A Meditation on John 15:1-11
Like love and marriage, horse and carriage, Christian faith and Christian life go together. Both are important. Both are essential.
As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you [be fruitful, productive] unless you abide in me.
(Note John 15:1-8).
Faith and life are like the way the branch is part of the vine: Christian faith is "life in Christ," an integral, living relationship. But Christian living is evidence of that faith in the fruit which the branch bears.
Christian faith and Christian life. Both are necessary. And yet we are continually trying to separate them.
Christian Life without Christian Faith
Some things stick in your memory. I was a young minister, no doubt quite idealistic. She was one of the key people in my congregation, involved, committed, and responsible. Then one day she said to me, "Oh, I’m a church member, but I wouldn’t say that I'm a Christian." I was shocked. If she would not call herself Christian, what about other members of the congregation?
There are many people, perhaps you are one of them, who believe that Christian life can be separated from Christian faith. "I live by the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, but I don't see any need to go to church, to be part of a community of faith." Essentially they are saying, "I accept Christian principles and ideals, but I can't say that I believe all the stuff you're supposed to believe if you're a Christian!" "I believe in Christianity, but I don't believe in Christ."
This kind of attitude was more possible a few years back when it was assumed that Canada was a Christian country and most people who lived here were at least nominally Christian; when there was a more-or-less accepted standard of respectable living which was equated with Christian living. As long as you didn't get drunk on Saturday night and beat your wife and children, or get caught stealing from the company, as long as you went to church when it was reasonably convenient, you were looked upon as a Christian.
That day is gone. Long gone!
Being a Christian in today's world is no simple thing. It's not something you can take for granted. You have to be able to give a reason for your faith.
More and more we're realizing that Christian life cannot be separated from Christian faith; Christian principles from Christian belief. If you're in, you're in, and you need to mean it. You can't be a Christian on your own, just by living a respectable life. You need the support of "faith" (a living relationship with the living Christ), and the support of the community of faith, as the branch is part of the vine
A Rose Cut Off
When you cut off Christian life from Christian faith, you attempt a division that is as fatal as cutting roses from a bush and placing then in a vase of water in the house. For a while they seem to keep on growing, the leaves continue green and the buds open to full bloom. But we know that when we have cut them off from the bush, they will not continue to live very long.
In the early spring, we sometimes cut boughs from the forsythia bush and bring them into the house, put them in water and rejoice in the still dark days to see them spring to sprays of glorious yellow. But much too soon, the flowers die and the petals fall. The death sentence is pronounced when the branch is cut from the bush. Even while they are still blooming, they are dying, because they've been cut off from the source of their life.
When we try to live by the morals and principles and ideals of Christian life without the practices and habits of the faith which sustain them, we may bloom and flourish for a period of time, but in the long run the principles and ideals will die, because they have been cut off from their source of life.
This is the point of the words of Jesus recorded in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of John:
Abide in me, as I abide in you. The branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it stays on the vine. So you cannot bear fruit unless you abide in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. Whoever abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit. For without Me, you can do nothing (John 15:4-5).
Not a put-down. Just a statement of fact.
True of society
What is true of the individual is true of society as a whole.
As a Canadian, I am proud of my country, its roots and traditions. Rightly so. In the past, we have called Canada "a Christian country." But insofar as Canada has been a Christian country, it has been, in our time, an uprooted Christian culture, what Elton Trueblood has called "a cut-flower civilization," cut off from its roots, from the vine which has nourished it.
T. S. Eliot wrote, in that strong, stark poem he called "The Wasteland,"
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow(lines 19 and 328).
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. . . .
He who was living is now dead.
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
Economists (e.g. Barbara Ward) have told us that the "technological explosion" of the last one hundred years and more was made possible by the accumulation of economic capital through the thrift and industriousness of our Puritan forbears. If they hadn't worked so hard and saved so much, our present standard of living would not have been possible.
