Preached at Christ Church, Abingdon
19th July 2015: 7th Sunday after Trinity
O Lord, our glorious, loving and holy God, we thank you that you are a God who speaks and who has given us in your Son a living Word who points us to You and that reality which words cannot express: your unfathomable, great and jealous love for all that you have made. Send your Holy Spirit among us now, we pray, to reveal yourself to our hearts in the person of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, and by the same Spirit, unite us with Him that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. Amen.
What is salvation? Salvation is one of those churchy words that we don’t really use much in everyday life, unless it’s to talk about a new football manager being appointed to a club in trouble. In this sermon series, which we’re concluding tonight, we’ve been working our way through the seven “I am” sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel and looking at what they tell us about Jesus the Saviour and the salvation that is to be found in Him. In each, Jesus reveals a slightly different nuance of who He is and what He’s about.
Tonight we’ll be digging into Jesus’ description of Himself as the True Vine and we’ll be thinking about what that image tells us about the kind of Saviour Jesus is and what it means for us to be saved by a Saviour like Jesus. What we see emerging from this extended figure of speech that Jesus uses here in John 15 is that salvation is incorporation. And there are three elements of this that I want to draw out for us this evening:
- Salvation is incorporation into the Saviour; that it involves a personal relationship with Jesus.
- Salvation is incorporation into the Saviour’s work; that it involves us in what Jesus is about.
- Salvation is incorporation into the Saviour’s community; that it involves us with everyone else in relationship with Jesus.
That’s where we’re going, but before we get there I just want to step back a bit to think about what it is Jesus is actually saying when He says, “I am the true vine.” First, let’s reflect on those two small words with which Jesus begins: “I am the true vine.” Earlier on in the series, Keith called our minds back to Exodus 3 when God met with Moses in the burning bush revealed His name as: “I AM WHO I AM.” He explained how these words on Jesus’ lips are a claim to His divinity, to His unity with the Father. But I want to think about something much more mundane than that. I want to think for a moment about what it is that any of us are doing when we begin a sentence, “I am…”
As I’m sure we all learned at school, every complete sentence has two parts to it: there’s the subject (who or what the sentence is about) and there’s the predicate, which tells us about the subject (such as what it’s like or what it does). When Jose Mourinho first arrived as Chelsea manager back in 2004, he caused quite a stir when he announced to the gathered media, “I am a special one.” He himself was the subject of that sentence and what he wanted us to know was that he was special (or at least, he thought he was special—I’ll let you judge for yourselves the content of his claim!). But the important thing is this: every time we use the words “I am…” we shed light on who we are and what we’re about. If I am the subject, then the predicate always reveals something of myself to another.
In our case, then, the subject is Jesus, speaking about Himself. And in one sense, of course, that’s not particularly interesting. We speak about ourselves all the time. Yet what makes the “I am” sayings of Jesus so special is the One who is the subject of this self-disclosure. For the One who’s doing the revealing is the One whom the apostle Paul says in Colossians 1:15 is “the image of the invisible God”; the One whom the author of the letter to the Hebrews describes as “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3); the One whom the prologue to this very Gospel says makes known the God whom no one has ever seen (John 1:18).
We often come to these “I am” sayings of Jesus so flippantly, with such familiarity that we fail to recognise the riches of what’s right in front of us. This is God revealing God’s self to us. In Jesus, God condescends to make Himself the subject of our enquiry. We really ought to marvel in wonder at the grace of a God who would stoop so low as to be known by finite beings like us. And just look at how He does it. Jesus takes a simple, ordinary, everyday image like a vine to communicate His truth to us. God doesn’t stand before us and lecture us with technical, theological jargon we don’t understand. Rather, as Martin Luther once said: when God speaks to humanity, God always speaks in baby talk. God doesn’t send Jesus into a seminar room at Oxford University, He sends Him into the crèche.
Time and time again Jesus does this in the Gospels, especially when He’s telling parables about the Kingdom. He uses the mundane to illustrate the sublime, the earthly to illuminate the heavenly. And this is the nature of the man Himself, for He is the One in whom Him heaven and earth meet. This is the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith: that God has freely chosen to reveal Himself to the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Every “I am” saying of Jesus, therefore, is a reminder that we don’t climb up the ladder to find God, but that He in His grace scrambles down the ladder to find us. If we are to know anything about who God is and what God looks like, we are dependent on Him to show it to us, and He chooses to do that through Jesus.
