15. The True Vine (John 15)
“The figure of a vine and its branches is perhaps the best illustration of
the intimate union between Christ and his followers. That of the shepherd and
sheep gives us the thought of intimacy, but it is that between a guardian, who
is of a superior order, and creatures of an inferior grade whom he watches over
and protects. That of a husband and wife gives the idea of intimacy and union
between two beings of the same order, but they are two persons with independent
lives, and one of them lives on though the other one has died. That of the head
and members illustrates one life common to the whole body, but it falls short in
not being able to express the constant putting forth of new growths” (R.
Wright, “The True Vine”, The Dawn Ecclesial Magazine, Vol.
22, No. 3 — March 1961 — p. 65).The picture of the vine — as our brother
says, the best illustration of our intimate union with Christ — can teach
us something about Biblical fellowship. Christ’s words are simple yet
profound: “I am the true vine” (v. 1). It is significant that our
Lord does not say, “I am the stem, and ye are the
branches” (cp. v. 5). Rather, the whole plant is Christ, and we as the
branches are a part of the whole — not just attached to Christ, but
part of Christ! Such an expressive statement gives sledge-hammer force to
the warning of Christ in Matthew 25:40,45:
“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of
these my brethren, ye have done it unto ME.”
We should be extremely reluctant to cut off our brethren, and
no better reason can be given than this: that through lack of love and patience
we may find ourselves cutting off Christ! This is analogous to the
comical picture of the man in the tree who is so busy pruning that he
inadvertently saws off the limb on which he is sitting. Comical indeed,
naturally speaking; but the spiritual counterpart is a great tragedy. How many
lives have been blighted by what in the beginning was an earnest (if
misdirected) zeal for “purity”, but the outcome was the separation
of the zealous remnant from any hope of nourishment that it could have received
through the remainder of the vine! Children in the separated families have found
this self-imposed isolation spiritually withering; their links with a healthy
ecclesial life were never fused; when grown they drift away in far greater
numbers than their counterparts in the “loose” ecclesias from which
their parents withdrew!
Christ continues: “My Father is the husbandman. Every
branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away” (vv. 1,2). In
this analogy the “branches” are pruned only by the Father.
This is not to deny, of course, the Scriptural duty of ecclesias in extreme
situations to take the initiative and to “purge out the old leaven”.
However, as has been seen previously (Chapter 13), we all too often lose sight
of the fact that usually it is better for the faithful ecclesial to wait until
the Father, in His providence and infinite wisdom, severs the diseased or dead
branches from its midst. (Compare also the lesson of the seven
“stars” in Revelation 1:16 — see Chapter 6.)
The central exhortation of Christ’s parable in John 15
is found in v. 4: “Abide in me.” Each branch must abide in
the vine in order to bring forth fruit. If for any reason it is severed, the
branch may continue in existence for a time — but in the day of reckoning
the “husbandman” will gather it together with the other lifeless
sticks and cast them into the fire of eternal destruction (v. 6).
All of the emphasis here is upon our duty, our necessity, to
attach ourselves solidly to the true vine, and never to relinquish our grasp. A
dog with a bone was crossing a bridge one day, when he chanced to glance down
and spy his reflection in the water. Thinking this to be another dog, and a
rival claimant for his bone, he bared his teeth and let out a growl and a
ferocious bark. Unfortunately, in the process he dropped his bone, which sank
irretrievably to the bottom of the stream.
Like that dog, we sometimes forget who our real enemy is, and
in giving our attention to fighting a supposed enemy we may lose our grip on the
prize. Christ has wisely advised us to hold firm to our hope, and not to
worry too much whether someone else should have a right to that same
hope. Unlike the dog’s bone, there is food enough for all in Christ; the
“branches” need not squabble among themselves.
This teaching, of what should be our proper attitude toward
our fellow “branches”, is emphasized further in v. 16. Christ says,
“Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” The one who
chooses is the one who holds the right subsequently to refuse!
What a sad and confusing spectacle we have today in the
ecclesial world: a host of “independent” branches, each one
jealously pruning away whole branches and grafting other branches back in their
place, as if to say, ‘We alone are the people, and wisdom will die
with us.’ (In fact, some of these smaller communities are near extinction
because of continuous division and subdivision in pursuit of that elusive
“purity”.) But all the while — since the fundamental beliefs
of each “branch” are sound — they are all attached to
the One Vine (though some “branches” imply by their rhetoric that
their rivals are really attached to “brambles”).
Let us return to the wholesome picture of the true vine. In
this ecclesial network it is our business, wherever we may be, to send out new
shoots, to grow and consolidate — so that others through us may receive
sustenance from Christ the one vine. Practically speaking, we must endeavor
always to strengthen our bonds with brethren in our local ecclesia, with
brethren in isolation, with other ecclesias near and far. The vine of the Truth
must be an intricately woven web of spiritual relationships, through all of
which flows life from Christ! We must not be afraid thus to send our more
“feelers” and bind ourselves closer and closer together with our
brethren. The more we seek to be “one” with our brethren, both in
joys and sorrows, the healthier will be our attitude toward fellowship. Where
true love exists, misunderstandings and suspicions will be much less frequent.
We may still periodically have to remove “dead” or destructive
members from our midst, but if we are living up to this standard it will be a
truly painful experience — as it should be! It will not be something that
affords us a secret pleasure in the contemplation of our own
“superiority”. A full appreciation of our interdependent
relationship with all our brethren will serve as a necessary check upon
the traditional divisive tendencies of Christadelphia.