A BRANCH OF THE VINE
Jesus said that he is the true vine and we are the branches. Do you think of yourself as a branch? In one of Charlie Chaplin's later films he claimed to be able to imitate anything, and someone asked him to impersonate a tree. He stretched out his arms, twisted them around, then relaxed—and just seemed to become a tree! We are not the whole tree, only the branches growing out from the tree. The tree is the Lord Jesus himself. "I am the vine," he said, "you are the branches."
You have probably been in a vineyard and have seen the rows of vines sending out tendrils and leaves, perhaps over a trellis frame from which hang the glorious bunches of grapes. I have seen them in many countries of the world. Some of the oldest vineyards are in Israel, vineyards which have been producing grapes for thousands of years, certainly since the time of our Lord. The Hebrew people loved their vineyards and saw in them many parables of human life. The rain fell in spring on the dusty hills, and one could almost hear the roots of the vines sucking in the water and turning it into a flow of sap, which later was transmuted by the miracle of life into the choicest wine, filling the little glossy bags of the grapes, golden or purple in the sunshine.
Even the pruning of the vines had a deeper significance for these people who thought so much in symbolism. Left to itself, the vine soon reverts to wildness. It sprouts in all directions and bears prolifically, but the grapes become smaller, tough and dry, and soon are not worth picking. Therefore the wise nurseryman continually prunes them, or "purges" them as our Bible version has it. Keeping the shoots that show most promise, he ruthlessly slashes back the rest with a sharp blade. This forces all the vital energy of the plant into the production of a few really fine grapes instead of many worthless ones. The Divine Nurseryman is continually cutting us back. The process is painful at times; but what an encouragement to know that the Farmer loves us, and hurts us only to turn us into something worthwhile!
Then comes the pressing of the grapes. A shallow pit is hacked out of the rock of the hillside, with a vent opening out onto a lower level. The grapes are thrown into the pit and trodden down with the bare feet, releasing the juice which spurts out and flows down through the vent into an earthenware container below. To many this suggested the Judgment which they knew was to come, when God himself would tread the winepress alone. So it came about that the vineyard with all its processes became an accepted symbol of the CHURCH.
"My beloved had a vineyard," said Isaiah, "on a very fertile hill. He fenced it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines. He built a watchtower in it, and hewed out a winepress, and he looked for it to yield good grapes. But alas! it yielded only wild grapes. And now, O inhabitant of Jerusalem and men of Judah, said the Lord: judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield good grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?" The Church had failed, and so it would be altogether cleared away, and a new vineyard would be planted which would bear satisfactory fruit.
Jesus used the same symbolism when he spoke of the tenants of a vineyard who refused to hand over the agreed share of the fruits to the landlord. The vineyard would be taken from them and given to others who would render the fruits to the owner. And the priests and Pharisees realized that he was speaking of them.
We have seen that the purpose of a vineyard is to change water into wine. Jesus had actually done this himself at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, with a miracle which was a parable of his whole life. "The law was given by Moses," we are told, "but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." He took the harsh principles of the Hebrew code and reinterpreted them as beautiful sun-filled laws of heavenly life. "It was said by them of old times . . . but I say unto you . . ." Here we see Jesus at work as the true vine, turning the water of natural truth into the wine of spiritual truth. He spiritualized everything he touched.
Since wine has such a high significance, how is it that people get drunk from it? Noah, who inaugurated a new or spiritual epoch of life, started off quite appropriately by planting a vineyard. (Genesis 9:20.) But as soon as the wine had fermented, he became intoxicated by it. And this is a real danger for those who have access to a great deal of spiritual truth: to become intoxicated with it, drunk with the wine of self-intelligence. How can we avoid this danger? By acknowledging that all truth, all intelligence, all spiritual enlightenment, comes from the Lord alone. We are not the vine. He is the vine. We are only branches drawing life from him. With this humble acceptance of our true relationship with the Lord, we shall no longer be tempted to glorify ourselves; this will keep us sober. We shall enjoy the wine without having any cause for stumbling.
