Last year NPR reported on a nationwide study of loneliness in America. According to the survey, half of Americans experience significant loneliness. One of the most interesting findings of the survey was that loneliness increased with each successive generation – the youngest are the loneliest.
Our text provides some explanation for the loneliness so many of us feel and provides a solution for the experience.
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.
In this passage we see three principles related to our human experience: identity, fruitfulness and productivity.
The first thing we see is that you are not an island. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Many of us have been conditioned to see ourselves as self-contained, individual selves. In the words of Orson Welles:
We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone. -Orson Welles
Jesus taught a very different way of looking at our human identity. Ultimately, we are not individuals, but parts of a greater whole. We are branches, intimately connected to the vine we spring from and the other branches around us. Our identity is incomplete apart from the whole.
To understand ourselves and authentically express ourselves, we must see that we are parts of a body.
Not only do we need to recognize that we do not exist in isolation. We must understand our proper place in our connection with others. Jesus is the vine we are the branch. We are accustomed to seeing the world primarily through our own eyes. We are used to the idea that we are the point of reference, we are the center of things. Each of us is the center of our own universe. That is a great load, a heavy burden, for so small a thing.
The great cure the Bible offers us in the age of the individual is the reminder that we are not the center of the universe. It is not about you. From beginning to end, the Bible is meant to teach you and I that there is something much greater than us at the center of things, it is meant to turn our eyes to a center of gravity so weighty, so glorious that we instinctually move to the background. The weight of the world shifts from our shoulders to the one at the center.
This is what Jesus is teaching us in John 15.
“I am the center, you are the outgrowth of that center. I bear the weight. It is a happy thing to know that I am not the center.” It is a blessed relief to know that I don’t carry the weight of the world, but that I am being carried by the one who does. Have you learned that lesson? Are you carrying a heavy load this morning? Jesus has something to say to you:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
There are some people that are not anxious and isolated. They are joyful and seem to have great relationships. Others talk about them a great deal and it seems as if they have a significant impact in other people’s lives. Why are they like that? Is it a personality trait? Is it their upbringing? Do they have better circumstances than I do? Those factors may have something to do with it, but they are secondary. The primary reason is that they are abiding in Jesus.
Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit – John 15:5
Who is the one who bears much fruit? Who is the thick green branch covered with clumps of fruit? The one who abides in Jesus.
Why are some so fruitful? Because they have learned to make it a daily practice to abide in Jesus.
The gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ is not a one time experience for these people. It’s not the ABCs it is A-Z. Every day is a fresh reminder of how totally dependent we are upon the grace of God and every day is a fresh reminder of how willing God is to provide the grace we need in Jesus.
When you abide in Jesus you aren’t trying to prove yourself, you’re not trying to lift yourself by your own bootstraps, you’re not trying to justify your existence with accomplishments or possessions. You’re resting in the greatness of Jesus.
Why is that person across the aisle so joyful and Christ-like? Because they have learned where to go when life is hard and circumstances are stressful. It isn’t a screen or a bottle or a gym – it’s Jesus. They have learned that the best antidote for a stressed or restless heart is Jesus. It is prayer and meditation on His word.
Jesus has said positively that the fruitful one is the one who abides. He is going to address the same point negatively – for apart from me you can do nothing.
What does this mean?
Like nothing at all? Nothing as in nothing godly? Nothing of eternal value?
I think about my uncle Bobby. He is one of my favorite people on earth. He’s a great and faithful husband, a devoted father. He has been a model to me of a family man. Yet he does not follow Jesus. Does that mean he has done nothing?
The word nothing is also used in John 9:33, when a blind man who was healed is interrogated about Jesus. Responding to those who sought to undermine the authority and work of Jesus, the man replied:
If this man were not from God, he could do nothing
In both passages, the word nothing does not seem to be an absolute word. It is relative to the context. If Jesus did not come from God, he would have no authority or power to do any of the miraculous things he was doing.
What’s the context in John 15?
Remember our analogy. We are talking about agriculture, we are walking through a vineyard looking at a vine. A vine by its very nature has a clear purpose which is a byproduct of its nature; it bears fruit. The vine we see is there because someone wanted that byproduct.
We see branches filled with that byproduct, now we see a branch that has none. There is a branch whose leaves are yellow turning to brown. There is no fruit. Soon it will be cut off and burned. It has lost its connection to the vine. It can do nothing that is essential to its nature – it cannot produce fruit.
In the same way, a person who is not abiding in Christ can do nothing that is essential to its nature. We see the purpose essential to our nature in verse 8. We exist to bear spiritual fruit for the glory of God. Like grapes on a vine, that’s the fulfillment of our existence. But apart from an abiding connection with Jesus, it won’t happen. We’ll accomplish nothing.
It’s possible to be very busy as a member of a church, as a spouse, as a parent and in the end accomplish absolutely nothing.
Isn’t that a sobering thought? I think Jesus meant it to be. This passage is meant to startle us into rethinking our priorities.
Do you feel lonely? Do you feel anxious and burdened? Do you feel spiritually dry? Jesus is speaking to you – abide in me. The solution is not to try harder, to do more. The solution is to depend more on the flow of life that can only come from a constant connection to the life of Jesus.
What we have in this text is an invitation to rest in Jesus and find our true identity, a life that is fruitful and productive for eternity.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown