Message from Tim
Branches of the Vine
‘I am the vine. You are the branches,’ Jesus tells us in John 15:5. Hold that image in your mind for a moment. How much of a distinction can we draw between the vine and its branches? Clearly the vine has branches which can be detached from the vine, and if that happens, then the detached branch cannot bear fruit by itself. To that extent, a branch has no viable existence unless it remains part of the vine – hence Jesus’ injunction to us to remain in him: it is as we remain in him, that he remains in us.
As so often with John’s Gospel, these words can be taken in a number of ways. At one level, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and urging them to keep faith through the coming hours when he will be crucified and it will feel as if everything they have believed in has been stripped away from them. By extension we can hear Jesus speaking to us through these words, telling us not to give up, but to remain in him and to recognise that he remains in us. Our relationship with him is really important and each of us has a responsibility to maintain our end of the relationship through prayer, personal Bible study and discipleship so that we can continue to bear fruit for him. Without him, we will die.
But I also wonder whether, as John wrote these words, he envisaged their application to the church fellowship. Do we abide in the vine by abiding in the church? I don’t think I am being fanciful here. Jesus goes on to talk about abiding in his love and then says that we should love one another, and there is good reason to suppose that our love for each other within the church is part of the fruit he says that comes from abiding in him. That suggests to me that there is a communal dimension to his words.
So, does that mean then that we abide in Christ by abiding in the church? If so, then what form will that take for you? Clearly there is more to abiding in Christ and abiding in the church than pitching up at Brighton Road on a Sunday morning. But if we are not ready or able to return to church, then how will abiding in the church find expression in your life? How will you connect with others? Relationships are crucial. A twig which is not connected to a branch of the vine is not part of the vine. If that image applies to our relationships, then our connectedness to each other is another vital part of what it means for each one of us to abide in Christ. We cannot go it alone. Jesus makes that point when he warns us that apart from him, we can do nothing. Belonging to Christ and belonging to each other go hand in hand.
Not only does a branch bear fruit by sole virtue of its connection to the vine; the only reason the branch exists at all is because it belongs to the vine of which it is an integral part. Correspondingly, a vine does not exist independently of its branches. In the same way a church does not exist independently of its members. True, people may come and sometimes (sadly) go, but the church is not some abstract entity which exists apart from those who belong to it, to Christ and to each other.
Just as a vine is only fruitful to the extent that branches in the vine bear fruit, so the health of the church, the vibrancy of the church, the fruitfulness of the church can be measured only in terms of the health, the spiritual vibrancy and the fruitfulness of us as its members. We really are all in this together. That’s why I entitled this reflection, ‘Branches of the vine’, rather than, ‘Branches in the vine’. On Sunday mornings, we may, or may not, be ‘in church’. Church attendance plays an important part in belonging to Christ, but it is not, strictly speaking, essential. But can you belong to Christ without being part of the church? Can a branch exist unless it is part of the vine?