In this increasingly confused world, as leaders and members of Jesmond Parish Church, it is good at the beginning of a new Church Year to go back to basics. So I want to focus on 'Godly Living'. For our mission at JPC is summed up as, 'Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain'. Godly Living, of course, is fundamental to Church Growth and to Changing Britain. So I've chosen for tonight a great passage on Godly Living – namely the opening verses of John 15. We are going to be looking at verses 1 to 11 and Jesus' parable (or allegory) of the vine. And my headings are, first, the Background; secondly, the Vine; thirdly, the Fruit; fourthly, God's Work; and, fifthly, Our Work.
1. The Background.
And there are four things I need to say about this parable of the vine. One, "the vine" was used in the Old Testament as a symbol for the people of God, as we heard in our Psalm and Old Testament reading.
Two, Jesus is about to die and take on the devil, in the fiercest struggle of his life. So, according to John, he is giving his last recorded teaching to his disciples. And by means of this parable, he is teaching them how they are to live in the period between his two comings. Yes, he is talking to his disciples. But John, the Gospel writer, wants Jesus to be overheard by all of us.
Three, Jesus' message is not difficult to understand. Did you know that one of the earliest works of Karl Marx was a graduation essay written in 1835 when he was 17? Its title was this:
The Union of Believers with Christ according to John 15.1-14, showing its Basis and Essence, its Absolute Necessity, and its Effects.
So all sorts of people, when they read our passage, can see how vital it is. It is clear enough.
And, four, this parable suggests an important test as to what, or who is genuine or fake in the Church of God. In the Old Testament, and here in John 15, it is clear that the purpose of a vine is to bear fruit – to provide a grape harvest. And there is the good and the bad. You need the test of fruit-bearing. Isaiah says in our Old Testament reading, chapter 5 verse 2, that the Lord had a vineyard,
"and planted it with choice vines … and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes."
Isaiah then explains, in verse 7:
"the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel … and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold an outcry."
And all that negative sin led to God's judgment. For Israel suffered military defeat and many from Israel were taken into exile. God's people had, indeed, failed the test of being true people of God. They didn't produce good fruit, for which they were created and chosen. And in John 15 we learn there is a similar test in the Church of Jesus Christ as to who is genuine and who is not. The test is bearing fruit. Well, all that is the background and context of chapter 15.
That brings us secondly to
2. The Vine
The first five words of this chapter – verse 1a:
"I am the true vine."
Note, first, that Jesus is saying that he is not just a vine but the true vine. So he with his people is distinct from the vine that was the Old Testament imperfect foreshadowing this true vine. For he supernaturally is gathering up into himself all the people of God as represented by the branches. And, then, as a tree gives strength and sap to its branches, so does Jesus give life and power through his Holy Spirit to God's new people – that was not happening in ancient Israel. However, note what Jesus is also saying that is most important and something none of the prophets could ever say. For Jesus is saying:
"I AM … the true vine."
Jesus, as reported by John, on six previous occasions has similar "I AM" claims. And they are hugely significant, because Jesus is echoing the identifying name of God in the Old Testament for himself! For "I AM" is the holy name of God that Moses was told to use in Exodus 3.14:
"God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, "I AM has sent me to you."
And such a claim to being "I AM" by Jesus was recognized by the Jews as a claim to deity and so classed as blasphemy and to be met with death by stoning. Indeed, John has already told us, in chapter 8, of Jesus talking with some Jews and speaking about Abraham. And he reports in John 8.58-59 Jesus' concluding words and the consequences:
"'Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.' So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple."
Jesus was before Abraham, for he is truly God. He is God the Son, along with the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Trinity of one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and from all eternity.
Is not this what our confused world so needs to know? And as we say in the Creed at Communion services, he is the one, Jesus Christ, "by whom all things were made". Who here tonight or watching on Clayton TV needs to know that and believe that? For it is so important to trust Christ as, not just a saint, but God incarnate. Faith in Christ is not just believing that he is the greatest man that ever lived. You can be an atheistic secular humanist believing that. No! It is believing he is truly divine as well as truly human.
