Grapes and Grace
By Audrey Stallsmith
I like to listen to other writers talk around the lunch table at our writers’ conference. Being a diverse, intelligent, and occasionally eccentric group, they always have something interesting to say—even the clowns. I should say “especially the clowns,” because it takes a quick wit to come up with all those one-liners.
Of course, people occasionally notice that I am quietly consuming my macaroni and cheese instead of contributing. They will then try to include me in the conversation. An introvert like myself, however, would just as soon listen and take mental notes, as my wit requires time to process! Once I have gathered lots of input on a subject, I can then think it through, as I attempt to do in these articles.
The theme for last summer’s conference was “branches of the vine” from John 15, so we all dissected that metaphor pretty thoroughly over the course of several days. As I’m an avid gardener, it was one with which I could strongly identify. Some of the conclusions we all came up with are as follows.
God is both the gardener and the ground in which the vine is planted. The vine which he set and anchors in place is, of course, Christ. And we Christians are the wild branches which were grafted onto that vine.
Grafts sometimes don’t “take,” and branches may also be lost to strong winds or disease. As long as they remain in place, however, they have the potential to produce fruit. “You are the branch,” Andrew Murray emphasizes in The Mystery of the True Vine. “You need be nothing more. You need not for one single moment of the day take upon you the responsibility of the Vine. You need not leave the place of entire dependence and unbounded confidence.”
“The branch of the vine does not worry, and toil, and rush here to seek for sunshine, and there to find rain,” Hudson Taylor agrees in China’s Millions. “No; it rests in union and communion with the vine; and at the right time, and in the right way, is the right fruit found on it.”
That fruit is due to the sap flowing through the branch from the vine itself. We can equate that life-giving force with the Holy Spirit, which flows into us via Christ. Murray quotes Him as saying “I have joined myself inseparably to you; all the fullness and fatness of the Vine are yours in very deed. Now you once are in me, be assured that all I have is wholly yours. It is my interest and my honor to have you a fruitful branch; only Abide in me. You are weak, but I am strong; you are poor, but I am rich.”
We can only draw up this sustenance from Christ if we allow ourselves to become completely bonded to Him rather than always attempting to pull away. As I mentioned earlier, some grafts don’t take, no matter how tightly they are taped in place. The cambium, the thin green layer underneath the bark of the branch, must be aligned with the cambium on the vine for the two parts to grow into each other. As long as our motives and intentions don’t line up with Christ’s, we can’t form the necessary connection with Him.
In God in the Dock, C. S. Lewis notes that “God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus ever year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine.” In other words, the miracle that Christ performed at a certain wedding can be called only a speeding up of a miracle that occurs over and over in nature, and which can occur in us.
We might think it will require a miracle for God to get fruit out of such weak branches as us, but it is a process with which He is very familiar. At times, though, He may have to cut us back to help us produce. As was frequently pointed out at the conference, branches make the most fruit if they are pruned.
This can be painful, to both them and the gardener. Lopping a luxuriant plant generally feels like the wrong thing to do. Not to mention that visitors always seem to show up on the day after everything has been pruned, to view the bare-looking results with dismay.
Left to their own devices, however, branches frequently put all their energy into rambling new leafy growth rather than into flowers and fruits. Being cut back forces them to focus, to concentrate on what remains. It also “scares” them into reproducing, via flowers, fruits, and seeds, just in case the next pruning kills them. “It is when everything that is not needful for fruit-bearing has been relentlessly cut down,” Murray emphasizes, “and just as little as possible of the branches has been left, that full rich fruit may be expected.”
Like branches, we humans frequently require that the excess be cut out of our lives before we get around to concentrating on what is important. The new limitations imposed on us, by illness, financial hardship, etc., may not seem like an improvement at the time, but may prove to be what was required to force us into bloom.
This metaphor isn’t a perfect one, since—in a real vineyard—all the branches usually are pruned at about the same time. In the life of the Church, however, different branches suffer at different times, but the others and the Vine feel their pain. As Murray notes, “The branch is not only one with the vine, but with all its other branches; they drink one spirit, they form one body, they bear one fruit.”
Despite their weaknesses, those branches are a necessity, because Christ chose to put Himself in a position where He must work through us. Unless we allow His life to flow through us, there will be no fruit. As Murray points out in Abide in Christ, “Without the branch the vine can also do nothing. . .Such is the wonderful condescension of the grace of Jesus that just as His people are dependent on Him, He has made Himself dependent on them.”
Finally, I don’t think we can judge for ourselves how much fruit we have or haven’t produced. It takes Someone who is outside of the time line and can look at the whole to determine that.
Those of you with wayward children, for example, may think that your prayers and Christian example have not affected them at all. But it’s possible that your influence actually has restrained them from even worse sins and may draw them back to faith eventually.
Also, unlike branches, Christians don’t necessarily have to be alive to bear fruit. Many authors who died before we were born have had huge effects on our spiritual lives. Many missionaries who prepared the way for others never saw a harvest during their lifetimes, but the one that finally came wouldn't have been possible without them.
In the end, I don’t think we will be trying to parse out who was responsible for which grapes. Instead, we will be rejoicing in the abundance we have produced together.