“I am the vine. You are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”
These beloved words of Jesus have shaped the spiritual formation of countless people who, over the ages, have sought to walk in the way of Christ. They’re inspirational. They’re endearing. They beckon us to live a life of fruitfulness. But do we really know what these words mean? What they ultimately require of us?
Bearing fruit is one of the prominent images of New Testament spirituality. Jesus speaks about it repeatedly. Paul mentions it in nearly all of his letters. We find it in both Hebrews and James. To bear fruit is to live in obedience to God. It’s to enjoy intimacy with Jesus. It’s to be marked by holiness and righteousness, faithfulness and virtue. It’s to lead a life of spiritual flourishing. It’s to reach a point of individual maturity. We’ve been sufficiently inundated with biblical language of fruitfulness to know these things.
Yet for all of its prevalence, there’s one fairly obvious point about fruitfulness that we easily overlook: Fruit is meant to be picked.
Take a stroll through a vineyard during harvest season, and you’ll see branch after branch slouching with the weight of bountiful clusters. These branches have been laboring throughout the growing season. Day in and day out, they’ve been turning soil and sunlight into something remarkable. And now, finally, as the season draws to a close, they’re able to boast an abundant crop.
It must be great to be a branch, right? Well, maybe. But only momentarily. Because the harsh reality for those plentiful branches is that they’ll soon be picked clean. The perfectly ripe grapes that are so juicy and bursting with sweetness? They can’t stay on the vine. To do so would be to ruin them. The culmination of the entire process—the goal toward which those branches have been working all season long—is to release the fruit that has been so laboriously produced. The whole point of fruitfulness is to give it away.
That is why at the heart of Jesus’ teaching in John 15 about the vine and the branches, he emphasizes love. Yes, love. Jesus wants us to see our fruitfulness as a gift to be given. As an offering to be released. Pointing us toward his own love (ultimately leading him to sacrifice his life for us), he exhorts those who would follow him to abide in that same love, channeling it outward. You can’t abide in the one who gives himself for you without welcoming a life of giving yourself for others.
Perhaps Jesus is doing this because he knows how easy it is to reduce our concept of abiding in him to something private—a self-contained morality, an individual spiritual enlightenment, or a personal connection to God. And so he goes on the offensive and explicitly talks about our flourishing and fruit-bearing in a way that isn’t really about us at all. He calls us to see that abiding in him is about serving and sacrificing for the sake of others. It’s about leaning into generosity. It’s about giving, and giving, and then giving some more. Ultimately, Jesus’ concept of fruitfulness is that we would do what he did, namely, lay down our lives for our friends.
It’s not that Jesus isn’t interested in our personal holiness and our individual obedience. He certainly is. But he knows that what it means to be holy, what it means to obey, is fundamentally wrapped up in our commitment to our neighbor. “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”
The point is that we were never intended to sit around and admire our fruit, keeping it untouched and undisturbed. That’s one sure-fire way to ensure that it will turn rotten. Instead, we need to realize that the fruit Jesus wants to produce through us isn’t ultimately for us. It’s for the world. We bear it as an act of generosity. By abiding in the vine of Christ’s love, we’re meant to become the kind of people who nourish others. We’re meant to be picked clean so that our abundance can supply the wine that our parched and thirsty neighbors desperately need.
As it turns out, this kind of fruitfulness hurts. It leaves us broken and bare. There’s nothing romantic or easy about abiding in Jesus. And the sooner we come to terms with that, the better.
In his track, “Ledges,” songwriter Noah Gundersen confesses,
I want to learn how to love
Not just the feeling
And bear all the consequences
There’s something profound here about the nature of love, something that captures the essence of what love demands of us, something that Jesus himself would approve of. Simply put, love has consequences. It’s costly. To truly pour yourself out for other human beings is to hurt and suffer and endure loss. But if we want a love that’s more than just a feeling, isn’t that what we’re signing up for?
If you’re like me, you find this all rather terrifying. Back when I thought that abiding in Christ meant having a few minutes of “quiet time” each morning, the thought of being a fruit-bearing branch was simple. Almost serene even. But as I come to see fruitfulness for what it truly is, I can’t help but wonder: Is it worth it?
That’s a valid question, and perhaps we should take it back to the vineyard to get an answer. Back to those branches loaded with harvest-time bounty.
Could they speak to us, I’m sure those branches would share their sense of apprehension regarding what’s to come. It’s never easy to let go. To let yourself be stripped. Surely they would feel a sense anguish over their loss. But I suspect there wouldn’t be a branch in that whole vineyard that would hesitate to say, “As hard as it may be, I’d rather be plucked and picked, tugged and torn, than to be that dead old stick lying on the ground.” The stick will never know the suffering and pain of self-giving love. It’s been spared the heartache of harvest. But its ignorance comes at a price. Because it’s dead. And is death really better than the painful beauty of a generous life?
Frederick Buechner puts it with chilling clarity: “Not to love is, psychically, spiritually, to die. To live for yourself alone, hoarding your life for your own sake, is in almost every sense that matters to reduce your life to a life hardly worth the living, and thus to lose it” (The Hungering Dark).
To bear fruit for yourself is to lose both. But self-giving love, painful though it is, is the gateway to true fulfillment. What it means to flourish as a branch is to give, to release, to embrace loss, season after season. And what it means to flourish as a follower of Jesus is to give, to release, to embrace loss, season after season.
This is the unexpected, counterintuitive invitation of Jesus: “Give your life away for others, and in so doing, you’ll find a new life of flourishing and abundance.” It’s by emptying ourselves that we become who we are meant to be.