Knowing the Gardener was a look at the "big picture" distinguishing God’s intent for Christian creation care from the rest of environmentalism.
But I must tell you friends, there’s a huge pitfall out there to avoid. It’s a pit God’s been tirelessly digging me out of for some time now. Paul points to it in Romans 8:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit… [Rom 8:1, KJV]
Salvation through Christ awakens us to a whole new perspective on creation care. But if we’re going to do anything fruitful for the planet in this new life our doing must be in the Spirit, not after our flesh.
But let me back up a bit… (click more to read on)
I COULD NOT get why I felt so completely condemned.
At 36,000 feet the textured fabric of the seatback in front of me pressed into my forehead. My hands cupped my face as my elbows leaned on the tray table holding my Bible. The tears were flowing. I must have been a strange sight to the guy next to me. As soon as the wheels were up on the flight to my Dad’s place out west I was leaned over this way, reading and re-reading Romans 8 as my pastor suggested.
I didn’t know what else to do. After almost two decades of trying to be a "scriptural" husband and Christian and father, all three relationships were on life support, if not already dead.
The specifics of what God has done with me over that 6 hour flight and in the three months or so since then are intensly personal. But I can say that when He finally got through to me He not only restored these relationships but made them flourish.
A great word – flourish. Brings to mind flowering and fruitfulness. Think of an alpine hillside covered with every color of flax and flowers and berries.
Or a vineyard.
John’s 15th chapter unpacks in vivid detail what The Gardener has done in my life lately. With your permission I’d like to walk through this passage and share some thoughts about abiding and fruit bearing.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (v. 1-3)
First Jesus lays out who’s who.
Jesus is The Vine.
God is The Gardener.
We are The Branches.
The vine gives structure to the plant. It’s gnarled, woody strength holds up the branches and the fruit and connects them to the roots so they can grow. That’s pretty humble for the Son of God to say about Himself, isn’t it? Pretty important too.
The gardener comes along and trims unfruitful branches from the vine. Growing fruitless branches saps energy and nutrients needed to grow grapes. The branches that are growing grapes are trimmed to make even more and jucier grapes. These particular "clean" branches were personally selected by the gardener to get the right sorts of fruit he needs.
Couple thoughts: Ever see fruit grow directly from a vine? Nope. Branches need the vine to grow, but the vine can’t make grapes without the branches either. Don’t miss that: Both we and Christ are instrumental to God’s fruitbearing.
Because of this God takes our fruitfulness personally. If we’re facing troubles right about now, chances are God’s either removing fruitless things from our lives or trimming fruitful areas to make them even more fruitful.
Oh – and what control does the branch have over the kinds of grapes it yields anyway? Very little if you think about it. It’s destined to grow a particular variety of grapes by whatever sort of branch it is, and the sort of grapes that grow are influenced by the condition of the soil, and by how much sun and water they get. If you’re like me you probably worry an awful lot about what kinds of fruit you’re producing or what’s going on in nearby branches. The fruit we bear is what God’s already decided He wants. Being the gardener, that’s his prerogative.
Whether we bear fruit or not – ah, now that ball is fully in our court. Check this out:
Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (v. 4-6)
Here’s what finally clicked – this "remaining" stuff. Other translations of the Greek use "abiding." (Check out the lexicon.) Abiding is just plugging in, hanging out, remaining consistent, waiting, and staying present. A branch that is connected to the vine gets water and rich nutrients that come up from the soil. It doesn’t take long for a branch that’s disconnected from the vine to wither and die, only useful for a campfire and nothing else.
There’s not a lot of "doing" here, friends. We can do all sorts of biblically/christiany stuff but if we’re doing it in our own strength (Paul would say "after the flesh") we’re like dead branches on the ground trying to grow grapes. Just doesn’t work. Christians "get" that we’re born by His Spirit. We don’t always get that we’re also supposed to live by His Spirit.
