The Church: A Gnarled Mess

We’re a gnarly, messy bunch of branches. We didn’t earn the life Jesus fills us with, and we’ve still got a long way to go before we’re completely pruned. But God in His infinite love and power and mercy chose to graft us to Jesus so that we might abide in Him. And this invitation is open to all.

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Below is a transcript of a sermon I preached for Christopher Newport University’s Reformed University Fellowship chapter on John 15:1-11. Our series explored the different ways the Bible portrays the church. 

1 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. 3 You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself but must remain in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches; the one who remains in Me, and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not remain in Me, he is thrown away like a branch and dries up; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are 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 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. 9 Just as the Father has loved Me, I also have loved you; remain in My love. 10 If you keep My commandments, you will remain in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and remain in His love. 11 These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”

* * * 

This semester we’ve been looking into and thinking about the Church; what it is, who it is, why we love it, and how we are a part of it. We’ve seen the Bible tell us about the church in a lot of different ways: a building, a body, a bride, salt and light. Now, this week, we’re going to  see the church as branches attached to a vine. No, not like the video app Vine, but like a plant. Think grapes, or olives. That’s what we’re talking about tonight. 

If you have your Bible with you, keep it open to John 15. We’re going to be working through it a good bit and it’ll be helpful to read along with me. Before we dive in, though, let’s make sure we get a little bit of context on what’s happening in and around John 15. Jesus and His disciples (minus Judas who’s already left) have finished the last supper and are walking to the garden of Gethsemane along the mount of Olives. So as Jesus is walking, leading them through a vineyard, He’s teaching them about the church with analogies of vines and branches. I love how concrete and practical Jesus’ teaching was. 

As we move into our text, I have three parts I want to focus in on to highlight one main point. My main point is this: apart from Christ, there is no life. The church lives and grows and bears fruit by abiding in Christ. Here’s what we’ll be looking into. First, What is the fruit? What is this fruit Jesus is talking about? Second, what is the difference between pruning and being cut off? There’s a distinction we need to see there. Finally, what is the immense importance of abiding in Christ? What does that mean, why is it important? Those are our three focuses in our text. 

What is the fruit? 

So first, this question. What is the fruit? Jesus says in verse 1 “I am the true vine and My Father is the vinedresser.” Alright, so we know what this means in a literal sense. The fruit of a grape vine is…a grape. The fruit of an olive tree is an olive. Jesus, of course, is speaking in a proverbial sense, so how do we translate this? What is the fruit of a “Jesus” vine? Jesus has already answered this question in John, so let’s flip to John 6. We’re going to look at verses 28-29. Jesus is teaching the crowd and they want to know what the works of God are. Let’s read…

Then they said to Him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”

 So the work of God, the fruit of faith, the product of connection to Jesus, is to believe. It’s belief in Jesus. Now you might hear that and think to yourself, “Well that’s easy!” And perhaps in one sense it is, but I want to broaden your understanding of what the Bible means by belief here. Jesus isn’t saying that the only fruit is for you to have the right set of beliefs, the right “truth claims,” the right theology. The question here isn’t just “Do you believe in Jesus?” It’s “Do you believe Jesus?” Do you trust Him? Do you listen to Him? That’s a bit different, isn’t it? I know for me, I’ve grown up in the church my whole life and I’ve studied theology and philosophy so if I’m asked “Do you believe in the trinity?” It’s easy for me to say “Yes, of course.” But when Jesus asks me “Do you bless those who curse you? Do you love your enemies? Can you be patient with people who don’t listen to you? Can you trust me even when you’re deeply suffering unjustly?” I say “Oh….” That’s a bit harder. 

That’s what “Jesus fruit” is. It’s a faith that takes Jesus at His word. It’s belief and trust and obedience. Galatians 5:22 gives us a great picture of this; Paul lists these as the fruits of the Spirit. These aren’t suggestions. They’re fruit. Love people. Have joy. Be at peace. Be patient with people. Be kind. etc. They’re not metaphorical or hyper-spiritual. These are real, lived out practices that Christians must practice. If you’re a Christian, you have to show these. Right? This isn’t a question of ability or necessity, this is a matter of inevitability. If you are a fruit plant, you will produce fruit! You do produce fruit! You must, you can’t not produce fruit! Are you with me?

Think about a plant again: how much say does a grape vine have in whether or not it will produce fruit? What kind of choice does the plant have? None! It’s not a matter of choice or will or desire. That’s not what’s at play here. The criteria for whether the branch will produce grapes is whether the branch is healthy or not. And that leads into our second main focus here.

Pruning vs. Cut Off

Let’s go back to John 15, verse 2 “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.” So there’s two different kinds of branches—those that produce fruit and those that don’t—and God treats each branch according to its fruit production. Remember, God the Father is described as a vinedresser, a gardener. His goal is to grow the vine to make it beautiful, flourishing, complete. So He cuts off dead branches and He prunes the living ones that bear fruit. Jesus elaborates on this more, and He starts by talking about the church in verses 3-5. 

In verse 3 He says “You are already clean” Okay, what does that have to do with anything? Remember the context; Jesus and the disciples just finished the last supper, and that started with Jesus washing the disciples feet. Jesus says in John 13:10 “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean” What does He mean by that? He’s saying, “As My disciples, as people who follow Me and rely on Me for salvation and believe in Me, you are already clean! You have been washed by My blood, you have been declared righteous!” It’s a statement of justification. In Christ, you have been given the righteousness of God so when the Father sees you, He sees Jesus. In God’s eyes, you are blameless. You are perfect. You are clean. 

