by Brian P. Stoffregen, Faith Lutheran Church, Marysville, CA
Before looking at the subsections as assigned by the lectionary texts, I would like to quote extensively from the "Reflections," by O'Day in the New Interpreter's Bible concerning the entire section.
John 15:1-17 poses challenging questions to the contemporary Christian community about its self-identity. What does it mean for the church to live as the branches of Christ the vine? What would "church" look like if it embraced this model for its corporate life?
1. First, the image of community that emerges from John 15:1-17 is one of interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling. To get the full sense of this interrelationship, it is helpful to visualize what the branches of a vine actually look like. In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops and another branch starts. All run together as they grow out of the central vine. What this vine image suggests about community, then, is that there are no free-standing individuals in the community, but branches who encircle one another completely. The fruitfulness of each individual branch depends on its relationship to the vine, nothing else. What matters for John is that each individual is rooted in Jesus and hence gives up individual status to become one of many encircling branches.
The communal life envisioned in the vine metaphor raises a strong challenge to contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and privatism. At the heart of the Johannine model is social interrelationship and corporate accountability. The vine and branches metaphor exhorts the community to steadfastness in its relationship to Jesus, a steadfastness that is measured by the community's fruits (vv. 4-5).... To live as the branches of the vine is to belong to an organized unity shaped by the love of Jesus. The individual branch is subsumed into the communal work of bearing fruit, of living in love and so revealing itself to be one of Jesus' disciples (vv. 8-16). To live according to this model, then, the church would be a community in which members are known for the acts of love that they do in common with all other members. It would not be a community built around individual accomplishments, choices, or rights, but around the corporate accountability to the abiding presence of Jesus and corporate enactment of the love of God and Jesus.
2. Second, the metaphor of the vine suggests a radically non-hierarchical model for the church.... Fruitfulness is the only differentiation among branches, and the discernment of fruitfulness falls to the gardener (God) alone, not to any of the branches. It is the gardener's role to prune and shape the vine to enhance fruitfulness. All branches are thus the same before God, distinguishable only by their fruit....
This dimension of John's metaphor also poses some serious challenges to the ways in which institutional church life is understood and maintained. For the Fourth Gospel, there is only one measure of one's place in the faith community -- to love as Jesus has loved -- and all, great and small, ordained and lay, young and old, male and female are equally accountable to that one standard. Where the church to shape itself according to the Johannine metaphor, it would be a community in which decisions about power and governance would be made in the light of the radical egalitarian love of the vine image.
3. Third, this metaphor is stark in its anonymity. That is, the visual image of the branches lacks any and all distinctions in appearance, character, or gifts.... Unlike the Johannine metaphor, the Pauline image [of the body] does not remove the differences among the various members of the body, but actually points to those differences as definitional of what it means to be a body....
The Johannine metaphor undercuts any celebration of individual gifts, and this, too, challenges contemporary Western understandings of personality, individualism, and self-expression. Were the church to live as the branches of Christ, individual distinctiveness would give way to the common embodiment of love. The distinctiveness of the community would derive solely from its relationship to God and Jesus, not the characteristics or even gifts of its members. The mark of the faithful community is how it loves, not who are its members. There is only one gift, to bear fruit, and any branch can do that if it remains with Jesus. [pp. 760-761]
John 15:1-8 exegetical notes
The symbol of the vineyard is common in Judaism. In the "Song of the Vineyard" (Isaiah 5:1-7), the "house of Israel" and the "people of Judah" are "the vineyard of the LORD of hosts" (v. 7). They are expected to yield the proper fruit, but they don't and they are destroyed. In Jeremiah 2:21, God is pictured as the planter of a choice vine. (Some other OT images: Ezekiel 19:10-14; Hosea 10:1; Psalm 80:8-19; Isaiah 27:2-6; Ezekiel 15:1-8; 17:7-8.) The idea that the people of God are a vine which God tends and from which God expects good fruit is not new. However, the connection between Jesus as the vine and the people as the branches does appear to be new.
Twice in this text Jesus says, "I am the vine." The first time, in v. 1 (where "true" or "real" is also added), he makes a connection with the Father = the gardener who prunes the branches so that they might bear more fruit. The use of "true" and "real" suggest that there could be false and unreal "vines" from which one might seek to find nourishment for bearing fruit.
The second time Jesus says, "I am the vine," in v. 5, he makes a connection with "you," the people = the branches. All three elements are necessary to grow proper fruit: the gardener, vine, and branches -- the Father, Jesus, and disciples.
From verse 2 -- "every branch in me" -- it would seem that these images are addressed to believers -- people who are in Christ. Some believers bear fruit and some do not.
