Jesus prayed that we remain in unity, but we have let our Savior down. From the Great East-West schism between the Eastern Churches and the western Church, to the further divisions between the various branches of the Church of God we have let our Savior down.
Let’s understand how we must fight for unity and have faith in the Head of the Church to fix those things that are wrong.
We will look at John 15:1-8 and the need to abide in connection to one another and to Jesus.
In John 15:1 Jesus describes himself as the true vine, sometimes called the trunk. We are the branches, sometimes called cordons. Each year new shoots grow. On these shoots grow leaves and tendrils. Tendrils grow opposite to a grape cluster and attach to anything available to provide stability for the grapes which grow opposite.
Who does the pruning (John 15:2)? Sometimes we feel guilty when people leave. We wonder what we did wrong. Sometimes we are guilty of causing offense, but let us not forget that pruning must also be done. People come to us who have agendas for personal aggrandizement and are not team players. There are people who are habitual church hoppers and have not developed that spiritual fruit of faithfulness. There are many other reasons why people cannot do as Christ taught and stand firm. I remember a story of a church that had 80 people, but would not grow. A new preacher came to town and the church rapidly shrunk from 80 down to 20. People were upset and wanted to get rid of him, but then the church grew to many hundreds. God had pruned it for growth.
Grapevines need to be pruned drastically in order to produce. The biggest pruning is in late winter when 85-90% of one-year-old wood is removed. Minor pruning is done in summer to remove excess shoots, leaves and grape clusters. Many people like the four- or two-arm Kniffen system, but a head-trained vine works well on some grape varieties. Some grapes do well growing up from a horizontal branch called a cordon, and some do better growing down from a cordon. The biggest problem in grape pruning is not removing enough. In the church we are reluctant to let go of people who are here for the wrong reason and we are reluctant to acknowledge God’s pruning or cleaning of those who are productive (John 15:2-3). The disciples had already been pruned clean by the word that Jesus spoke to them.
Blessed are the Katharoi
The Greek word translated as clean in John 15:3 is katharoi which is also translated as pure in the beatitudes where it says “blessed are the pure in heart.” In Greek, pruning was seen as cleaning away the unwanted or unfruitful wood from the vine, so that the vine could focus its energy on the fruitful parts of the plant. We too can use the word in a similar sense in English, such as to clean off a trunk of unwanted branches. As Christians our goal is to become pure or clean of heart, something that God does in us. It does not happen through our own efforts. We must simply abide in Christ.
Abide is Community
What kind of Christian community does John 15:1-8 encourage? What does a grapevine look like? A horizontal branch or cordon is attached to the trunk. Shoots grow from each branch and stems, leaves, tendrils and fruit grow from the shoots. There is a connection that must exist for fruit to grow. Church unity is based upon this kind of connectionalism. Independent churches and independent Christians that are not attached to each other or a denomination are not going to produce much fruit. When we are connected to each other and to Jesus we are healthy and produce much fruit. The vine pictures the church as a community that is connected to Jesus. We do not come into the church to promote our individual agendas, but to be a part of a community of love serving each other in Christ.
Abide is Connectionalism
Christians support ministries far beyond our local churches. One local congregation cannot serve the world. Connected we can. As the parable of the vine and branches in John 15:1-8 points out, we are connected to Christ and each other. Because of “connectionalism” we are able to share leaders and financial resources to provide health care, education, justice, disaster relief, and other aid. In John Jesus has only one standard of orthodoxy, love. That standard is the great equalizer. In the allegory of the branch there is no difference between us. All are required to love and remain in relationship with Jesus. All are expected to bear fruit. The connection with Jesus is a new understanding. Jesus is the vine and the Father does the pruning. To grow fruit, all are needed, the gardener, the vine and the branches.
Abide is Stick-to-it-iveness
In Greek the word abide (John 15:4) means to stay, remain, endure, continue, not to depart, not to leave, but to continue to be present. Quitters don’t abide. When we don’t wait on God, but take matters into our own hands, we don’t abide. Branches must stay connected to the vine and disciples must stay connected to Jesus. Those who take confirmation in the church but do not abide, will not bear fruit. Those who leave churches every time they don’t get their way or are offended by someone will not bear fruit. Abiding or not abiding is our decision as the branches. The inability to abide has fiery consequences. Removing fruitless branches from the vine is the decision of the gardener. People don’t bear fruit apart from the vine. If they are already abiding in the vine they will bear fruit.
