How do you view your life? What imagery would you use to describe the Christian life? Would it be the image of being caught between a rock and a hard spot? Would it be the image of a pressure cooker trying to steam out the bad stuff? Maybe it is the image of a fireplace burning out the impurities so that only brilliant blue flames remain? Or maybe your Christian life is a little less difficult and so you jive more with images like a grandparent with their grandchild, or a mother hen nursing her chicks? Whatever image you have of the Christian life tells something about how you are currently experiencing the Lord and the circumstances in which you find yourself.
God is the Gardener
Today, we are going to explore the metaphor for Christian living that Jesus gave. It is the image of life in the garden of God. Mark mentioned the story of Dawkins and Lennox earlier and in it John Lennox claimed that if one recognizes a garden in the midst of a forest then we assume there must be a gardener who has crafted the plot. Personally, I love this image of life as being lived in the garden of God because it contains wonderful truth that extends from Genesis to Revelation.
If we are going to understand life as being lived in a garden, then we must recognize that God is the Garden. Jesus’ opening words make that very clear, “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1). As a gardener, God the Father is out to create a divine garden, a place of blessing and prosperity. He is out to create a reality where life springs forth and refreshment covers the land, where people live in communion with one another and their creator. He is out to create a place where joy immeasurable and rest eternal abound and there is no longer any sadness or pain. If you are at all like me, a garden, especially a well-tended garden brings me great peace and serenity. When I walk through a place like the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver I get lost in the beauty and wonder. And if you think I am oblivious to time when I am in the pulpit, you should see me in a garden: time means absolutely nothing. I can only imagine and anticipate the joy it will be to walk in the final Garden of the Lord.
In order to create a beautiful garden, a gardener has to do a lot of work. First the land must be tilled, then the soil must be amended, plants need to be planted and trimmed, fed and watered and ultimately the garden must be prepared for the next season. These are all the things that a gardener must do on top of the planning, the thinking, and the site layout. If this is true of places like Van Dusen, Butchardt Gardens, or even your own veggie patch, then image what God the Father is involved in when Christ says he is a gardener in this world.
God is out to create a world fundamentally different from the world we find ourselves in and His garden includes one plant, a vine, which is Christ the centerpiece. Christ is like a beautiful topiary that we can all gaze upon and marvel at, but he is more than topiary, he is a fruit-bearing vine.
Christ is inherently fruitful
What I mean is this. Our passage in John 15 begins with these words, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” Jesus is not any vine. He is not a jungle vine, or a vine maple. He is not ivy, jasmine or a wisteria. He is specifically a grapevine; and not only that; he is the true grape vine.
That is important to recognize, because there are many vines that are useless or invasive, or exist without any real fruiting benefit, but Jesus doesn’t claim to be any of these, he wants his disciples to understand that at his core he is of fruit bearing stock. His natural existence is to bear fruit in the garden of God. Hence he is the true vine, the one and only vine, there is no other. He is the masterpiece.
God has been in the gardening business since time immortal. He has been creating the perfect setting, the perfect ground, establishing the perfect soil so that when his centerpiece was planted, it would take root and be recognized as something fundamentally different from the forest and wild lands about it. I make a big deal about that because there are a number of passages in the Old Testament that liken Israel to being a grapevine: Hosea 10, Isa 5, and Jer 22 are a few of these. In every Old Testament reference to Israel as the vine, we find that God always chastises Israel for its failure to bear God’s fruit. In fact, every instance of Israel as a vine in the Old Testament ends with judgment being pronounced for the failure of the nation. Let’s listen to one of these,
(Hos. 10:1-2) Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself. As his fruit increased, he built more altars; as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones. 2 Their heart is deceitful, and now they must bear their guilt. The Lord will demolish their altars and destroy their sacred stones.
Do you see the judgment and sense the displeasure of God with his people? The image God was establishing was the futility of bearing fruit apart from unity with Christ. In this opening pronouncement Christ draws upon this powerful image that the disciples would have recognized: unfruitful Israel, selfish fruit, idolatrous fruit. What’s more than that, he redeems it. He is not the vine like the nation has been the vine, quite the contrary, he is the vine who bears fruit and fulfills all God’s desires for his people.