It took lots of pruning for me to get that. I can say with every ounce of conviction that God’s done a miracle for me. The amazing thing is I didn’t make any real change except to just start connecting to Him. Condemnation was replaced with joy that continues to spread into every area of my life.
By the way, some theologians say a whole person’s salvation is at stake here. Others just particular areas of our lives. But there is no doubt that abiding is life or death business and God takes it seriously.
We should too. When Jesus asks us to remain He implies that the decision to stick around is ours alone to make. He never forces us to remain. The good news is that The Gardener is also an expert at grafting branches back into the vine. If there’s any possibility that you’re on the ground and drying out – part or all of you – don’t let today go by without spending time abiding with Him. That just means getting alone for some time in prayer and reading the Bible (John 15 is an excellent place to start) and some other things I’ll cover in a bit.
Finding a great local church is important too. A grapevine with only one branch on it can’t bear much (if any) fruit. All of those hundreds of branches and their leaves interleave to support one another and their grape flowers cross-polinate one another. Most grapes have seeds in them by which more vineyards can be planted. The vine’s intent is to share nutrients between many branches. Otherwise it would just be a grape plant instead of grapevine.
Which leads us to this interesting passage:
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (v 7-8)
Branches enjoy an important exchange with the vine. Plant biologists call this transport. It’s the movement of water and nutrients up through the trunk (vine, etc) to the branches, and the movement of the products of photosynthesis (sugars, etc) from the leaves back down through the branches and trunk all the way to the roots.
Look at the exchange Jesus is talking about here:
"If you remain in Me…" Obviously only branches that are connected to the vine participate in this exchange.
"And My words remain in you…" If you are healthy and growing on the water and nutrients provided by the vine, then:
"Ask whatever you wish and it will be given…" The vine will be readily receptive to what you provide.
This is astonishing! We often boil this passage down to the sort of thing that happens between a nervous (but hopefully not-too-naughty) kid and a department store Santa Clause. But it’s not like that at all.
It’s not just an exchange of information, but of the very forces of life itself.
Knowing that Christ knows exactly what sorts of things go on within leaves and branches and vines and roots, I’m floored by all the intimacy and inter-dependence He’s calling for here. As we remain connected to Him, He nourishes us and our life is made readily available to Him, and the whole vine flourishes as a result.
What’s more, when the whole vineyard is full of flourishing vines, the gardener has armloads of fruit from which he can make world-class wines or world-famous table grapes that make his name and his estate renouned and respected.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (v 9-12)
In plants, the right amount of sunlight and water and fertilizer create spectacular growth. His abundant love causes the same thing in us. It’s what has transformed the brittle dryness of my life into green suppleness and fruitfulness.
Now as I suggested earlier, there is a bit more to abiding. In this case there is some measure of do-ing to. There is a command we have to obey and follow to make this abiding take place. But note that the command is not to bear fruit. The commands are to "remain in My love" and to "Love each other as I have loved you." Sound familiar?
This exchange of love is not just a feeling, but rather an automatic, almost organic – and certainly life giving – flow of love from branches to vine, vine to branches, and among the branches – that happens when we abide. Spiritually healthy people full of love are going to bear fruit because that’s how the Gardener created the branches to work.
Doing is never apart from abiding. To abide is to give of ourselves with the purpose of connecting with and loving Him and one another.
Oh, and there’s joy in this too. Do you know crabby Christians doing a bunch of christiany things? I know one of those pretty well because that’s me more often than I’d like. A good indicator of how connected I am these days is whether there is complete joy accompanying the fruit I’m producing. If there isn’t any, it’s always because I’m operating (as Paul sez) in the flesh and not the Spirit. My flesh, branch, whatever, demands instant results on my terms.
The Gardener wants me simply to abide while He prunes that distracting flesh stuff away so fruit will grow in the seasons He has established.
I would imagine there is more to unpack here but hopefully I got your spiritual juices flowing. And for those of you who have been, thank you for praying for me and mine these past several months.
It has, without doubt, yielded much fruit.
[Don’s other habitat is The Evangelical Ecologist at www.evaneco.com]