An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Christ of the Coonawarra

A sermon on John 15: 1-8 by Nathan Nettleton

Knowing that a number of you are somewhat partial to the odd glass of well matured grape juice, I suspect a few of you have visited the Coonawarra district in South Australia. And if you have, you may have been as amazed as I was the first time. I’d been to numerous wine producing areas before, but I’d never seen anything like the Coonawarra. You know, if you drive through the Yarra Valley, there are lots of vineyards. You pass one, and a half a kilometre down the road, there’s another one. In some spots you get two or three right next to each other. But in the Coonawarra, it is literally wall to wall vineyards for about ten kilometres down the main highway. There is something about the quality of the soil in a fairly small and confined area which apparently makes it perfect for growing red grape varieties, and it is so exceptional that every bit of this small area is covered in vineyards. The only indication that one vineyard has finished and the next has started is a small dividing fence and a new name sign out the front.

Well, when I was last there, it was summer and the vineyards were lush and green as far as the eye could see. A few of you may not be familiar with the appearance of a grapevine so let me describe it a bit. In your average vineyard they are a rather sculptured design, because if they just grow wild and find their own shape, the fruit is difficult for the pickers to reach, and anyway there is not as much of it. Careful pruning in the winter not only gives the vines a more accessible shape, but actually ensures that they will have a lot more fruit. More of that later.

The first thing you notice about this sculptured shape of the grapevines is that there is a distinct trunk to the vine and then a thick tangled mass of branches at about shoulder height. The branches are so profuse and tangled and heavily leaf clad that without careful examination it is difficult to tell one branch from another and almost impossible to tell where one ends and the next one begins. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” says Jesus. Well, if you stand on the road side looking over the fence in the Coonawarra contemplating the meaning of that statement, the first thing you will realise is that this is not a promise that you will stand out from the pack in some special way, or receive any great fame or recognition.

There are other illustrations in the Scriptures that allow greater differentiation between the members of the Church, like Paul’s body illustration where the eye and the foot cannot disown one another but do have recognisably different contributions to make to the body. But the illustration that Jesus uses here indicates a radically non-hierarchical view of the church. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” a tangled indistinguishable mass with one purpose and one purpose only – to produce fruit. “My father is the vine grower,” Jesus says. You can speak to any vine grower you like, and you will find that they do not have a favourite branch in their vineyard. There are only two types of branches – ones that produce fruit and ones that don’t and the latter get pruned off so then there’s only one type of branch. Of the good ones, no branch stands out as any more important than any other, they’re just all in together, tangled up and producing fruit.

As an illustration of the church, this could not be more different than the ways we are accustomed to thinking. We’d be more familiar with “I am the building and you are the staircase,” so that we could set about determining where in the staircase we fitted. Are you a top step or a bottom step or somewhere in between? Even “I am the red gum and you are the branches,” would be more comfortable to us, because then you’ve got big branches and little branches, and they stand out enough that you don’t just blend into the mass.

“I am the vine and you are the branches, and my Father is the vine grower.” If that is really the way God evaluates us in the church it doesn’t allow us any basis on which to measure ourselves off against one another. It’s not a question of who is more useful, or more important, or a more significant witness. No basis for division or pride. Not the musical and the unmusical. The big givers and just scrape-bys. The educated and the ignorant. The well spoken and the inarticulate. The well qualified professionals and the welfare dependent. The marrieds with family and the single. The polite and the profane. Not even the faith-filled and the doubters. You’re just abiding in Jesus, the vine, or you’re not. If you are, you will be fruitful, if you’re not you’ll be like a branch that’s been detached from the vine. Rootless and rapidly drying out.

It’s a remarkably simple picture really, nothing hard to get your mind around. Living it though takes rather more effort. But it is also remarkably easy to determinedly put that effort in the wrong place. If you’re anything like me (not that I’d wish that on you) you probably hear these words and start thinking, “Gee, how fruitful am I being? I’d better work harder at being fruitful.” Am I right? And so then we set about working out what fruitfulness is, and the interpretation of that varies a bit depending on what sort of church you’ve been hanging around with, but generally it starts with something like Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Now there is nothing wrong with that list. That is a mighty fine list to aspire to and to want to shape your life around. And I don’t want to condemn anyone putting the work in to developing those things in their lives. As I said the emphases may vary a bit from church to church. Some will put more emphasis on joy while others will give detailed descriptions of how love and kindness work themselves out in the global economic system. None of them are necessarily wrong, and all of them have important insights into the nature of Christian living, but whichever version appeals to you most, working hard at being fruitful is not, in my opinion, the appropriate response to these words of Jesus.