And he is not only the one through whom all things were created, in this amazing universe of time and space that we inhabit. But he is also the one through whom all things now hold together, as Paul tells the Colossians (Colossians 1.17). And that is true no matter however the results of that creation, and that holding together, can be described by mathematics, chemistry, biology or sociology. For Jesus Christ, as the divine Word, John has already told us in chapter 1, was there at the beginning of time, and is still, behind it all.
And now, having been crucified for your sin and my sin, then having really risen, leaving an empty tomb that proves those claims (as John makes clear it does), and having ascended, he, Jesus Christ is reigning as Lord of all. And he is this one, as we then say in the Creed "who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven," for God so loved the world.
We must now move on (having seen that Jesus, the "I AM", is the true vine).
3. The Fruit
But what exactly is meant by "the fruit". That is an important question. A Sunday or two ago we had Howard Peskett preaching in Jesmond, celebrating his ordination 50 years ago for a curacy in Jesmond. Well, he and I were at the same theological college and ordained in the same year, but I not for Newcastle but for Leeds. His visit reminded me of the bishop's sermon at my ordination. It was on John 15. In those days many used the old King James Version. This translated verse 16 not as in our pew Bibles – the ESV translation:
"You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit."
No! The old Authorized Version reads, "ordained" instead of "appointed":
"I have chosen you, and ordained you, that you should go and bring forth fruit."
Of course, such a translation lent itself as a text for an ordination sermon, with fruitfulness taken as meaning evangelism and Church Growth. But subsequently I read the late John Stott, where he said this:
"It is surprising how many imagine that 'fruitfulness' means success in winning people for Christ and that the fruitful Christian is the Christian effective in soul-winning. I remember receiving a letter from a girl student some time ago who was in spiritual distress because she said she had never won anybody to Christ, although (she said) Christ had promised that she could be fruitful. In my reply I said that she could indeed be fruitful, but that this did not necessarily mean that she would be successful. What God required of her in witness was that she should be faithful, not successful; she must be content to leave the results of her witness to God."
How then should we understand more precisely the fruit that Jesus is talking about? Well, in the Old Testament, as we saw in our Psalm and Isaiah reading, the fruit seems to be righteous conduct and godly virtues, such as justice, self-control, honesty and compassion, and the good that results. And Paul is in line with that in Galatians 5.22 where he writes about …
"… the fruit of the Spirit … love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control."
So what Jesus is teaching in John 15 (in biblical terms) seems to be that we need not only to be justified, with sins forgiven, but also sanctified with the fruit of new spiritual life in being more Christ-like. Indeed, Paul prays for the Colossians that they may be
"… bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God" (Colossians 1.10).
But, we must be fair on the bishop in that ordination sermon. For "bearing fruit" must involve a concern for, and work, for evangelism and Church Growth, as part of Christian love, that first fruit of the Spirit. For people, even in this life, let alone in eternity, on average (and it is essential to say "on average"), benefit long-term from trust in, and obedience to, Jesus Christ in the fellowship of the Church. However, "fruit" seems to be first the Christian virtues and "every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God."
4. God's Work
Look now at John 15.1b-3.
"My Father is the vine dresser. 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."
The goal is "fruit-bearing". As we will see that requires both God's work and, then, our work of obedience. But we must start with God's work.
On this, first, Jesus speaks of God's extremely tough negative work in removing false disciples not bearing fruit. And, of course, the first non-fruit bearing branch to be removed was Judas. And this is very serious and can involve death, as with Judas, in this life, or beyond this life, as we shall see.
