I am a professional. It’s all about productivity. Another book. Another blog post. Another journal article. Another sermon or wedding or funeral or bible lesson or speaking engagement. I’m always thinking about the next thing: coming up with ideas, writing sentences in my head, sometimes losing sleep because I can’t turn off my brain. That’s the kind of fruitful endeavor I’m good at, the kind I’m accustomed to, the kind I spend hours at nearly every day of every week.
I’m not so good, though, at abiding. Pity, too — because if you read carefully what Jesus says in John 15, you’ll notice that he doesn’t command his disciples to bear fruit. He commands them to abide, to remain in him as branches remain in the vine from which they draw their life and vitality.
And as he warns his disciples, though they will have much to do once he’s gone, they can’t do anything apart from him (John 15:5).
As I’ve said before, some of what Jesus says in this passage sounds like a threat: If you don’t produce fruit, my Father the gardener is going to cut you off like a useless branch and throw you on the fire! And if we consider the ancient references to Israel as the vine that God planted and then abandoned or punished for its disobedience and lack of proper fruit, such a reading is understandable. Make no mistake: God wants fruit, and he will have it.
But I suspect that we also hear those words through the filter of a works-oriented righteousness that still plagues the church. And when that happens, we miss the gracious invitation that Jesus extends.
He is speaking, after all, to those who have already been pruned and cleansed by their receipt of the gospel (John 15:3), those who are destined to do even greater works than Jesus himself (14:12). He has promised to come to them (14:18) and to send them the Holy Spirit (14:26). He has given them his peace (14:27). And when he commands them to abide in him, he does it this way: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (15:4, NRSV). The gracious initiative, in other words, rests with Jesus, and the disciples are called to an appropriate response.
So, yes, Jesus says that the Father wants the branches to bear fruit. Yes, he suggests that fruitless branches will be cut away, discarded, and burned. But the message is not, Get your act together or face the consequences! There is a warning here, to be sure, but one designed to get his followers to realize the truth of who they are.
Think of it this way. Imagine someone says to you, “Do you realize that if you don’t eat, you will die?” Well, duh, you might respond. Everybody knows that.
But now imagine that the person speaking is Jesus. He says to you, “Do you realize that I am the vine, and the truth of who you are is that you are one of my branches? Your life is in me. Not in your own efforts and abilities. Not in whatever success you strive for on your own, even if you think you’re doing it for my sake. Quite simply, if you don’t abide in me, you will wither and die. So abide in me. Let my word abide in you. And be fruitful in the way that God made you to be.”
This, I believe, is why it is still important for Christians to observe some form of Sabbath rest. Jesus reinterpreted the Sabbath in a way that angered the scribes and Pharisees, but he did not flatly abrogate it. What we need is to recover some regular practice of abiding, whatever it may be. God commanded us to be fruitful — but that doesn’t mean running around being busy for God and neglecting the command to rest.
We are made to produce fruit. That is the truth of who we are. But apart from the vine, we can do nothing. Jesus seems to think that abiding should be the first thing on the agenda, and that when we do that, the fruit will follow.
Maybe, just maybe, he knows what he’s talking about?