Do you remember the occasion when Jesus said, "I am the vine, you are the branches?" It was the evening of his arrest. He was about to be taken from them; he would be crucified, and would rise again. His human nature was about to be merged with the Divinity which was within him, thus opening up a new channel of life between God and man. It was a pipeline through which his disciples would thereafter be able to draw unprecedented power from him, sap from the vine. Jesus was "going to the Father." When he spoke of the Father, he meant the Godhead within himself, the Divinity that was his Soul. When he spoke of the Son, he mean his humanity, which was not yet completely glorified but would be after his resurrection. His Father was the Nurseryman. Jehovah God was behind it all, initiating and planning and effecting the whole procedure. But, as far as we humans are concerned, the important part of the godhead is the human part. We, in our frail derivative humanity, must be connected up with his glorified humanity. No man can approach the Father except by or through his humanity which is Jesus Christ. "Abide in me," he says, "and I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit of itself except it abide in the vine, no more can you except you abide in me."
And now comes the startling statement in its negative form. "If a man abide not in me," Jesus continued, "he is cast forth as a branch and is withered; and men gather them and cast them into the fire and they are burned." Do we believe this? Do we believe that everyone who is not connected up with Jesus will be thrown into the fire of hell? This used to be the teaching in the old cruel days: that Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, unconverted Jews, and, of course, all heathen savages who had not been straightened out by our Christian missionaries, all were going to hell, "into the fire that never shall be quenched." So taught the clergy in the days of our grandparents. Dreadful! Would a God of love really torture and destroy his own children, just because through no fault of their own, they had been brought up outside the pale of Christianity? I don't believe it!
The real situation is that everyone wakes up after death in an intermediate region of the spiritual world, between heaven and hell. A full opportunity is there provided for learning about the Lord—that is to say, about God in his Divine Humanity; and everyone absorbs just as much as he wants to know. Those who never had a chance on earth of learning about Jesus, but were good in other respects, are encouraged to "make his acquaintance" in this new environment, and they do so with the utmost joy; they embrace the Lord's love and wisdom eagerly, and are only too pleased to become connected up with the true Vine, and move on to heaven. On the other hand, many nominal Christians from the western world are not much impressed by what they hear about Jesus after death, because they have known it all their lives; to be told it over again, even with the beautiful clarity of spiritual unfoldment, makes no particular impact upon them. They turn away, and look for something more interesting and exciting in one of the hells. The advantage is with an eager heathen rather than a bored so-called Christian. For this reason it is particularly regrettable when people from a nominally Christian country like Great Britain or the United States, who are brought up in the Christian tradition, deny the Divinity of Jesus Christ.
It has always been a puzzle to me why so many English and American people become agnostics or atheists. It may be that the Christian Church has failed in its presentation of Jesus. Critics say, "If this is Christianity I'd rather have nothing to do with it"—and they take up Transcendental Meditation or some such cult. Many of these critics turn out rather well after death, for when Jesus is presented to them in all his beauty and glory as the Essence and Source of love, wisdom and power, their hearts reach out and embrace him completely. On the other hand, if a man in a Christian country rejects Christ because he doesn't want any interference with his selfish pleasures, then, after death, his self-love blazes up like a consuming fire. Self-love is the "everlasting bonfire" upon which the withered vine-branch, severed from its roots, will be burned. It will be self-consumed:
The true man of the Church finds his joy in Jesus and does everything as an act of service to him, realizing how utterly dependent he is upon his Lord. When trials and tribulations come, he accepts them willingly as evidence that the Vine-dresser has found him worth pruning! "Every branch in me that bears fruit," said Jesus, "the Father purges it (prunes it) that it may bring forth more fruit." So it comes about that two different people pruned in exactly the same way, cut with the same sharp pruning knife, may react quite differently. One will become resentful, bitter and self-pitying, and will deliberately sever his contact with the Vine, thus ending up on the bonfire. Another will be stimulated by the pain to connect himself more closely with the Vine; the channel will be open, the sap will flow strongly, and he will produce the best fruit of all.
What a joy to abide in the Lord and have him abide in us! Self-sufficiency brings nothing but unhappiness; it burns up and destroys all that it touches. The self-oriented man ends his days lonely and miserable, consumed with self-pity, afraid of himself and everyone else. On the other hand, the man who lives in direct contact with the glorified Christ is filled to overflowing with heavenly joy. His whole outlook is spiritualized, his water transmuted to wine. He bears fruit on every stem: sweet, tender, refreshing grapes, bursting with goodness. What are the fruits of the spirit? Paul names them in his letter to the Galatians. They are: "love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, faith, meekness and temperance." What a beautiful bunch of grapes!