Sunday, September 6, 2009

Plugged In

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

                        John 15.5

Metaphors and Mediums

Throughout His ministry, Jesus refers to Himself with a variety of metaphors: the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Water of Life, the Good Shepherd, and so on. A pattern emerges when we place them side-by-side. In every one, He is the Source and we are the mediums. His meaning is conveyed in the thing He conveys to us—enlightenment, nourishment, refreshment, care, etc. What’s most interesting about this, I believe, is an overarching message that what we seek from Christ is already present by virtue of our relationship with Him. Furthermore, all we find and receive is given to us so others can find and receive it also.

If we need illumination He is our Light. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” Jesus says in John 8.12. Meanwhile, in Matthew 5.14, He also says, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” His light shines on us to shine through us. In John 10.11, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Later, in a conversation with Peter, He asks, “Do you truly love me?” Peter tells Him, “You know I love you,” to which Jesus says, “Take care of my sheep.” (John 21.16) Jesus cares for us so we can care for others. The moment we receive what we need it becomes something we share. Life we gain is life we give, and so on. Nowhere is this principle more evident than in the vine metaphor.

Attached for Life

“I am the vine; you are the branches,” Jesus teaches in John 15.5. Because the statement sounds so elementary, we’re wise to look at it closely. How do vines work? One seed takes root and sprouts, giving life to dozens of shoots that grow into sturdy branches. While the branches burst forth with blooms and fruit, the vine serves a different function. It feeds the branches, guaranteeing they receive sufficient nourishment and moisture to continue to blossom and bear fruit. In the most literal sense imaginable, the vine and branches are attached for life. The branches can’t survive without the vine. Yet, on the other hand, without branches to produce fruit, the vine has no reproductive potential. Seeds for future growth exist exclusively in the fruit, which the branches—not the actual vine—produce.

Thus, Jesus uses the vine-branch metaphor to explain the symbiotic nature of our relationship with Him, and His with us. “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit,” He says. Bearing fruit is vital because that's how the vine protects itself from extinction. The fruit gets picked and after its eaten, its seeds are replanted in other gardens and vineyards to produce more vines, which succor more branches, which produce more fruit, which yields more seeds, and the cycle repeats. More people are nourished. More vineyards are planted. Unless the branches are tightly plugged into the vine, there will be no fruit, no seeds, and no future. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus tells us flatly. Without a direct connection to Him—a conscious reliance on Him for life-sustaining nourishment—our lives are fruitless. Implicit in this statement, however, is Christ’s recognition that without us, His gospel of love and reconciliation won’t reach those hungering for it. And since the Gospel’s survival and proliferation are most important of all, Jesus’s vine metaphor also introduces a third party, The Gardener.

The Gardener

Before defining our role as His branches, Jesus tips us off to the role God plays in this system: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15.1-2) Branches too loosely connected to produce healthy fruit will not last. In verse 6, Jesus tells us, “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” To put it bluntly, if we think our relationship with Christ is solely for our benefit, our efforts will go up in smoke. Lovely as they are, vines are meant to produce, not decorate. Anyone casually attached to Christ simply to belong to “something beautiful” won’t thrive. The life we draw from Christ is provided to make life possible for others. If we don’t yield seed-bearing fruit, we’re dead weight. We wither and waste strength more productive branches can use more productively. The Gardener removes barren branches so others can flourish.

The Gardener also prunes thriving branches to make them more fruitful. He attentively monitors their growth to prevent expending precious resources on unproductive pursuits. As we branch out in our faith, newer, more productive endeavors overshadow lesser ones that once sapped our time and attention. Our potential to bear better fruit can’t be sacrificed to continue producing less satisfactory results. Often before we realize it, The Gardener prunes desires, attitudes, and relationships we’ve outgrown. Yet even when we’re aware of what He’s doing, we submit to His wisdom. Fruitless efforts drag us down. They stall our progress and, worst of all, they pull against our connection to the Vine. Staying attached to Christ for life is our top priority. Bearing fruit comes first. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you,” Jesus says in verse 7, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” All it takes is remaining tightly plugged in, plus a little pruning now and then, to make that promise a reality.

The quality of fruit we bear—and our effectiveness in spreading Christ’s gospel of love and reconciliation—depends on how tightly we’re plugged into the Vine.

(Tomorrow: Workers Among Us)

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