Is it obvious that a vine branch cut off from the vine will soon be worthless? If it is a grapevine, grapes will no longer grow on it. The branch will die. Then what do we have?
Actually the prophet Ezekiel points out that the dried, dead vine branch is useful as kindling (15:1-8). We need fire for warmth, for cooking, and for light. Good kindling is very valuable, once. However, after the fire has burned out, all that’s left of that once needed kindling is dead ash. Ezekiel uses the image of the burned up vine branch to envision the faithless inhabitants of Jerusalem. They turned away from God to neglect the poor among them. They worshiped idols. And they burned. “I will make the land desolate, because they have acted faithlessly, says the Lord” (Ezek. 15:8).
It’s kind of a depressing opening, don’t you think? But it does show a few things. One, it seems Jesus has Ezekiel in mind as much as the Gospel writers did Isaiah and the Psalms. His imagery recalls the word pictures used by the prophet of the exile. Two, the halting image of a city razed, burned to the ground, amplifies Jesus’ “I am the vine” picture. A disconnected vine is a dead thing, only good to be burned. A person cut off from Christ is destined for death.
A third truth to glean from the Ezekiel message is the either-or nature of what both Ezekiel and Jesus believe. Judah and Jerusalem were cut off because they acted faithlessly. As much as any prophet, Ezekiel ties faithful living to justice and proper worship. One either lives faithfully, or is cut off. There’s no other option. Jesus picks this up. “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (v.6).
Branches = people, human beings, you and me. Cut off from Christ, we are destined for death, an eternity apart from God. Whatever the experience of that eternity is, Jesus is clear about one thing. It is an eternity spent cut off from him. So, we branches either stay connected to the vine, Jesus himself, or, we are bound for destruction. Obviously then, if we want eternal life, we stay connected to Christ. But, how do we do that?
Before dealing with the “how-to,” we look at meaning. Jesus tells each one of us, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” What does that mean, that phrase “abide in me?” The problem as I see it is ‘abide’ is not a word most English speakers use in every day conversations. Any time a Biblical idea or a phrase is used exclusively in a church-setting, it fails to influences our lives. If church is the only place you say or hear a word, it will be the only place that word has an effect. We live most of our lives away from the church building, outside the worship service. If ‘abide’ only means something when I am reading John chapter 15, then the idea that I am to ‘abide in Christ’ lacks any real punch in the 99.9% of the time I am not sitting with John 15 open before me.
We are blessed (or cursed as the case may be) to have many options when it comes to Bibles in English. Normally, I read the New Revised Standard Version. The Greek word for abide in verse 4 is ‘meinate.‘ That Greek verb is in a different verb tense in verse 7, ‘meinhte.’ The NRSV translates this verb ‘abide,’ as do several other English versions including the King James, the English Standard Version, and the New American Standard. As that word is used in English today, is ‘abide’ the best word to convey what Jesus had to say?
The Greek verb means ‘to stay in a place,’ or ‘remain in a sphere,’ or ‘to endure.’ The Holman Standard Christian Bible, as well as the NIV, the Good New Translation, and the New Living Translation, render it ‘remain.’ In these versions, Jesus says, “Remain in me.” Remain? Abide? Are there other, better options? The J.B. Phillips Bible says, “Live your life in me.” The Message says, “Make your home in me.”
All these options could lead us to the conclusion that in order to live the lives Jesus wants us to live and is calling us to live, we have to live in a way that keeps us connected to God through faith in Jesus, with the help of the Holy Spirit. I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding us as we read the Bible and will enable us to get the message even when we read different English versions. Reading the Bible is not just a solitary Christian or a gathered group in church on Sunday morning. The Holy Spirit is an active player when we read, carrying the message deeper than even our conscious understanding.
That said, great value comes from accurate translation. Two tools deepen our knowledge of God’s word, the ongoing study of Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and ongoing awareness of the evolution of language, in our case the English language. Of all the Bible versions, the one I think best gets at what Jesus is telling us when he says, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” is the Contemporary English Version.
In that version, verse 4 reads, “Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me.” And verse 7 in the CEV renders Jesus words, “Stay joined to me and let my teaching become a part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want and your prayer will be answered.”
