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The Best Grapes

In the Bourdeaux region of France, two sisters run what used to be a small wine label. Their grandfather started the vineyard on 10 acres. Now, Sylvie and Marie Courselle are the third generation who oversee 200 acres worth of grapes and the accompanying production system. 

Did you know that in a grape vineyard, the branches closer to the trunk of the vine produce the highest quality grapes? I didn’t either, until I was working on this. I don’t exactly know a lot about wine and drinking in general.

It’s a no-brainer that one would prune off branches that don’t produce. But high-quality vineyards are pretty carefully controlled against even good vines just growing off in all directions, as far as they might freely run. Because the quality is going to come from those kept close and uniform.

Now, let me confess my relative awkwardness at talking in-depth about wine-making during a sermon at a Baptist church. Then again, you sort of can’t do any justice to Jesus’ parable in John 15: 1-8 with that. Nor can you realistically place it within its own proper cultural setting, without acknowledging the obvious.

People ask me about the church I serve. Occasionally I tell them, “My people love them some Jesus, and they like a little wine.” There’s a place for teetotalers here among us, and a place for those who just might cozy up to this parable a little more readily than others. 

I’ve never quite seen this little word picture in this way. I realized this week that it’s actually about the timeless problem of us assuming that God doesn’t know how to run a vineyard as well as we do. 

If wine isn’t your thing, then maybe gardening is. Or farming even. Some gardeners practice something called “dead-heading.” It’s one of the most counterintuitive things you would ever want to do. But if you pinch or cut off the first productions of some plants, you know that you are sacrificing what could become beautiful flowers in their own right. Instead, you increase the yield that a plant could have later. 

You could call it pruning. That, we might all be more familiar with. Did you know that in John 15, the same Greek word for “prune” or “remove” actually means to “cleanse”? The goal here is fruitfulness. We’ll look at what that might mean in a minute. But the whole effort of all this is so that fruit will come forth. As one writer has observed, “This is a passage that is ultimately about divine providence and the goodness of Creation when it acknowledges its dependence on the Creator.” 

I think this is less about having to take every terrible thing that happens, every tragedy or time when others’ actions or decisions take a toll on us — or the inevitable results of every dumb mistake we can make — and trying to force bad theology by saying, “Well, that’s just God pruning and shaping us.” No. Tragedy is tragedy. Bad decisions have consequences. Sin is sin, incidentally best understood as us creating distance between ourselves and God. 

But we are at our best when we are relying and submitting to the owner of the Vineyard. We produce our best when we are staying close to the one who tends the plants lovingly and knowingly. Turns out, the Vintner knows a few things.

What is this fruit we are to bear, then? Is it simply a matter of love and charity? Those are good and are part of it. Is it a life of public works that will testify to non-Christians so that God would be glorified? That’s good and part of it. Is it a missionary activity? The care of the widows and the poor? Being kind, gentle people rather than mean and ugly? Those are good indicators. 

But Jesus sticks with the parable. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” He seems to be saying, “Let’s do this life together.” Just after this, He said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you … that you love one another as I have loved you.” 

This is all about God’s design. Creation moving toward resolution by its Creator. Not meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time. But a vineyard being tended by God in Jesus Christ. You and me, the branches of the vine. Intended to bear fruit that takes its place in God’s unfolding drama. 

DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.