Abide is Faithfulness
The parable of the vine and the branches is addressed to those who are disciples. We cannot begin the journey of discipleship and quit. A key fruit of discipleship is love (John 13:35). Our job is to abide (John 15:4) faithfully attached to the vine. Jesus’ job is to develop in us the fruit of love. The fruit of love does not develop all at once. Some people are attached to the vine for many years before the fruit of love becomes evident. It must eventually develop or we run the risk of being pruned by the gardener and thrown in the fire. As we grow, the gardener will prune us. Life sometimes seems like 85-90% of what we were has been removed, but we must have faith that after such a hard pruning, wonderful fruit will come.
Abide is Resting
Jesus encouraged us to abide in him (John 15:4). Rest is a dirty word among those who have inherited the Puritan work ethic. Yet, rest was incorporated into the design of the original creation. God took the seventh day and rested, not because he needed to, but because we need to. Some Christians insist on applying the letter of the law to either Saturday or Sunday today, but there is no such command in the Bible for the church. We are no longer under the schoolmaster and so apply the law in spirit. People in some professions must simply take another day of rest for the body. A day of rest is good for body and soul. Abiding in Jesus is not just once a week. Abiding in Jesus, provides a permanent rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28-30).
Abiding in Church
Abiding in Jesus (John 15:4) means abiding in church and that can be problematic. We must also abide with people problems. We may not want to, but Jesus wants to be around his people. He knows our sins, but forgives. He knows our silly fights between people, but perhaps is not as interested in our picky opinions as he is in grace. Forgiveness and grace are necessary in any human relationship, perhaps even more so in a church setting, where we expect higher standards of conduct. Yet, do we also expect higher standards of grace and forgiveness from ourselves? So then abiding in Christ, means that we also abide with each other. Surprising as it may seem, those who do, live longer and healthier lives than those who cannot abide church, so there must be something to this abiding.
Staying where Jesus is Preached
There are many reasons why people don’t go to church. “But the music is boring,” may be one excuse. “The preaching is not very exciting,” may be another. Another popular reason is a particular church has political issues, or people are too narrow-minded. If I was a starving person, I would not care what music was playing, or if they only had green beans and no ice cream to eat. And I certainly would not care if the staff did not get along perfectly or what their opinions about picky issues were. Abiding in Jesus means that we stay — no matter what (John 15:4). If a church preaches Jesus, that is, not just his name but also what Jesus taught, then that’s a place I want to be. The music, style of preaching, and personal problems are insignificant.
No True Friends but a Closet full of Shoes
Today’s world offers many fake substitutes. The Bible calls wealth a delusion because we substitute it for life’s most valuable things, and the best things in life are still free. Perhaps we have witnessed the woman on television with no true friends, but a closet full of shoes. Perhaps we have had a glimpse of the billionaire’s life, filled with material things, but marriages that continue to fail. One of the great blessings of church life is that connection to God and his people (John 15:4). If we abide in that connection, we get the best things in life for free. Abiding in church creates a support network of true friendships that stand the test of time and a friendship with Jesus develops a fruitful life that will last for all eternity. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing.
Pruned by God
We came to Jesus for Sabbath rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28-30). We decided to stay, abiding with him (John 15:1-8). When we attach ourselves to his vine, we also agree to the terms of the arrangement which include being pruned by God. Vines do not have nerve cells and so there is no pain, but pruning does still include certain minor temporary setbacks, which must be accommodated. In the long run, pruning keeps a vine from going wild and helps it produce a much better grape harvest. It may sound silly, but a vine that is cut off cannot bear any fruit. It is just headed for the fire. Cutting ourselves off from Jesus and connection with the church causes our lives shrivel up. We cast our lives into the fire. Better to stay connected and fruitful.
God, the gardener, removes dead wood and prunes the good branches. How many Christians expect a free ride, to inherit eternity without abiding in Jesus Christ? In the context of John 14-15, the fruit (John 15:4) is love. Galatians 5:22-23 expands upon that, but begins with love. Does this mean that those who do not love people in the church will eventually leave? God prunes everything that keeps us from bearing the fruit of love. Throughout the New Testament the word fruit refers to repentance, practicing truth, our offerings, Christian character and bringing others into the church. Fruitfulness includes conversions. God expects his church to grow. Is our church bearing fruit and growing? Are we seeing the fruit of love in our congregation? Fruit can reproduce. The fruit of a disciple is another disciple growing in God’s love.
God created his Church to be unified and connected. Jesus prayed for it and the Holy Spirit leads us to it. Let us not be quitters, but abide in connection with each other and with God. Let us hang in there and bear much fruit.