Yet, we still have dirty feet. This idea of cleaning feet gets at sanctification. Because the reality is, we are still humans living in this fallen world in these broken bodies. We can tie this into John 15. I’m producing fruit! It’s there! It’s…somewhere in there. Those grapes are pretty small, pretty dinky. If I’m a branch I’m pretty gnarly, so I need pruning. That’s what sanctification is—it’s a process of removing the bad and the harmful parts of me that are inhibiting good “Jesus fruit” from growing so that I can be more fruitful, more like Jesus. That’s what God is after. Growth. Life. 

And it hurts. Gosh dang it hurts! Because He’s cutting off parts of me that I really like! Parts of me that I think are funny or attractive, or even things that I know are wrong but I still find comfortable. Pruning is a painful process, like surgery. And you know, one of God’s most effective pruning tools is suffering.

Yikes. Did he really just say that? Yeah, I did. Pruning often involves a whole lot of suffering and it makes us more like Jesus. I’ve been talking to a lot of students recently about suffering, and I’ve been processing it a lot myself. One of my friends in RUF shared a blog recently, and in it she reflects on suffering and pruning. I think her words are super helpful, so let me read them to you…

Suffering has made me softer. That is, it’s molded my heart into the shape of compassion and empathy. It’s dried up my well of misplaced “theological” placating. Instead, there’s a river of “I’m so sorry”s, “I’m here”s, “I don’t know”s.

It’s emptied my hands of what I was literally dying to protect—pride, a false sense of security, fear, disappointment. It’s laid me bare. Exposed before others. Naked before the Lord.

And I’m better for it. I’m more me because of it. I know Jesus better through it. Suffering, I do not befriend you, but I do accept you. You have a place. Your purpose, though often unseen, is not wasted. 
So, I persevere. I hope. I cry. I dance. I laugh. 

Even here. Even now. In spite of it all. 
I pray you, whoever you are reading this, are granted the courage to do the same. To keep going.
Even here. Even now. In spite of it all. 

Even if pruning involves suffering, it’s at the hands of a loving and masterful gardener. He knows what He’s doing. He’s making you more beautiful, more fruitful. You can trust Him. 

So that’s the reality for us as believers: we produce fruit already, and God lovingly prunes us so we grow more fruit. But there’s a whole other side to this passage. We still have to talk about the branches that produce no fruit. I don’t want to linger too long on what verse 6 says about “burning,” but I have to acknowledge it. Jesus is talking about hell. That is the ultimate fate for branches that produce no fruit at all. Hell is not fun to talk about, but it’s real and it’s awful, and most importantly, it’s avoidable. Hell is avoidable, praise Jesus! That’s what we’ll talk about as we move on to our final focus tonight: abiding in Christ. 

Abiding in Christ

This is the core, the heart of what we’re talking about tonight. And just like “fruit” I want to make sure we know what we’re talking about here. How does Jesus define “abiding in Him”? Look to verse 4: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” What does it mean for a branch to abide in the vine, or the trunk, or the root? It means to be connected to, to draw life from, to grow out of. As intimately and organically and essentially as branches are connected to plants, that is how deeply Christians are to abide in Christ. Abiding in Christ means to be connected to our source of life. 

That’s how dire this matter is, life and death. Why do the cut off branches produce no fruit? Because they’re already dead! God’s criteria for cutting off a branch isn’t based off of the lack of fruit, it’s based on the fact that the branch is already dead, and the lack of fruit just proves that! Read verse 5 with me: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” On the flip side, we have verse 8 “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” Fruit is proof of life. Life yields fruit. Death yields nothing. Apart from Christ there is no life. 

Which branch are you? Are you yielding fruit? Does the life of Christ flow into you? Do you believe in Jesus? If you do, it’s not because of your own effort. Because the reality of the gospel is that at one point, we all were dead branches. At one time we didn’t work the works of God, we couldn’t believe, we couldn’t yield fruit because we were dead in our sin. And dead branches can’t reattach themselves to the vine. Some people think that in order to get right with God, they have to get their life together and be better people and grow their own fruit. Do you see how ridiculous and impossible that is? That’s the total reverse of the gospel! That’s a dead branch “trying” to grow fruit, and that’s literally impossible. Apart from Christ, you cannot possibly grow “Jesus fruit.” Fruit doesn’t earn life, it’s a product of life. 

The miracle of the gospel is that God can take dead branches and graft them to the true Vine, and that life can once again flow into the dead, rotting tissue; Jesus can restore dead branches to full life, so much so that they begin to grow the vine’s own fruit. It’s resurrection. It’s restoration. That’s what God does for His people. That is what the church is, yall. Once dead branches, grafted to the true vine, now alive and bearing fruit. We’re a gnarly, messy bunch of branches. We didn’t earn the life Jesus fills us with, and we’ve still got a long way to go before we’re completely pruned. But God in His infinite love and power and mercy chose to graft us to Jesus so that we might abide in Him. And this invitation is open to all. God offers you life. He offers to abide in you and for you to abide in Him. He offers to grow His fruit of love and joy and peace in you, and He promises to prune you, too. 

Apart from Christ, there is no life. Abide in Christ, and the love and joy and life of God will bring you to life. Look to the Gardener, ask Him to graft you to the true Vine. 

1 comments on “The Church: A Gnarled Mess”

  1. Pat.

    I just finished reading this and think it is excellent. I don’t know if you have used it before or if ou will use it at RUF this weekend but I’m sure it will be well received. Hope you have a wonderful weekend.

    Love you,




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