I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:1–8)
We once had a magnificent and luxuriant front garden. It wasn’t big (we were a small semi-detached house in Bristol) but it flourished. Long, hot summers were no problem and dry soil didn’t seem to affect it at all. The grass verges might turn beige, and the neighbour’s flowers wilt but our little patch kept on going. I’m not renowned for my green fingers (although I am a pretty good wielder of the lawn mower), but against all odds our cul-de-sac was graced by this flower bed.
How did we pull this off? Well, it turned out the water main was split near the front wall of the house. No need to water a garden which is already being watered from underneath! Before long a van was pulled up in front of the house, and the magnificent garden was dug up as the hunt for the leak took place. As the van eventually pulled away, we were just left with bare earth and a bill.
I’m no gardener, but I do know that soil matters. Good soil produces good plants, and arid soil produces little, except withered plants. In the end it’s what is under the ground which counts, and keen gardeners will happily shovel away with well-rotted manure. It’s true for plants and, Jesus teaches, it’s true for us to.
In today’s reading, Jesus asks us to consider from whence our nourishment comes. Where are you planted? What sort of soil feeds you spiritually and emotionally. What do you turn to for sustenance, and your understanding of the world? Ultimately, Jesus is saying that he himself is the only true source of life. We may be branches, but he is the vine which connects those branches to the soil and enables the fruit to grow. No connection, no fruit. No fruit and the branch is pruned away.
The question is, though: what does it mean to abide in Christ? It’s a nice image, but in practice how does it work?
When the Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome, he puts it this way: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2). Abiding in Christ is a matter of the mind, and of having that mind renewed. To go back to the image of the plant, it concerns that on which you feed your mind and what gives it nourishment. We are shaped by what we read, watch and hear - abiding in Christ is making sure you are shaped by him rather than whatever fads happen to be sweeping through society at a particular point in time.
If abiding in Christ means being fed by his words, then that of course means turning to the Gospels. Perhaps a chapter a day, or a section in the morning. Of course, we shouldn’t simply limit Christ to the Gospels but we should look to find his voice in the rest of the Bible. Some people like to read a section from the New Testament and a section from the Old Testament each day. There are many patterns of reading you might adopt, the point is that you pick up and read!
And then there is prayer, a conscious turning of the mind to God. You might keep lists of people, and group them by day, week and month. I’ve come across people who find an undated diary useful, and pray for people on their birthday or other significant anniversaries. The prayer itself might be said kneeling, sitting, standing or walking. Some pray silently, some out loud and others write prayers as if they were letters. Still others do all three at various times. There is a great liberty in praying to one who is closer than your very self - you don’t have to worry you wont be heard.
But what if you are dry? What if all this is becoming a rote chore? Here the Psalms can be of use, to read a Psalm and echo its petitions is a way of praying with scripture. The Lord’s Prayer itself is a matchless model for prayer, each line can form a mental heading for a list of requests. The prayers at the beginning of Paul’s letters give us a pattern for praying for others, or you might simply sit in silence and become aware of the presence of God.
The practice of abiding in Christ is a lifelong task, something which deepens and becomes more rich over time. Like all long journeys, it relies upon the first step. Even if that step is a small one. Over time it becomes embedded in the way we think, and the decisions we make are forged in the chamber of prayers. To abide in Christ is to have your will come into alignment with the divine will.
This is how the Christian bears fruit which glorify God. As Jesus says: “apart from me you can do nothing”. As Jesus warns: “if anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned”.
The soil of Christ is rich indeed. Christian - put down your roots!