Note please that before we receive whatever we pray for, Jesus’ teaching becomes a part of us. We might hear “pray for whatever you want your prayer will be answered,” and we might get big ideas. ‘I am going to pray for a Rolls Royce. I am going to pray for a private jet. I am going to ask that the Detroit Tigers win the World Series.’ On practical note, I couldn’t afford the insurance on a Rolls, I don’t know how to fly the private jet I’d be praying for, and what if while I am praying for the Tigers to win the series, John Folliard is every bit as joined to Christ, and he’s praying for the Chicago White Sox to win the series? More significantly, if Jesus’ teaching becomes a part of me, becomes a part of John, are he and I praying for cars and planes and World Series winners? Connected to Christ, his teaching coloring the desires of our hearts, we will be inclined to pray for different things. We will have a heart like his.
The vine imagery Jesus uses in John 15 tells us that the Christian life, the disciple life is a life joined to Christ. The one in this life cannot go out and party in a way that disregards the morals valued by God. We can’t leave our faith on the shelf for just this one night of debauchery. We’re connected, permanently joined. Where we go, Jesus goes. Living this way, we find life is at its best when we go where He guides us.
The one in this life cannot spend money in a way that ignore the heart of God for all people. We cannot disassociate our money with our faith because He is Lord of our entire lives. When we go on vacation, when we go shopping, when open the check book, or make the electronic purchase online, Jesus is there. We’re thoroughly connected, joined to Christ. Living this way, we find life is at its best when we strive to be extravagantly generous and at the same time thoroughly wise, always looking to our Lord in terms of what to do with our money.
In our relationships; in our decisions about sex; in thinking about what we put in our bodies; regarding what our eyes see on the screen, online, on TV; in all things, we are joined to Christ. He is there. He is not part of our lives. He is at the center of our lives. Being a Christian is not one aspect of our lives. Every aspect of our lives is determined by Christ.
Anyone tempted to think, you mean Jesus is everywhere I go? Everywhere?
Jesus says, “Abide in my love” (v.9). Remain in the embrace of Jesus. For him the entire vine-branches idea illustrates relationship. For Jesus obedience to God is an expression of love just as his coming is God’s statement of love for all of us. To stay with him is to be in a close relationship with someone who love us, wants the best for us, and will sacrifice on our behalf. Greek has different words that can be translated “love” in English. When he says “abide in my love” in verse 9, the verb is ‘agape.’ Jesus means stay in this relationship in which I will do whatever I have to for your good.
And “for our good” is not the elimination of joy or the end of freedom or shackles on our self-expression. The passage leads up to verse 11 where this is what we hear from Jesus. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” Jesus has no intention of stripping the fun, laughter, and whimsy out of life. In fact, the life full of the richest smiles, greatest happiness, and the most potent of loves is the life of a disciple of Jesus.
The word joy, in verse 11, is the same root as the word grace. Jesus doesn’t just save us from death and Hell. Jesus also saves us from misery, from bitterness, jealousy, and greed. As Jesus saves us from a life cut off from God, Jesus also saves us for a life of great meaning; a life in which we walk in God’s light; a life defined both by pleasure and purity.
How then do we live a life joined to Christ? Obviously we stay connected to the body Christ, the church, and we do this by being deeply involved in a local congregation. We stay in the word of God, through regular Bible reading and study under good Bible teachers. We commit to worship, making the regular, weekly participation in church a part of our lives. We serve in the church and in the world, working for justice and sharing the good news of life in Christ. These are things we do.
At a deeper level, we resolve to live in absolute honesty before God. Even the 12 disciples, who went everywhere with Jesus in the body, messed up. They sinned as close as they were to him. We do too. Even joined to Christ, we slip. But when we mess up, we don’t put on masks and pretend to be perfect. We do not pretend everything is OK all the time. We live in awareness of God’s presence. And in God’s presence, we walk in raw, exposed honesty. We confess when we need to confess. We ask for help when we need it. And sometimes we just fall on our knees before God weeping because tears are the only language that adequately name our wounds and our inner hunger.
How do we live a life joined to Christ? There are things we do. There’s a posture we adopt – the honesty of broken people. Finally we let go of self-reliance and we receive. We receive the grace God gives, the love we cannot earn, the joy that is a gift; a gift God gives to overflowing.
I pray that you can have this God-defined life. You’ll never know happiness like the joy Jesus gives. Whatever you’re holding onto, keeping from him, let it go right now. Right now, come back to the vine. Come into the embrace of our Lord Jesus and see your life in the light He shines.