So, what kind of fruit does Christ bear? He bears the fruit of righteousness and holiness, submission and obedience. He bears the fruit of love, complete love toward God and others. We have talked about these aspects of Jesus’ life, his fruitfulness the past few weeks and so I am not going to go into this again today, because our passage is building upon all of that context and understanding.
Jesus tells the disciples that not only is God a gardener, and not only is he a fruitful vine, but that as disciples, we are grafted into Christ’s fruiting stock, much like an apple tree can have many different varieties attached to the stalk. And this is important because, all who abide in Christ will be fruitful.
All who abide in Christ will be fruitful
Every believer, every disciple is not called to live on their own, rather they are called to recognize their inherent connection to the life-giving root: Christ. None of us are connected to another. What I mean is you are not grafted to Christ through me, or through another person, no, whenever you graft a plant, you are grafted to the main stem if you want to see the long-term survival and success of the branch. Each and every one of us has a direct and unobstructed connection to the Father through Christ. (1Tim. 2:5) “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Now if you graft a branch onto a good fruiting apple stock, what do you expect? Fruit. The same is true in Christ’s analogy. If we are directly connected to the fruiting stock of Christ, what would we expect? We would expect the fruit of Christ to be born in our lives: fruit of righteousness, holiness, submission, obedience, love, etc. And that is exactly what God the Father expects when he grafts people into his garden onto Jesus Christ.
That is what Jesus is talking about when he says the Father cut and prunes. The father is looking for demonstrations of the ‘vitality of faith’ (Bultmann). He is looking for the life of Christ flowing in the grafted branches. He is looking for the life of Christ forming in you and me. But what is fascinating is the play on words Jesus uses in verses 2-3. The word for pruning and being clean share a similar root – to cleanse. Jesus is telling us that every branch in him that doesn’t bear life is pruned, or cleansed so that it becomes worthwhile and beneficial. As believers we can take great solace in that reality, in Christ, we are being made into something useful and good to the Father. We are being turned into a reflection of the Son to the world. His life is being formed in us, through the Spirit living in us. For we (1Pet. 1:2) who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood:
So, how did Christ bear fruit? What was his secret and is it reproducible in our lives? I am glad you asked. Jesus was fruitful precisely because he remained in the Father. He didn’t live life on his own, using his own wisdom and his own power. He didn’t speak his own words.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. Jesus lived life in submission to the Father, allowing God to speak and act through him. (John 5:19,30) “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does…30 By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” Jesus exemplified submission, humility and attention to the Father’s will; that is why he could say “remain in me” because he had been remaining in the Father. Jesus commands his disciples to stay in him. Being faithful and obedient would be another way of saying ‘remain’. For in faithfulness and obedience one lives in the presence of God and bears fruit that lasts. And all of that is reproducible in our lives.
Jesus reminds us that we cannot bear fruit alone. Fruit bearing comes only through Christ’s sap flowing in us. Do you remember the story of Aaron’s rod that budded? Some might point to this and say it is possible to bear fruit apart from the vine. It was severed from the plant, yet it bore fruit, for the word declares (Num. 17:8) The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Testimony and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the house of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds. I would respond that it bore fruit, precisely because it remained in the presence of God in the tabernacle. And isn’t that what being faithful and obedient is all about. Isn’t this what Jesus is getting at when he says remain in me? And in case his disciples missed that point, he changes the tense of his verb from the aorist to the present, from the single action to the continuous. “Neither can you bear fruit unless you continue remaining (continuously remain) in me” (John 15:4b).
How can we abide in Christ
So how can we remain in Christ? He commands his disciples to abide, or remain in him. How can we do it?
As believers grafted onto Christ, we get the joy of participating in the process of sanctification, aka fruit bearing. The first thing we can do to abide in Christ is to daily relate to him. And the best ways to begin relating to Christ are through the Word of God and through prayer. By daily reading the Word and committing it to memory we carry with us the story of God’s gardening in human history. We can see how the Father was preparing creation to receive Jesus the masterpiece. We can ask the question: How did these stories foretell the coming of Christ? We can reflect on the things God approved and the things he judged and we can ask for wisdom to understand how this relates to our life.