But then, secondly, Jesus speaks of God's tough action needed for the good fruit-bearing branches so as to bear more fruit. And that is through God's pruning of branches. So what is God's pruning? Well, it surely will include those hard experiences that come our way and that God uses to develop those spiritual virtues for our good and his glory. That would include various losses and the suffering he allows to come our way - opposition we receive for our Christian faith, bereavement, financial losses, exam failures, failures to get a promotion, illnesses, accidents, unemployment, marriage problems, and so on. God can use even when we are totally at fault and end up in jail. This happened with the late Chuck Coulson, formerly President Nixon's hatchet man. His subsequent work as a prison evangelist was amazing. Yes, God can use any of those things, and more, to develop us. The writer to the Hebrews tells us:
"He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields [listen] the peaceful fruit of righteousness" (Hebrews 12.10-11).
Who tonight needs to learn that lesson? So God uses spiritual removal and pruning, two tough measures, to secure vine health and fruitfulness.
But, thirdly, fruitfulness, in the sense of being spiritually cleansed, comes simply from Christ's teaching that you have in the Bible and the forgiveness of sins and getting right with God. This was soon to be focused on Jesus' terrible death at Calvary where he bore our sin. Look at John 15.3, spoken to the disciples:
"Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you."
Who tonight needs that forgiveness that Christ offers? Such forgiveness is the beginning of fruitfulness. So much, then, for the divine work in our bearing fruit.
What, then, and our fifth heading, is Our Work in bearing fruit?
5. Our Work
Answer, abiding in Christ. You say, 'what does that mean?' Well, look at John 15.4:
"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."
"Abiding" speaks of steadfastness or standing firm under pressure. And it means being so united with Jesus by faith, you are like a branch is "in" the vine, and you mustn't remove yourself or cut yourself off from the vine. The reason is simple. For as a vine-branch is lifeless when detached from the vine, so the Christian becomes lifeless and powerless when detached from Christ. John 15.5:
"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 you don't remember anything else from tonight, remember those words in verse 5, where Jesus says (and still says):
"apart from me you can do nothing."
Of course, you can do all sorts of things without Christ, but nothing fruitfully in a Christ-like way. And having said all that, then Jesus warns his disciples in the stark terms of the consequences of not abiding in him. This is a serious warning of damnation and hell – yes, hell! Look at John 15.6:
"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."
Who needs to hear that tonight?
Jesus, then, having been negative by way of necessary warning is now positive by way of great encouragement. For he now says you not only are to trust in him and steadfastly "abide in him". Also, by faith, you are to take seriously the picture of letting him into your life. But how can Christ be "in" you? Well, a fundamental way of that happening is, Jesus says (John 15.7-8):
"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."
Two things are needed. One, you let Christ into your life by letting his 'words' into your heart, will and mind – and today those words are there in the Bible.
And, two, as the spiritual fruit grows in your life, Jesus has a great promise for you to trust and obey. It is that your prayers (obviously if according to those "words abiding in you") will be answered (but, also obviously, in God's way and time for he knows best). So Bible reading and prayer are fundamental. And that is required both of individuals and churches corporately. So this time of year is good for a spiritual health check, and asking, 'how am I doing personally, and how are we doing as a church corporately in Bible study and prayer'? And, as you study, obey and pray, God will be glorified by your bearing much fruit and you will prove to be Christ's disciple.
In conclusion look, finally, at John 15.9-11:
"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."
So we are also to abide in Christ's divine love. But how is that done? Well, first realise that there are three sorts of love in the Bible. One, God's love (which is not necessarily liking and emotional but wanting someone's good); two, brotherly love (which is friendship love); and, three, sexual love (which is physical). So Jesus, of course, is referring to God's love (as the original word shows) where even enemies can be loved. And Jesus says, verse 10:
"If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love."
Do you see the divine ecology? For Christ's commandments are part of his love. They are given because he loves you and wants the best for you. Remember Christ was the divine agent in creation and now is the agent in its sustaining. Therefore, his commandments are your maker's instructions who wants the best for you and for everyone else. So Christian obedience is not 'grin and bear it'. No! For trusting and obeying Christ and so abiding in him and producing real fruit is the way to true happiness. As Jesus said, and with this I conclude:
"These things I have spoken to you, [why?] that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full."