Connected and Fruitful

John 15:1-175th Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert 
6 May 2012

We will spend much of our May worship, the end of the Easter season in the heart of the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John.   John is the mystical Gospel, quite different in character from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptics.   In the narrative context of John’s Gospel, Jesus has these several conversations with his disciples, as he prepares them for his death and departure.
Today’s reading is the last of the seven great “I am” sayings in this Gospel.  Jesus says, “I am the bread of life…I am the light of the world…I am the door to the sheepfold…I am the good shepherd….I am the resurrection and the life…I am the way, the truth, and the life….I am the true vine.. .   These are central images of the Jewish faith, now fulfilled in Jesus.   Because he is the culmination of these hopes, Jesus’ physical departure from us changes nothing:  we can remain/abide in him and he in us, as he is the vine and we are the branches.   We must remain connected to be fruitful, to prove that we are really are his disciples.

Hear for the Spirit speaking to you through the Word of the Lord in John 15:

John 15:1-17
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (NRSV)

If you’ve been around Peace any length of time, you will have noticed that I do not miss any opportunity to preach on something related to gardening and growing.  I love to plant flowers and watch them grow.  I love to plant basil because it grows so quickly from seed that I get from the plants I already have.   I love to plant Coleus because I can propagate it so easily from cuttings.  I love to plant vines like Mandevilla and Jasmine and Bouganvillea and help them climb and curl around trellises and trunks and poles.  I love to prune and cut grass and pull weeds when I am angry.  Whack, whack, cut, cut, pull, pull weeds.   I love to plant churches too, but they are much harder work.  They require lots of water and TLC.   And I’ve noticed those who do not produce fruit, who do not get connected in meaningful ways to others on the vine, naturally wither and fall away.   What churches need is lots of sun and Son.   They need SUN for a good mood – that’s why you moved to Florida, and they need SON for their growth in faith, that is why you came to Peace. 

 Peace is a church where you can get a high Christology theology, while getting a broad ecclesiology.   That’s why anyone seeking Christ is welcome to the table here.  It’s why the doors are always open here.   It’s why the essential questions for joining are trust in Jesus Christ, desire to turn away from sin and to lean into God’s grace, and the intent to get involved.   A Presbyterian minister friend once said to me, “I am a theological conservative and a social liberal.”  I’m with him on that.   I think the church will wilt without a tight connection to Jesus Christ.   And with a tight connection to Jesus Christ, you cannot help but grow into an open church, a church for everyone whom Christ loved – everyone!  

Of course, Christ says in this passage that those who are growing but not producing fruit need to be cut, and those not producing enough fruit need pruning.  Pruning does not feel good or even look good at first, but it is good.   My neighbor thought I had killed the hedge between us, but in time, it was healthier than ever because of my radical pruning.   So it is for us when God prunes us back, removes our deadness, trims off our non-essentials or our overgrowth. It humbles us.  

Christians, and especially Presbyterians, love to grow in knowledge, but if knowledge does not produce fruit, then whack.    As we said in the Confession of 1967, “Wise and virtuous people through the ages have sought the highest good in devotion to freedom, justice, peace, truth, and beauty.  Yet all human virtue, when seen in the light of God’s love in Jesus Christ, is found to be infected by self-interest and hostility.   All people, good and bad alike, are in the wrong before God and helpless without God’s forgiveness….No one is more subject to the judgment of God than the one who assumes he or she is guiltless before God or morally superior to others.”   Now the Church has been filled with some folks who thought they were superior in morals, in education, in social justice, in Biblical and theological studies, in pastoral sensitivity, and in musical tastes.   And our tradition is getting pruned, perhaps for our arrogance in many of these areas.

All that really matters to God is fruitfulness.  Are you connected to the vine and are you being fruitful?   How will Christ know if we are being faithful disciples?   By our fruit.  Pauls tells the Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Does that describe you?   Does that describe us together?  Unfortunately, witty, sophisticated, well-educated, determined, financially secure, athletic, diligent, good-looking, and quick to judge were not in the list.

You cannot be fruitful without being attached to the vine.   You need the life-blood of Jesus Christ in your veins.    That’s why we need a weekly communion.   The unity of Word and Sacrament is what nourishes our faith.   It feeds us and strengthens us to produce fruit. 

Jesus says to those whose feet he had washed before the Last Supper, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”  Become his disciples!   We thought they already were his disciples.   But no, they have more fruit-bearing to do to truly become his devoted and joy-filled disciples.   

Jesus wants to be in the mutual relatedness of friendship, not mere master and servant, boss and employee, parent and child.   To help us appreciate the kind of loving relationship Jesus is describing, we need to have more words for love. There are three types of love that Aristotle and Aquinas spoke of in Latin:   There’s benevolen’tia, from which we get the word, benevolence.  This is the love of a superior that wills the good of another.   Like a boss who cares for his or her employee, or a parent who is nurturing a child.    There is concu’piscen’tia, the love of desire, in which one hopes to get something from the person loved.   It is motivated by the desire for fulfillment.   Better than both of these is the love called amici’tia.   This is the love Jesus describes in John 15.   “ I do not call you servants…but I have called you friends.”   Christ empowers us to be his friends and gives us the greatest love of all, the sacrificial and mutual love of agape – that the great Greek word for depth of love which is used 9 times in 5 verses in this passage.   This is the love that makes us one, that fills us up and makes us able to be channels of Christ’s love.  

What people see first is the branch, not the vine?   Why do people walk away from church or never bother to come?   Often because we, the branches, are not very fruitful.   People see the branch with all its deadness, or its wilted, rotten fruit.   Who wants to be part of that?   I took photos in my back yard of a lovely yellow Mandevilla to show you the difference between a branch that is still connected to the vine and a branch that has been severed from its source of strength.    After just one afternoon disconnected from the vine, this branch is dying.

You too will wilt if you are not connected to the vine, Jesus Christ?   Are you building into your life the devotions of prayer, Bible study, and regular worship? 

Are you working in your own life to obey Christ’s commands or are you just complaining about other people who don’t view the world as you do?  Are you looking to the church and to your family and friends to get your own needs fulfilled or do you really care what their needs might be?   Are you committing yourself to develop a more peaceful lifestyle that is a blessing to others, as you reach out in friendship and compassion toward all those around you?    You have ample opportunities here to develop the peace of Christ in your life.   We are offering a class on that right now.   We’re offering a class which bridges the chasm between science and religion.   And we have ministry teams, men’s and women’s groups all of whom pray together, so we might grow into more fruitful, faithful disciples.

We all need the spiritual nourishment of a strong connection to the vine.  We need build a strong relationship with Christ for weathering the storms of life, so you will not break off when the high winds blow through.  But wind is not bad.  Trees in greater wind have adaptive growth patterns in greater wind.  They grow shorter; they develop a spiral grain in their trunk; they put their roots a little deeper; and they develop smaller leaves, creating less drag in the wind.   In the stormy times of life, we need to protect ourselves with adaptive change too.  We need to avoid over-extending ourselves; we need to stay rooted and grounded in Christ.   Build a connection to Christ that will endure and make you fruitful in all your relationships.  Abide in the love of Christ, which will feed your soul with spiritual food and strengthen you to love others.    There is no excuse for people calling themselves Christian and not working at keeping the great commandment.   Christ has called you friends.   Act like you know him, for Christ’s sake.   Bear fruit – fruit that will last.

(credit to Gerard Sloyan, Interpretation Commentary on John and to the writers of The Lectionary Commentary, edited by Van Harn, for some of these concepts)