“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” If Jesus is the subject, what does this predicate say about Him? Why a vine? Why not a pair of trousers? Well, for a start, trousers weren’t really the fashion in first century Palestine. Vines, however, were. In the ancient Mediterranean world, the vine was one of the three most familiar trees of the region, along with the olive tree and the fig tree. Vines were grown all over Palestine, as indeed they still are today. Jesus could speak in this extended metaphor because He knew people would know what He was talking about. It was baby talk.
It’s a bit different for us here in England. When I think of vines, I think of a vineyard we visited up in Yorkshire a couple of years ago. If you’re sitting there thinking, “I didn’t think you could grow grapes up in Yorkshire,” you’d be dead right. It was a disaster. It was windy, cold and wet, but did they cancel the tour? No, of course not, because it soon became apparent that they certainly we’re making any money from wine, and most disappointing of all, there were no samples at the end of the tour. All that’s just to say that the horticultural image of the vine probably doesn’t mean as much to us here and now as it did there and then to those first disciples. But perhaps things are different here in sunny Abingdon? I don’t know.
And yet there is more to Jesus’ use of this metaphor than the familiarity of the vine in the local countryside. By speaking of Himself as a vine, Jesus was tapping into a rich vein of Old Testament imagery. In several places in the Old Testament, Israel was referred to as God’s vineyard. Psalm 80:8-11 says:
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches.
It sent out its branches to the sea
and its shoots to the River.
The vine was a symbol of the nation. It was even used on Maccabean coinage in the years before the Roman occupation. Thus for Jesus to say not only that he was the vine, but that He was the true vine, was for Him to claim that He fulfils the role of Israel, that He is the true representative of God’s people in the world.
Particularly significant (given the context of Jesus saying this as He bids farewell to His disciples), Jesus here is claiming to bear fruit through a new people of God formed in Him. The image of the vine and the branches is used to signify a certain kind of relationship. It speaks of dependence, of mutuality, of an organic union between the people of God and the God who saves them. Salvation is incorporation. And first of all, it is incorporation into the Saviour. “Remain in me, as I also remain in you,” says Jesus in v. 4. μείνατε ἐν ἐμοί. The Greek implies a sense of deep and lasting intimacy, which Eugene Peterson draws out wonderfully in The Message: “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.”
Salvation means incorporation into the Saviour. Jesus uses the word “abide” 11 times in these verses. He uses the words “in me” or “in my” a further 8 times. That’s significant. John Stott rightly points out that the commonest way of describing a follower of Jesus in the Bible is to say that he or she is a person “in Christ”. The apostle Paul uses the term “in Christ” (ἐν Χριστῷ) as a synonym for Christian (which itself is used only 3 times). The words “in Christ” (or their equivalent) appear 216 times in Paul’s letters. They occur a further 26 times in the Gospel and letters of John. Theologian Paul Murray claimed that, “nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ.” He argued that union with Christ is “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”
We see this in Romans 6:3, for instance, when Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” Later on in the same passage Paul says: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Through faith and baptism, we are brought into Christ; we are identified with Him and made participants of His death and resurrection. In business, a corporation is a company or group of people who are legally authorized to act as a single entity or person. Incorporation literally means to be formed or united into one body. That is what Jesus is talking about here in John 15. By calling Himself the vine, Jesus reveals a salvation that means participating in Him.
“I am the vine; you are the branches,” Jesus says in v. 5. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” If you’ve ever spent ages trying to figure out why some electrical device wasn’t working only to find out later that it wasn’t actually plugged in, you’ll understand what Jesus is talking about. Salvation means being plugged into the Saviour. It implies a living connection between Christ and the believer. And in vv. 7-10 we get an idea of how this living connection is to be maintained: by remaining in Christ’s word, by prayer in Christ’s name (that is, in line with what He represents), and by obedience to Christ in both. Incorporation into Christ means conformity to Christ and what Christ’s about.
Salvation is incorporation into the Saviour, but it’s also incorporation into the Saviour’s work. So that’s the next question, isn’t it? What is the Saviour’s work? Again, the image of the vine and the branches tells us all we need to know:
“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.” (v. 2)
“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” (v. 4)
“If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” (v. 5)
“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit.” (v. 8)
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.” (v. 16)
You tell me: what do you think the work of Jesus the True Vine is? To bear fruit! That is why a vine exists. That is its raison d’être (perhaps its raisin d’être!). So if the mission of a vine is to produce grapes, the mission of the branches is the same. Indeed, the branches bear the vine’s fruit.