The word is the foundation of abiding in Christ because it is the story and the very words of God to humanity. But we also need to be speaking with Christ. The fancy word for speaking to Jesus is prayer. In prayer, we carry on a conversation with our Lord. Prayer isn’t just a one-sided monologue, a grocery list experience of unloading all our problems upon God, although that may be part of it. Prayer is a deep communication with God where our minds and hearts are transformed, where the Lord opens up the meaning of his word to us. Prayer is a seeking after God and an enjoying of his presence. Prayer is a joyous reflection upon the glory and majesty of Christ crucified, resurrected and ascended.
If you want to abide in Christ then spend large amounts of time in the Scriptures and spend great time speaking with Jesus. In the words of Brother Lawrence, practice the presence of Christ in everything you do. Keep your “soul’s eyes…on God, particularly when something is being done in the outside world…endeavor to stay as close as possible to God, doing, saying and thinking nothing that might displease Him.”
Remaining in Christ begins in these two things and as we practice these things then true fruit will be born in our life. The fruit of faithfulness and obedience will usher out of us. It is hard to be faithful to one whom you do not know or relate to daily. Imagine trying to be faithful to a spouse you never conversed with. In fact, that is one of the greatest reasons people end up in adulterous relationships, they quit communicating long ago, they forgot the story of their love and the same is true for the Christian, if we want to see the fruit of faithfulness in our life, we need to constantly immerse ourselves in the story and constantly communicate with our Lord.
And as we learn faithfulness, we will also learn obedience. We will begin to see in the word and hear in our heart the call of God to do such and such and to stop doing this and that. Abiding means following through on those commands and allowing our behavior to be changed and transformed, just like a husband quits throwing his clothes on the floor and instead places them in the hamper or a wife begins cleaning a room her husband asks her to. These are part of obedience, but they are also part of living in the same house and the same is true of living in Christ’s root.
But, remaining in Christ is more than just faithfulness and obedience. Remaining in Christ involves repentance, for it too produces repentance according the Christ: Matt. 3:8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The parable of the Tenants ties fruitfulness to this same theme of repentance and also incorporates the aspect of a changed life: Matt. 21:43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Remaining in Christ involves dying to oneself in order to come alive to God: John 12:24 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 many seeds. Remaining in Christ also involves serving others: John 13:15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
If you are here today and you do not know Jesus as a friend and savior. Begin by telling him you agree with his prognosis of your life. It is sinful, selfish and far from God’s desire to see holiness, righteousness, selflessness, obedience and faithfulness to name a few. Confess your sin to him and be forgiven and begin living in the garden of God where he tends, prunes and grows a harvest of righteousness. If you have been a believer for a long time and know God as your gardener, then my challenge is to move out of your individual centered life. Reading the word and praying to God and even obeying it are all very personal things, they can be done with or without the church but Jesus calls us to love and loving involves others. It involves a community. Step into someone else’s life in the body and share what God is teaching you, learn to pray with others in the vine and step outside and love those who don’t know the Gardener yet.
Faithfulness, obedience, submission, service, repentance, a changed life, and self-sacrifice are all aspects of what it means to remain in Christ and when these are happening we are truly not living for ourselves but for God and his kingdom and then the truth of the statement, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:7) will be realized. For when all of these things are at work in the life of a believer, personal and corporate, then we will no longer be asking what we desire but what the Father desires in tending his garden. And if we ask what God wants in tending his garden, then we can be assured of his answer to these prayers.
And it is precisely these answered prayers, which are the fruit Christ is referring to in this talk. For these answered prayers are referred to as bearing much fruit in the next verse, and it is these answered prayers that show that we are Christ’s disciples. When we remain in Christ, and truly live and love in community, we begin to be transformed in our minds and begin to think and act more like the one to whom we belong.
Have you ever noticed how older couples look and act the same, or how a person and their dog appear to have uncanny resemblances? This is because of constant interaction and it is what God wants for us. He wants to work in our life, to prune bad stuff and tend good stuff in order to see the fruit of Christ in our lives so that the Garden of God is a place of magnificent display for the glory and majesty of Christ, to whom belongs all glory!