Are we not like the son who, having been given the family business, does not work to add to the capital passed on to him but instead depletes it and fritters it away?
Are we not a culture living on the "spiritual capital” of the past? We have been given a trust, the wealth of a heritage of those spiritual values and ideals we call "Christian." But in the past century we have neglected the foundation on which these values are founded. We have tried to live as branches cut off from the vine. Do we really believe that we can continue to bear the fruit?
Christian Faith without Christian Life
But the point of Jesus' image is that the branches must abide in the vine in order that they may bear the fruit.
In this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit. . . . Every branch that bears no fruit He cuts away. And those bearing fruit He prunes that they bear more fruit (John 15:8 & 2).
Let's face it. Perhaps the number one reason why some people say they live by Christian principles but not by Christian faith is that they see so many pious people who do not exhibit much of the grace of God. Some of the people who are most religious are nevertheless lacking in the qualities Jesus most emphasized - justice, and mercy.
It is written; "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
I have no doubt that each one of us can think of people who claim the Spirit of Christ but who do not exhibit to any noticeable degree that "fruit" of the Spirit by which God is glorified. On the other hand, we can point to some people who are all those things we say a Christian should be but who make no claim to faith.
However, these may be the exceptions that prove the rule. In general, I must say that I find that the kindest, gentlest, most gracious people I know are people who claim faith and live by it. These too, I would say, are the ones who have the greatest joy in life, not always the joie de vivre which comes and goes, but the joy that
abides even in the face of discouragement and difficulty.
And when I look back on the older folk I knew as a child, those who have passed on to us the life we now know, for all their faults, they were a pretty fine group of people and they gave us a goodly heritage. They were ones, for the most part, who combined their faith and their life, branches that held fast to the vine and who did bear much fruit.
More Comfortable; Talk About God vs With God
But in the deepest sense, don't we make the separation between faith and life because it's more comfortable that way? It's more comfortable to claim the life than it is to live the faith. It's easier to talk about God than it is to talk with God. It is a fearful thing to face the living God. These "Christian principles" we talk about, they are really ideals, beyond our doing. The living of the Christian life is an ideal and we all fall short.
It's comparatively easy to accept what we call “Christian principles" and to feel good about ourselves because we do this. It's comparatively easy to say, "I live by the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule" and interpret them in your own way to say what you want them to say. But when Jesus interprets them in the Sermon on the Mount, when He gives us the command to "love God with all our heart and strength, and our neighbour as our self," such complete commitment is more than we can profess to keep. It's much more difficult to accept Jesus Christ as Lord of our life and to acknowledge His unconditional claim over all that we have and are.
We take a commandment of the Old Testament, "You shall not commit adultery," and we say, "Well, I've never done that!" Then along comes Jesus and says, "If you have looked at a woman with lust, you have committed adultery with her already in your heart."
The Old Testament says, "Give ten percent to the Lord!" But the New Testament says, "All we have is the Lord's." If we acknowledge that one hundred percent belongs to God and in everything (time, talent and treasure) we are accountable to God, then we have much greater cause for humility.
It is precisely because we do not live as we should by the teaching, the principles and ideals of the Spirit of Jesus our Lord, that we are driven of necessity to cling to the vine. The life that He asks of us requires of us that the branches abide in the vine.
Separated from life, Christian faith becomes phoney. But separated from faith, Christian living is not really possible. Christian life must be a part of Christian faith. They go together, like love and marriage, horse and carriage.
When I was a boy, growing up in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, the farmers would go out into their orchards in the spring of the year to prune their fruit trees. They would cut out the branches that weren't producing any fruit and pile them in great piles by the edge of the orchard. On late spring nights, sometimes the darkness of the night would be dotted by bonfires, here and there, as the farmers burned the branches that had been cut away.
Anyone who does not abide in me is thrown away like a dead branch; and these are gathered together and thrown on the fire and burned (John 15:6).