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Missional and Formational in John 15, Part 1

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, July 6, 2009

Part 8 of series: Missional and Formational?
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Today, I want to examine a text in the Gospel of John that is profoundly missional and formational. It shows that you can’t have one without the other. Moreover, this passage reveals crucial elements of what it means to be missional and formational disciples of Jesus.

Remaining in the Vine

Here is the first part of John 15, a discourse of Jesus with his disciples shortly before his Passion:

“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.

“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.” (John 15:1-8)

In this passage, Jesus speaks of the “formation” of the branches of the grapevine. He is this vine and we, his disciples, are the branches. The missional dimension of this text is developed through the metaphor of fruitfulness. Jesus’ Heavenly Father is the gardener who “cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit” (15:2). Implication: God wants us to be fruitful for his kingdom. In fact, we are supposed to “produce much fruit” (15:8). This is our missional calling, and the mark of true discipleship (15:8).

So how are we to bear fruit, even much fruit? Now we get to the formational dimension of discipleship. We do so by “remaining” in the vine, in Jesus. The verb translated as “remain” (meno in Greek) means “to remain, to abide, to make one’s home.” Thus, we will fulfill our mission to bear fruit for the kingdom only when we are attached to and remain connected to Jesus. Once again, we see that the formational aspect of the Christian life is essentially relational. We are formed for fruitfulness when we are connected to Jesus, drawing our nutrients from him.

In particular, we are nourished by Jesus’ teaching, by his words. He says, “But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!” (15:7). Our relationship with Jesus isn’t simply some subjective experience or even some objective spiritual connection. It is also a matter of receiving his teaching and letting it “remain” in us. We will be shaped for the mission of Jesus by his truth as it makes a home in us, change our vision and values. (Photo below: pruned grape vines . . . not very attractive)

The Christian life is simply one of abiding in Jesus, letting his words abide in us, and bearing much fruit. There is also the pruning part of this passage . . . not my favorite part, by the way. Jesus says that his Father is the gardener who not only cuts off unfruitful branches, but also “prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more” (15:2). When gardeners prune a plant, they are literally shaping that plant, deciding which branches to take away and which to leave. They are pruning with a vision for what the plant will become. They are forming the plant for maximum fruitfulness and/or beauty.

I’ve done a bit of gardening in my life, and I don’t like pruning, not one bit. Oh, it isn’t bad to cut off truly dead branches. But usually pruning involves cutting back live branches, taking away beautiful. Usually, the plant I begin to prune looks quite fine. When I’m finished, it is downright ugly. I often feel rather sad when I’m done with a pruning job, even though I know it’s necessary for the health and fruitfulness of many plants.

I like being pruned even less than I like pruning, however. In my experience, God’s pruning is rarely like a haircut, painless with immediately positive results. It’s more like what happens with plants. God takes away, often with some pain on my part, aspects of my life that have been fruitful. Sometimes I can’t see why God is doing this to me. Sometimes I feel angry with him. Sometimes I feel afraid or sad. But, in retrospect, I can see how God’s pruning helps me to be more fruitful for him.

I want to share an example of how God has been pruning me, but this post is going on a little long, so I’ll save it for tomorrow.

Topics: Missional and Formational |


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