St. John writes, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear (carry) fruit he prunes, that it may bear (carry) more fruit. 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 (carry) fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5).

As with many other passages in John’s gospel, Jesus uses “I am” followed by an image. For example, “I am the bread of life” (John 6). “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10). “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14). Here Jesus is the vine. In the Old Testament (Exodus 3) God reveals himself to Moses as I AM YHWH (Yahweh) which means ““I am who I am.” In other words, it is God who determines who God is, not we with our sinful hopes, dreams, and demands.

In John’s imagery in Chapter 15, Jesus is the vine. His Father is the vinedresser, and those who believe are the branches. If one is connected to Jesus, one has life and bears fruit. In fact, apart from Jesus as the vine, we are lost and fruitless in so many different ways.

The world, however, thinks differently. The world views being connected to Jesus or his Father as meaning that one has really gone out on a limb, so to speak. In fact, one is not really a branch but instead is just a fruit, or a nut, or a flake, or a whole bowl full of Muesli (granola). In fact, the world would like to spare Christians the proposed to pruning in this passage by cutting down the whole vine altogether. The world tried that once, roughly 2,000 years ago. They cut down the vine, hung him out on a trellis to dry, and then buried him in the ground. The vinedresser, however, raised the vine again, who says, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11).

In the self-centeredness of our sin, we unfortunately view this imagery not with ourselves as branches of Jesus but instead with ourselves in the middle. God and Jesus are behind us providing us with the sustenance which we as branches need to exercise our mighty powers to bear fruit. Viewed with another image, we unfortunately become thereby little religious Jack Horners, putting in our thumb, pulling out a plumb, and thinking, “What a good girl/boy am I.”

So it is, and most of us are pretty quick to consider our “good” deeds as signs that we are actually good. Throughout Christian history, Christians have used “good works” to decide who is and who is not a proper Christian. Are “they” bearing the fruit which we expect, then “they” must be true Christians. Are “their” words and actions suspect, then suspect is “their” place in the kingdom of God. In this grand scheme of things, we get tangled up in all manner of categories of right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, right?

How right are we? On one hand, we say with St. Paul, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, …” (Romans 3:22b-23). On the other hand, we would also agree with St. Paul who seems confident that our sinfulness has distinct categories and offenses, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:28-32). How many of us gossipers would put ourselves in the same category as murders or haters of God? Like it or not, we are in the same sinking boat.

So, why do we devise categorizations for our sins? Although all sin is deadly from a theological perspective, not all sins are immediately deadly from an experiential perspective. “I was the only one who got an ‘A’ on the test,” is certainly boastful, and most of would think, “Rightly so!” In our everyday lives, we tend to categorize our sins by the damage which they do either to us or to our communities or to both. “Our family does it this way,” one often learns very early on. That which damages the community of family is “bad.” How does that play out when a really dysfunctional family things something generally considered “good” is instead “bad”? As “branches” we spend a lot of our time deciding who is bearing good fruit and who is not, and the latter gives us plenty of opportunity to be gossips, and rightly so, or again, perhaps not.

If we reconsider the imagery in John Chapter 15 with our sin slightly removed from our eyes, we see things a little differently. We as branches are connected to the vine who is dressed by the vinedresser, his Father, but what does the vine as a whole actually bear or carry? We are quick to reply, “Fruit, which we bear!”

That, however, is not quite correct. The vine whom the world tried to kill and hang on a trellis died and was raised to bear or carry the sin of the whole world, for each and every one of us sinful human beings, both individually and collectively. Thus, when we as branches bear or carry fruit, that fruit is not our self-selected “good deeds.” Instead, through Christ and on behalf of Christ as extensions of Christ, the fruit which we bear or carry is the brokenness of the sinners within and around us.

Correspondingly, the more damage which that sin has caused, the heavier is the load of the fruit to be borne. Paradoxically, sometimes those who seem to have been “pruned” the most in life are exceptionally gifted at bearing the damaged fruit. This is so because the whole weight of human brokenness is borne and carried by the resurrected Christ who bears us sinners healed and forgiven to live forever in his Father’s vineyard.