AIRO & KATHAIRO
Something that I find amazing in this passage is that the actions of the "gardener" are similar in both cases! The unfruitful branches are "cut off" (airo) and the fruitful branches are "pruned" or "cut clean" (kathairo).
From what I can gather, neither of these terms (airo nor kathairo) are primarily horticultural terms.
airo means "to lift up and carry (away)." It is used of the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Something that is "taken away" may be "destroyed," the meaning of the word in John 11:48. Terms like "remove" or "cut off" are not given in my classical Greek dictionary.
Although this is the only instance of kathairo in the NT, there are a number of related words (katharizo, katharismos, katharos, katharotes) used in the NT that clearly indicate that the stem kathar- refers to the elimination of ritual impurities or contaminations. Terms related to "clean" or "purify" are frequently used to translate this group of words. E.g., the jars of purification in John 2:6 (see also 3:25); and the cleanliness of the disciples in John 13:10-11. NOTE: katharos is translated "cleansed" in 15:3 in the NRSV with a footnote.
Why these uncommon uses for the terms? Typically in John's writing, there are many layers of meaning. God, the gardener, can prune the branches, which can also be understood as a cleansing or purifying of the disciples. My hunch is that airo was used for the first action because of its verbal similarity to kathairo.
There appears to only be two acts of the "gardener" in this analogy -- and both involve cutting. (I will not make any comments about circumcision <g>.) One cutting is to destroy the branch the other is to improve the branch's fruit bearing ability. NOTE that both of these verbs are in the present tense -- they are ongoing activities. The good gardener continues to cut out the dead and prune the good.
V. 3: "You are clean/pruned/purified" uses a passive verb indicating that the Father/gardener is the doing the acting. This "cleansing/pruning/purifying" happens through the word (logos) which Jesus "has spoken to you." This last verb is a perfect tense which implies an action in the past with continuing effect in the present. It can be legitimately translated in the present tense: "which Jesus speaks to you."
Jesus' word was not just something spoken back in history. It was that, but the power of that word continues to cleanse and purify and prune "wooden," fruit-bearing Christians today. This power of the word to cut is confessed well in Hebrews 4:12: "Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper, than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." [ouch!]
WHAT IS THIS FRUIT?
What is the "fruit" that the gardener expects from the branches? When chapter 15 is read in context of chapter 14 -- loving Jesus (vv. 15, 21, 23) and chapter 13 -- loving each other (vv. 34-35), it would appear that "love" is the expected fruit. If so, then the unproductive branches of 15:2 are the people who are in Jesus -- in the community of faith -- who are not loving -- who are not seeking the good of the whole body.
In another context, Jesus speaks about another way of bearing much fruit, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces much fruit" (12:24). Pruning sounds healthier than dying!
For me, the best illustration of dying to oneself is the confession of sins -- admitting that I can't do it by myself and every time I try, I screw up. [Is "screw up" a legitimate confessional statement?] The sharp, word of God cuts deep to expose sins -- not only the things that one does wrong; but also one's attitudes -- and one's thoughts; and one's feelings. The word of God seeks to cleanse life from all sins -- everything that keeps one from bearing more and more good fruit -- from being more and more loving.
One of those "clean" words is used twice in 1 John -- in a text that was read on 2 Easter:
If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1:7-9).
For some other meanings of "fruit-bearing," Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Church) offers a number of other possibilities, with one that he emphasizes. (I present these quotes, not necessarily because I agree with him, but because he offers another interpretation of fruitfulness -- one that we might not normally think about):
What is fruitfulness? The word fruit, or a variation of it, is used fifty-five times in the New Testament and refers to a variety of results. Each one of the following is considered by God to be fruit: repentance (Matt. 3:8; Luke 13:5-9), practicing the truth (Matt. 7:16-21; Col. 1:10), answered prayer (John 15:7-8), an offering of money given by believers (Rom. 15:28), Christlike character, and winning unbelievers to Christ (Rom. 1:13). Paul said that he wanted to preach in Rome "in order that I might obtain some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles" (Rom. 1:13 NASB). The fruit of a believer is another believer.
Considering the Great Commission that Jesus gave to the church, I believe that the definition of fruitfulness for a local church must include growth by the conversion of unbelievers. Paul referred to the first converts in Achaia as the 'first fruit of Achaia" (1 Cor. 16:15 NASB).
The Bible clearly identifies numerical growth of the church as fruit. Many of the kingdom parables of Jesus emphasize the unavoidable truth that God expects his church to grow. In addition, Paul connected fruit bearing with church growth. Colossians 1:6 says, "All of the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it ..." Is your church bearing fruit and growing? Are you seeing the fruit of new converts being added to your congregation? [p. 64]
I think that our text does ask us not only to consider what it means for me to "bear fruit," but also what it means for us as a community to "bear fruit." Is it only new converts? Is it only greater love for one another? for the world?
