John 15:1-8 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 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. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 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. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
I was sitting in someone’s office not so long ago when they started asking me about the church. I got all the normal questions from her that somebody might ask like, “So why’d you come to Aiken?” And, “How’s it going?” What surprised me is that the questions just kept coming. It didn’t take me long to figure out why. For her, this was more than just an attempt to care or innocent curiosity. She wanted to know what made us different… if we really had something. And why? Because she knew something was missing for her. She didn’t know what, but she knew it was something. She said, “I’ve been going to this church where the pastor is nice and he definitely preaches from the Bible, but I just feel empty. It’s been that way for a while.”
She’s not alone. When I sat down to write this sermon, I pulled up in my mind about eight people I knew like her. They know there is something right about our faith (And they want it!). They know that our faith speaks to something greater and definitely something healing (And they want that too!), but they’re not quite what that is. For them, all the promises of the eternal life, Jesus, God, new life, and transformation that they heard and fell in love with when they became Christians have been clouded.
I thought about those people when I began to write this first sermon in our new series called Words with Friends. They are the reason why Jesus gets so specific, insistent, and even drastic with the words he has to say to us, his friends. He can’t and he won’t have the sun of his promises hidden behind a cloud. Here’s the directive that he shared with his friends, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener… Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” (v. 1, 4) It’s really simple, isn’t it? Remain in me. That’s the directive. That’s what he’s commanding. That’s what he wants us to be after. And why? He says, “Because I am the vine and my Father is the gardener.” “Oh, and by the way,” Jesus also points out, “Just so we’re clear. I am the true vine.” Do you see his implication? He’s implying there are false vines. He’s saying there are good-looking options for nourishment that will only leave us empty, broken, and sad. Only Jesus is a true vine for us. So, in other words, if you want to be one of those Christians who is dripping with clusters of grapes, there is only one, true way forward. Discipleship is all about remaining in Jesus.
Don’t you find that fascinating - that whole remain idea? I know I do. You can’t do anything with remain. You really can’t. Grammarians even have a special word for this kind of verb. They call it intransitive ‘cause you can’t “do” anything with it. You can’t remain a basketball. You can dunk a basketball. You can pass a basketball. You can dribble a basketball, but you can’t remain a basketball. That’s more important to notice than you might think. It means that Jesus isn’t directing us to do much of anything here. There’s no arriving he’s recommending. There’s no getting up and doing what he’s saying here. What is there? There’s only staying. Remaining has little or nothing to do with activity.
You know what remaining is really all about? Remaining is just like real estate. It’s all about three things: location, location, location. If I tell you to remain, I’m obligated to somehow indicate where. I might point. I might gesture. I might verbalize it, but I will tell you where to remain. The location of remaining is so important that if I forget to tell you where to remain, then you might ask, “I get that you want me to remain, but can you please tell me where?” Do you see what I’m getting it? Remaining isn’t so much about doing anything. It’s about the location or the place where you are to remain. That is what Jesus is after. He’s not so much asking us to do anything as he is emphasizing a location - the only location where discipleship happens and where he wants us all to stay: himself.
Doesn’t that sound so - well - obvious? Doesn’t that sound like something Christians naturally appreciate and do? You might think so, but Jesus apparently didn’t. There’s a reason why Jesus here states this truth not once, but twice. There’s a reason why Jesus takes the time to develop a powerful, and delicious sounding metaphor about vines and grapes. There’s a reason why Jesus implies that we may well try finding a different vine when he says, “I’m the true vine… (By the way, there are lots of false ones).” Jesus apparently didn’t think this was obvious to us at all. Want to know why? There is at least a part of us that thinks this kind of discipleship is boring. That it lacks imagination. That it doesn’t have enough progression, and fight, and growth. You might even say, “Jesus, you want me to stay? What if I want to grow and fight and get out there for you? What if I want to take off the training wheels and do life without so much dependency?” The truth is that this kind of complete, life-long dependency or stay-put-ness is at least a little unexpected and maybe even a little off putting.
After all, nothing else really works this way. Birds get pushed out the nest. When my daughter grabbed the spoon a year ago and said, “I do myself.” I didn’t say, “No, honey, I want you to remain totally dependent on me. I’m going to feed you.” When my dad took the training wheels off my bike, he never put them back on even after some vicious cases of road burn. Don’t we have every right to think that spirituality works the same way? That it’s just like Star Wars. That we hear Master Yoda say, “Patience you must have, my young padawan,” as the reminder that we must learn now so that a time can come when we’ll be able to do everything for ourselves. That the goal is to graduate from the young Jedi stage of Christianity by learning to control our anger, beat back darkness, and channel our drives in all the right ways. And that once we do, we’ll be pulling out our spiritual light sabers, slaying all our inner foes, and fighting the good fight all by our powerful selves.
