“Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”
—John 15:3-4, ESV
In the movie Knight and Day, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz play a super spy and an innocent bystander, respectively. Enemy spies are after Cruise when he happens to run into Diaz. The enemy assumes the two are together, which means now they are both in danger, and must go on the run together. And Diaz doesn’t appreciate it. In one scene, Cruise’s character tells Diaz’ character, “You’re better off with me than without me.” For emphasis, he moves his hands close together when he says the word with and further apart when he says the word without. “With me, without me; with me, without me. Your likelihood of survival is better with me… than without me.”
With Jesus. Without Jesus.
With Jesus. Without Jesus.
Yes, with Jesus. The Bible says with Christ we can do all things (Philippians 4:13). With Christ, without Christ. Or as Jesus phrases it in John 15, abiding in Jesus or not abiding in Jesus.
Our likelihood of survival as a Christian, of bearing fruit as a Christian, of anything as a Christian… It’s about abiding in Jesus, or not abiding in Jesus.
So what does that mean—to abide? To continue in; to remain in.
Looking at this text through that lens, we understand that Jesus has made us clean. We are clean because his Word has cleansed us. Through the work of the law, he convicts us. In the work of the gospel, he brings us his faith and forgiveness.
He has made us Christians. He has cleansed us. He has made us right with him. So what does all of this add up to? Abiding in Jesus, we don’t need to continually go back to being cleansed again because we’re already clean.
This is not to say that we are not in need of a continued cleansing. No, we sin in thought, word and deed daily. So we are always in need of cleansing.
We can get so focused on our sin and our need of being forgiven, that we do not walk forward in our faith. We may be tripped up with thoughts of, “Oh, I can’t do that. I’m just no good.” But Jesus says, “My Word is in you. I am in you. You can do it. You can go forward. You have been cleansed, you are clean.”
That’s what Martin Luther experienced in his early years as a monk.
He would spend hours in the confessional booth trying to think of everything he might have done that could possibly be a sin. He feared his sin would keep him from heaven. His confessor tried to encourage him by saying, “You’re too hard on yourself. Come back, Martin, when you have something real to confess.”
We can get so caught up in our sin, our guilt, our unrighteousness, that we can’t walk in our forgiveness. Abiding in Jesus, we can walk forward in our faith. As Paul writes, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14b-15).
A big part of John 15 is about bearing fruit. We cannot bear fruit if we’re only looking back at our sin.
So the first step in our walk with Jesus is to be cleansed by his Word. We may need to take that step over and over in our lives because we are sinful and we keep sinning. But we also need to walk in him. The first step is necessary, but the first step isn’t the same as walking.
So, as cleansed people going forward in our faith, we see that Jesus connects bearing fruit with being pruned. In the vineyard, they prune the branches almost back to the vine. Almost all of the previous year’s growth comes off. The old growth is not important. Only the vine is, because in the vine is everything. Everything that we need to bear fruit, to be healthy, to grow. It’s all in the vine.
Connected to the vine, the branch can be healthy. Snip that branch off and it withers and dies. At first it looks good. When you go out and snip off flowers from your garden, and then put them in a jar of water—they look good! Pretty. But not for long.
God is our source of all things good and he has all we need for health and life as a Christian, so we need to remain connected to him in order to accomplish what he has called us to do. Divine supply is everything the branch needs. That means that we supply nothing except what God has given to us. If we are to grow in Christ, we come to him as empty vessels and he fills us. We connect to the vine and he fills us.
So how do we abide in Jesus?
Through spiritual discipline—like daily Bible reading, prayer, a quiet time with God. All of that is part of remaining in Jesus.
Why do we need this? Is it for us personally? Yes, but we also need it for others—to bear fruit for their benefit. After all, the vineyard owner does not plant great vines just to watch them grow into nice plants.
Many years ago, my parents owned a resort near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. One summer, one of our guests was visited by her parents from Italy. They had never been far from their hometown—and never out of Italy. When they finally came to visit, they were amazed by all the huge farms and all the big trees. As her father looked closer at the maple and birch trees, he asked, “What kind of fruit grows on them?” No fruit, he was told. “Oh, so they’re weeds. In Italy we would cut them down.”
We are created for a purpose: To abide in Jesus—to bear much fruit. Without him, we can do nothing. But as we abide in Jesus, and he in us, the fruit will come.
Rev. Gary Witkop is Pastor at Community in Christ Lutheran Brethren Church in Arvada, Colorado.