It’s no accident, I don’t think, that Jesus’ first recorded miracle (or “sign”) in John’s Gospel is turning water into wine, and that His last “I am” saying is: “I am the true vine.” In a sense, they act as bookends to Jesus’ ministry telling us what it’s all about: bringing joy and fullness of life, filling our cup till it overflows, inaugurating the end-time party to end all parties. That’s what Jesus is about. And the picture Jesus paints of the vine and the branches tells us that if we’re in Him, that’s what we should be about too. In fact, it goes further still. It says that we are to be the means by which Christ blesses the world; we are, if you like, to be the delivery mechanism.
We often have far too limited a sense of what salvation is. We tend to think of it as having our sins forgiven so that we can go to heaven when we die. But that’s not what the Bible means by salvation. That might be part of it; but it’s too self-centred, too individualistic, and frankly, far too small. A more biblical vision of salvation is our getting hooked up with God, swept up into the great tidal wave of God’s loving move towards His creation. Theologian Will Willimon writes: “Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation.” Salvation is the invitation to share the Saviour’s life, and by extension, the Saviour’s ministry. Ultimately, therefore, salvation isn’t about us; it’s about God and God’s purposes being accomplished in and through us.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is even better than we dare to imagine: we are not saved from this world for another; we are saved by Christ to be Christ’s agents of transformation of it. To be saved by Jesus means to be sent by Jesus: “I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit,” (v. 16). Friendship makes demands upon us. Friendship with Jesus is no different. Incorporation into Christ the Saviour, therefore, means incorporation into Christ the Saviour’s work. His work is our work. By the grace of God in Christ who calls us His friends, we are made, in the words of Paul, “co-workers with God” (1 Corinthians 3:9).
Once we realise that being saved by Jesus means far more than having a personal relationship with Him, we are prepared to see that salvation in Jesus Christ is social. Salvation is incorporation into the Saviour’s community. In other words, Jesus’ mission isn’t merely to bear fruit through a number of individual branches, but to bear fruit through branches that are all united one to another through the one vine. This community-forming dimension of Jesus the Saviour isn’t an optional extra; it is an intrinsic part of the salvation He came to bring. If we look at vv. 12-17, we see that Jesus’ chief concern there is with the formation of the new people of God who bring God’s blessings to the world by being a community of love.
It is in community, in the Church, that we practice salvation. This, in itself, is missional. Back in John 13:35, Jesus says: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The church historian Tertullian imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, “See … how they love one another; and how they are ready to die for each other.” The quality of our fruit is tied to the quality of our community. As you go to a vine to find grapes, so ought the world be able to go to the Church and find Christ. Commentator Andrew Lincoln writes: “The result of the relationship to Jesus is to be fruit-bearing and that entails his followers’ love for one another … The union between Jesus and his disciples is to result in a community of love that has its source and model in the love which Jesus demonstrates.”
As I was preparing this sermon in the week, I was struggling to find an illustration that might adequately capture what it is Jesus is saying here. Then it dawned on me. I didn’t have to find one. We already have one: it’s called Holy Communion. This simple act of meal encapsulates everything I’ve been trying to say. Jesus says earlier on in John’s Gospel: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them” (John 6:56). As we receive bread and wine, we accept Christ’s identification with us in dying on our behalf and we seek to participate in the movement of Christ’s risen life towards the Father. What’s more, as we receive bread and wine, we have to eat with anyone Christ calls to His feast; we are sat around the table with everyone else who is “in Christ”—a family we would never have chosen for ourselves.
But there’s also one final reason why the meal Jesus gave us is such a perfect sign of His salvation: because having been fed and watered, we’re sent out again on a mission to bear fruit for the world. William Barclay writes: “When a knight came to the court of King Arthur, he did not come to spend the rest of his days in knightly feasting and in knightly fellowship there. He came to the king saying: “Send me out on some great task which I can do for chivalry and for you.”” The purpose of our communion with Christ is to go into the world, but it is only through our communion with Christ and our communion with Christ through one another that we have something to offer the world. Nemo dat quod non habet. You can’t give what you don’t have. Or, as Jesus Himself says in v. 5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.