One of our synod's guiding principles is to "build healthy, multiplying congregations." Is "multiplying" a word that we usually use of congregations? Should it be? "Fruit" contains the power to reproduce. It is able to create another plant that will also bear fruit. Could this mean that the fruit of a disciple is another disciple who also produces fruit, which is another disciple who bears fruit, etc. etc. That sounds like multiplying to me.
Do we consider our committees or small groups or ministry teams to be in the multiplying or reproducing business -- to create another committee, small group, or ministry team, that will involve even more people in a committee, small group, or ministry team who reproduce themselves, etc. etc.?
Another word with a double meaning is meno -- translated "abide" in our text, but it also carries meanings of "remain, stay; live, dwell; last, endure, continue." (You might try substituting some of those others words in the text where "abide" occurs. It might give a slightly difference sense.) Sometimes this verb refers to the branch staying connected to the vine and sometimes it refers to disciples staying connected to Jesus. This word occurs 11 times in 15:1-17. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit if it is disconnected from the vine, neither can disciples bear fruit if they are disconnected from Jesus.
It would appear that there may be a contrast between simply being "in Jesus" (v. 2) which allows for the possibility of not bearing fruit; and "remaining or abiding in Jesus" (vv. 4ff.) and he in them, which results in "bearing much fruit" (v. 5).
In v. 2, it is the gardener who removes the fruitless branches from the vine. In vv. 4-6, the impression is given by the commands, that abiding or not abiding on the vine is a decision of the branch -- and the decision to leave the branch has fiery consequences (v. 6).
NOTE: There is no mention in this text about how the branches become connected to the vine. The image is only about remaining connected or getting cut off from the source of fruit bearing. This might be another indication that this is directed to a Christian community. The issue is not about being incorporated onto the vine, but now that one is a member of the community, what is expected? The answer: bear much fruit which comes from being pruned/purified/cleansed by God and by the word which Jesus has spoken, and by abiding in Jesus.
I've noticed that in past sermons on this text, I have ignored vv. 7-8. I offer a literal translation, using "y'all" to designate the plural "you".
If y'all are remaining in me
and my words (rhema not logos) would remain in y'all,
whatever y'all would be wishing, ask,
and they shall be [or come to be] for y'all.
In this thing my father is glorified:
that y'all would be bearing much fruit
and y'all would be [or come to be] my disciples.
The first observation I notice is the plural "yous". These are not verses about one's own wishes and expectations that God would grant one's private requests, but, related to some earlier comments, they are verses about the community's life together: having the word live in us; coming to agreement about our wishes; the ability to pray together; and expecting things to happen that are for the good of us all.
A second observation is the difficulty in translating ginomai which occurs in both verses. Its primary meaning is "to come into existence." It is used by John in 1:3, 10 of creation. In terms of the group's asking, the things that are asked for "will come into existence" (future tense) for them.
In terms of discipleship, how should it be understood? It could Jesus' wish that we would become his disciples -- something we weren't before, but now are, but that wouldn't make much sense if this is addressed to a Christian community. It could be his wish that we come into existence (or live) as his disciples -- we are disciples, but we are becoming disciples who will act in ways that better glorify his Father.
The third observation is related to the above paragraph. The previous use of "disciples" before our text in John is "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (13:35). This group is called "disciples" in John even when Judas, who betrayed him; and Peter, who denied him were included. One can be a disciple, yet not have the love for one another that informs the world of one's discipleship.
Perhaps related to the earlier part of this text, one can be attached to the vine, but not produce the proper fruit of love for one another -- which means running the risk of being lopped off from the vine and burned up.
A FINAL COMMENT
Faith is always changing. Even though one is connected to the true vine. Even though one's faith is firmly rooted in Jesus Christ. Though the "root" of one's faith never changes, but from year to year one's faith needs pruning by God. Maybe some old habits or thoughts or attitudes or behaviors need to die, so that, through the power of Jesus, even more fruit will be produced in one's life.
I've concluded a sermon in this text with these two questions and statement.
Question 1: What has been pruned out of your life in the last five years and what new fruit has Jesus produced in your life during that time? If you can't think of anything, consider how often you have let the Word of God cut into the depths of your life leading to confession and cleansing and then a more fruitful life.
Question 2: What in your life needs pruning out own -- what keeps Jesus from producing new fruit in your life today? If you can think of some things -- rejoice!. The sharp-edged Word of God is working in you -- pruning and purifying, killing and making alive.
Your faith won't be quite the same next year as it is now. You'll have been pruned and you'll be producing more fruit.
Today I would also direct such questions to the congregation -- to y'all in the congregation. How are we being pruned and growing in our fruit-bearing at this time and place?
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