you want to be around them, like, a lot. Your relationship with that person grows stronger as you learn more about each other and get to know each other’s preferences and passions. And so it is with Christ. To abide, or remain, dwell, continue, or endure, suggests an extra level of intimacy and bond in the relationship. I know a few people who have this level of relationship with Christ. In the past, it’s been my tendency to think this is something special to ‘those types of people’ – that maybe it has to do with certain personality types who are more inclined to this type of relationship. But recently, I’ve had to reassess. This intimate relationship with Christ is not something unattainable. This level of love, friendship, and trust is something for everyone to partake in and, in fact, Christ himself calls us to exactly that in this passage.
Commentary writer Joseph Exell reflects that “we must abide in Christ, as a branch in a tree, which is supported by it, adheres to it, grows in it, and becomes verdant and fruitful by the virtue derived from it; as a hand in a body, from which it receives its warmth, life, activity, and usefulness…”
We abide in Christ the same way a branch abides in the vine – not by doing, necessarily, but by being present with Christ, as he is present with us. We abide by living deep with Christ; relying on him, growing in relationship with him, and looking only to Christ for what we need. All the great and wonderful things we experience in our earthly relationships are things we can take to the next level, and experience to the fullest, with Christ.
But why is this so hard? The idea of spending time in the presence of God might feel scary. There are many things that might worry us about approaching God: What if God tells me off? What if He tells me something I don’t want to hear? Or asks me to confront something I’m afraid of?
What if God doesn’t say anything to me at all?
When you start spending time with God, reading the word, and really listening to him, it makes it possible to hear him say “no!” I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather stick my fingers in my ears and continue on my own way most of the time!
To live this way is to open yourself up to a level of intimacy and vulnerability that we might not feel ready for. To abide is to trust; to rest easy in the comfort of the grace extended to us, and yet it feels uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because our earthly experience of relationships is that people will fail us or let us down, and so we expect that failure. The great moments here on earth will always be flawed and so we’re scared of those flaws appearing in our relationship with Christ. Maybe we find it hard to believe that Christ will actually pull through for us? Or perhaps it’s because this level of trust means giving up the idea that we have control over our own lives. As someone who likes to be in control – to know what’s happening and to be prepared, this level of relationship with God makes me feel like I’m losing all the power over my life. Even though I know I don’t actually have that control and power over my life, it’s still hard to give it up!
But this time with God, learning to grow in relationship with him, learning to trust, and simply be with him is so important. As a person who is prone to action, and will always revert to the ‘doing’ part of faith, this is something I really have to work on. It’s fine to ‘do,’ but the fact of the matter is that, unless we are in Christ, anything we do or accomplish is worthless.
Jesus says in verse 4-5, “Abide in me, and I in you (it’s a mutual relationship). As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing”
If we wish to produce meaningful, world-changing fruit in our lives, this abiding with Christ must be a priority for us. And it goes beyond simply checking the box of ‘being saved’ and moving on. Calling yourself a Christian is not the same as abiding in Christ, and will not produce fruit in your life. This abiding is a deep relationship with Christ, one that gives our whole life meaning. Without this kind of relationship with God, it doesn’t matter what we achieve. We could grow our church to number in the thousands, we could bring hundreds to Christ, we could feed all of the hungry and clothe all of the poor, but it would all mean nothing if this fruit hasn’t grown out of an intimate relationship with Christ.
So the question is, if you feel like you aren’t seeing fruit in your life, are you abiding with Christ? Where is your relationship with God at right now? Is there something you need to change to make that relationship happen? Is there something you’re afraid of?
I want to encourage you with the promise that follows. Jesus says in verse seven, “if you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” The promise is that if you abide with Christ, anything you ask for will be given. Why? Is it because you’ve been good and done all the right things? Not likely. I believe it’s because, when we live our lives that close to Christ – when we are in deep relationship and communion with him – we start to want what Christ wants for us. Our hearts begin to beat and break alongside the Lord’s and the things we desire are the very things he desires to give us. Like a couple who have been together so long that they pick up each other’s mannerisms, or know what each other are thinking, so we begin to know Christ. This is the fruit that grows out of our abiding; that we grow more like Christ, and in doing so, bring glory to God.
It might be scary for us to let go of what we’re holding tightly in order to abide with Christ. It might mean we need to re-order our priorities in a way we’re not too sure about to create more time and space to abide. But the promise from Christ is that, when we stick with him, rely on him, and grow in relationship with him, the frustration of our fruitless lives will end. We can grow, we can contribute to God’s Kingdom, and we can bear fruit, but we first must learn to abide; to find our place in Christ, and to continue there with Him.