“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. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
(John 15:1-11 ESV)
There is a movie every oenophile should watch. Bottle Shock is a 2008 release with Alan Rickman and Chris Pine, and is the true (though embellished) story of the first California vintner to win in a blind tasting held in Paris in 1976. The two winning wines that year were a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon.
What Bottle Shock demonstrate is the absolute devotion a vineyard owner must have to his craft. To make a great wine requires a great deal of patience, time, attention, and skill. These people love their plants. In Bottle Shock when vineyard owner Jim Barrett is trying to make a great Chardonnay, he finishes bottling it and nearly throws the wine out because it turns brown in the bottle. Seeing the brown wine, he assumes he simply lacks the skill to produce a great wine, not that there is something wrong with the grapes themselves. What Barrett needed to do was to wait. And then he needed to wait a little longer. When he did, he discovered that the cloudiness of the wine corrects itself once the wine gets over the shock of going from an oak cask to a glass bottle.
John 15 has always been a troubling passage to me. I was taught that, “nothing can ever separate us from the love of Christ.” But that’s not what John seems to be saying Jesus said. “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away” is a pretty intimidating statement. “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” is even worse!
Is this just John being John interpreting Jesus? Maybe Jesus never really said these exact words. But I can’t say that without my whole understanding of what is truth flying out the window. Maybe Jesus was speaking metaphorically at this point and just wanted to underscore the seriousness of discipleship. That’s a little easier to handle, but is also untrue to the text. Even if Jesus had said, “Every branch in Israel that doesn’t bear fruit…” we could breathe a little easier, because then he’d be talking about the Jews who rejected him outright – the natural branches – and not about believers in general. No, unfortunately we are left having to grapple with the awful thought that Jesus really meant what he said.
Now, before you go and cower in a corner for fear you haven’t born enough fruit (whatever that might mean), remember that Jesus’ motive in saying this to us isn’t to “scare us straight,” as if intimidation might get us to do the right things. His motive is “that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full,” a thought John echoes in his first Letter when he says, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:3-4 ESV) He doesn’t want to scare us. He wants us to rejoice!
Our Western ears are what are at fault here, not the Scriptures. We are so performance-oriented that we fail to see the point Jesus is making isn’t that there is some standard of performance we have to live up to in order to remain in the vine, but rather that those who “abide in my love” simply do bear fruit. Let’s be honest. Those of you who garden, no matter how much you love the plant you are tending: don’t you occasionally have to cut off some of the branches just because they are clearly dead? We can get all hung up on the question of Eternal Security if we want to, but if we do, we’ll miss that Jesus was telling them something wonderful about what happens to someone who does abide in him. And I think I can trust him, a wise vinedresser, with what will happen to the branches that have died.
I described the love he’s talking about here a few days ago (April 15, 2011) when I said that, agape “is not a love motivated by passion. It is a love motivated by value. Our sin has drained us, every one of us, of any regard of affection. There is nothing lovely left about us.” Our value to God isn’t our fruit-bearing potential. We have, all of us, proved ourselves to be unworthy servants. But we are not worthless. Our value to him is simply that we are part of the vine that is Christ, whether we were grafted in or of the natural plant. That we bear fruit is a natural consequence of being “in Christ.”
There is no thought in John 15 of the Father gleefully cutting away the branches that have died and throwing them in the fire. My father was a woodworker, and I can tell you Dad loved the pieces he produced. When one had simply been glued back together too many times and had no conceivable function, Dad still had a hard time throwing even one stick of something he crafted away. So great was his respect for the wood that now, 25 years after his death, I still have a closet full of antique chair frames I can’t seem to part with.
I rejoice as I abide in the knowledge that he counts me as of such value that, though I often feel like an unproductive twig, even though I am brown in the bottle right now, he is tending me obsessively, that he might perfect me in his love and produce a prize-winning vintage in the end.