Why is trying harder to be fruitful not the appropriate response? Haven’t I been saying that God the vinegrower’s evaluation of us is on the basis of our fruitfulness? Well, yes, that is what I’ve been saying, but striving harder and harder to be fruitful is not the response. You see, what Jesus says after saying that God the vine grower wants us to bear more fruit, is not try harder to bear more fruit, it is “Abide in me.”

“Abide in me.” That is about relationship, not results. “Abide in me. Just as a 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.”

Fruitfulness is a natural consequence of a developing relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” He does not say “Those who work their guts out at being fruitful, at being loving, just, peaceful, gentle, self-controlled, patient etc. will by doing so find themselves related to me.” The equation runs the other way round. Strengthen your connection to Jesus Christ, get yourself grafted firmly on to the vine, draw deeply on the sap that is God’s Spirit and you will be fruitful.

If, on the other hand, you are not connected to Jesus the vine, you can try as hard as you like to be fruitful and it won’t get you very far. If you are a branch that is not connected to the vine and you put all your effort into producing fruit, or even just producing a new bud, what happens? You dry out even faster and quickly wither. I’m sure you can think of people like that, and you can probably think of times when you’ve been like that yourself. You grit you teeth and by sheer dint of effort you manage to produce loving and gentle behaviour when everything inside you is screaming out to break someone’s teeth. And at the end how do you feel? Stuffed. Completely drained. And you don’t actually feel any more loving at the end of it, you just feel exhausted.

Many people live their whole lives this way. With no real connection to Jesus they set about becoming the most Christ-like people they can be. Polite, gentle, generous, cheerful, reliable, forgiving. They are remarkable. But if there is no connection to the vine, no ability to draw on the life giving sap of the Spirit, then sooner or later it dries up. Sooner or later, everyone knows, the energy is gone. They’ve become so dry and lifeless that the once green and pliant branch snaps at the first pressure. It’s a sad but all too common story.

You were created by God to be a fruitful branch firmly connected to Jesus the vine, and you will bring joy to the heart of God by being a fruitful branch firmly connected to Jesus the vine. And you will become a fruitful branch only by being firmly connected to Jesus the vine. It surprises us, I know, because we live in a culture that tells us constantly that if we want to be worthwhile and productive people we must strive for independence, to stand on our own feet. The image of the rugged individualist is held up and revered. But Jesus is saying here that our fruitfulness is not based on our independence but on our interdependence. We are dependent on Jesus the vine for a healthy root system that will ensure our continuing fruitfulness. There is no other way. I’m not saying you have to understand your relationship with Jesus, or that you even have to recognise that that is what it is, although it helps. I’m saying that it is by your relationship to Jesus that you have the capacity for fruitfulness, and by the development of that relationship that your fruitfulness will grow.

That relationship is developed primarily in prayer, which contrary to popular belief is not something that just comes naturally. If you don’t know how to pray, join the club. There are no prayer experts here, we are all learners at best. But if you want to develop that relationship, and you want to learn to pray, there is help available. There are people here who are learning. There are people here who pray regularly. There is the book of Psalms in the Bible which for three millennia has been the primary school of prayer for God’s people. And there are other teaching aids around. You only have to ask.

God the vine grower will do his part, you can be sure of that. Sometimes we won’t like it, mind you. Sometimes, as the passage makes clear, even the fruitful branches need some pruning, and going under the knife is never a pleasant experience, even when you know it’s for your own good. But if you’re fair dinkum about developing your relationship with Jesus and becoming all that God would have you be, then God will treat you in whatever way is necessary to bring out the fullness of your potential as a fruitful branch, deeply rooted through Jesus the vine, and bearing fruit to the glory of God.


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