Some think it works just like that – that you enter Jesus’ program of discipleship with a graduation date in mind of when you get to walk the stage with your diploma. But we never do. Not ever. You know why? We don’t graduate from Jesus because there’s far too much wrong with us. You know what actually happens when you become a disciple? You start to see your spiritual issues more clearly. When a husband becomes a Christian husband, he goes from saying, “Why doesn’t she just let me watch my show in peace?” To saying, “What is so wrong with me that I’m annoyed right now at this incredible woman that God calls me to die for?” When an employee becomes a Christian employee he goes from going through the motions and trying to look as good as he can in the process to working his tail off no matter what. Along the way he begins to see how lazy and self-promoting he can be. It’s that way in every aspect of Christian life. Think about it. When you’ve been brought to love God, you also start to understand how badly you can stink at it.
Let me tell you a secret though – what discipleship really is. Discipleship is better understanding what a big Savior we’ve got – how much Jesus saved us from. I know it’s not often taught that way. It’s so often peddled as measuring your spiritual wins. It’s chalking up your victories and trying to minimize your defeats. It’s about employing the right strategies and trying to figure out our successes so we can replicate them. You know what that really is? It’s a Jesus-less approach to life. It’s a narcissistic version of discipleship that’s all about, “me.” Christian discipleship isn’t like that. Jesus doesn’t want us grabbing for our own victories. He wants us grabbing for his victory. Jesus doesn’t want us looking inward. He wants us looking outward. That’s why he didn’t say, “I can’t wait until you graduate from me.” That’s why he didn’t preach, “Once you’ve got your Christian certification you can move on.” Jesus doesn’t aim to be a mother bird pushing us out the gospel nest. He aims to keep us there. That’s why he said, “Remain in me.” “Stay right here.”
You know what I love just as much as what Jesus said here? When he said it. When he said it is arguably just as important as what he said. Jesus’ timing of his directive fills it to the hilt with meaning. Let me explain. We’re here in the very first verses of John chapter fifteen. You know how John chapter fourteen ends? It ends with Jesus saying, “Come now; let us leave.” (John 14:31) You know where he was going? He was heading to the Garden of Gethsemane. He was heading to Calvary. He was heading to the cross. He was heading to forever get salvation done. He was heading out to make the great trade: our sins for his perfection. So off he went. That’s when he said, “Remain in me.”
Do you see the significance of that? It tells us that Jesus wants us to remain in his life’s work and his achievements during it. In other words, he’s directing us to remain in the gospel. I think people do a pretty good job understanding half of what that means. I think most Christians understand that Jesus has taken their sins away: past, present, and future. I truly think that they generally get that half of the gospel. What they often don’t grasp is that that’s only half. They don’t grasp quite so well that Jesus’ life work wasn’t just to take. It was also to give. Jesus didn’t just remove. He also covered. Jesus didn’t just wash away. He also applied. That’s what the gospel teaches. Jesus’ life work removed sin, yes, but it also covered you in Christ’s righteousness. Jesus’ sacrifice washed away all guilt, yes, but it also applied the perfection of Jesus’ life to you. Jesus took iniquity, true, but he also gave his obedience and credited it to your account. Jesus became a sinner. You became a saint.
That’s the faith. That’s the truth that we’re to remain in. All. The. Time. We are honestly to stop and tell ourselves, “I can’t go up from here. It’s not possible. How can I get more perfection when God says I’m already perfect in Christ.” We’re to say, “I can’t possibly move from padawan to Jedi because in Christ I am already a master.” But don’t take my word for it. Take Jesus’ word. This is the thought he dropped right into the middle of this whole discussion. “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” (v. 3) The gospel makes you clean. And you can’t go from clean to more clean. You can go from dirty to clean, but not from clean to clean. You already are clean because Jesus says so. And we’re to stay right there with that thought. All. The. Time.
You know what happens when we do? That’s when we flourish. That’s when our branches just droop with grapes the size of Texas. It’s crazy. Because all the guilt is gone and all the pressure to perform is off, we can just do life for Jesus. It strikes me that Christians live life the same way planes get off the ground. You might think that if you want to get a 747 off the ground that what you really need to do push really hard upwards, but if you think that you’d be wrong. You know how you get a 747 off the ground? You move it forward with all the pressure off from above. That’s how Bernoulli’s principle works. That’s when the metaphorical wings start to rise off the ground. Or to say it how Jesus said it that’s when we bear lots and lots and lots of fruit for him.
It’s not rocket science, is it? It’s actually really simple. Refuse to graduate from the gospel. Refuse to get certified in Christ’s cross. Refuse to fly Jesus’ nest. Decide to stay. Decide to revel. Decide to remain. It works you know. Somebody came up to me recently pretty energized in the faith. It was really, really exciting to see. The person said, “This time I want to do it right. I want to be a Christian. I want to figure it out. I want to live for him.” It was just this awesome Holy Spirit driven thing. You know what I said to her? “I’m in. You know how you do that? Get to know Jesus even better.” Why did I say that? Because Jesus did. “I am the vine. You are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” Amen.