[Jesus said] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless in abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (NRSV)
Grace to You and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ our redeemer and friend and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
“We’re starving!” my sister and I would tell our mother when we burst into the house after walking home from the school bus stop at the end of our lane. She would generally recommend some kind of snack we could make for ourselves to tide us over until dinner. As I look back on it, we were rather over-dramatic. Starving is a strong word. We were far from starving. But we were hungry. We had worked up an appetite during our afternoon at school and on the bus ride home. We had homework to do. We needed sustenance. Now, as a adult, I know that kids and adults alike concentrate better if we have something healthy to eat on a regular basis. It is no surprise people are not productive when they are hungry.
And that is the focus here today… about being productive as Christ followers, as branches on the vine.
We cannot be productive as people of faith or as a church as a whole if we are not well nourished. Just like our physical bodies need to be sustained by a regular diet, our spiritual lives do too. And the scriptures are blunt about it; we won’t get far if we do not. In fact, Jesus said apart from him we can do nothing. He lays it out there without apology.
And to continue being blunt, for the past 50 or 60 years, the American Church as a whole has not been very productive and we are reaping the consequences. Attendance is down across the board. Young people have left in droves. Poverty has steadily increased in our country, and so has divisiveness, violence and societal decline. All suggest that we, as a whole, have been less than thoroughly connected to the vine.
The American Church has been too focused inward. Churches that were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s, were built like fortresses. They were often brick or block with small windows. It is almost as if they were trying to keep the big bad world out so the Christians could be safe inside. So the people could meet with people who were just like them; so they wouldn’t have to be challenged by anyone too deeply.
There is also a consumer mentality among churchgoers. People go church shopping when they move to a new community or when they get dissatisfied with their current church. They want to make sure they are getting their money’s worth for their offering dollars. People care more about what they are receiving at church than what they are giving. One of the phrases that drives me a little nutty is, “I’m not being fed at my church.” I always want to say, “Well, I HOPE NOT. You are an adult. You are old enough to feed yourself from the fare that is provided.”
People, be aware though. We all have to take a hard look inside and see where we are in our relationship with Jesus. We need to do so on a regular basis. Are we following him the way that others will recognize him through us? Or are we following him in name only?
First of all, before we get too far into this, pat yourselves on the back. You are here. That’s a start. It is harder to stay well nourished, as a Christian, if you aren’t in worship; if you aren’t hearing the scriptures read; if you aren’t singing and praying and pondering together with a community. It is easier to find something to chew on when you are consistent with your worship attendance. But worship attendance isn’t enough. You will be spiritually undernourished if you only hear the scriptures once a week. You have to think about what you heard. It helps to talk it over with someone else who was there. It is easy if you have a family member that is willing and available. But those of you that don’t, you just have to be creative. Call someone from the congregation. Ask for someone to be your reflection partner. In addition, a daily practice of Bible reading is ideal. Staying connected means more than just reading it, however. Talk that over too… with God, and with another person. Praying about what you read, paying attention to what jumped out at you, thinking about it and putting it to work in your life is how to really make it live.
Pray for this congregation too. I am inviting people to form groups of no more than five people each that will meet at mutually agreeable times and places once a week for the duration of the call process. These would be groups that would meet to specifically pray for your Call Committee, for your prospective pastor, for the future of the Church. Prayer is always powerful, but groups of people praying together is very powerful. This will certainly bear fruit.
When we eat, we take a bite and digestion begins right away as we chew up our food. Chewing on the scriptures; talking about them, pondering them throughout the day and praying about them, is the way to digest them. You want them well chewed so they can be digested completely. Do not swallow the scriptures whole. You do NOT want your scriptures to pass through you intact. Nothing gets absorbed that way.
And it is a vast banquet, these scriptures that we have. There is enough nourishment there to feast every day and have more left over. And, as in any banquet, there is both sweet and savory, tender and tough. Some passages go down so easily, such as “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1, NRSV) or “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NRSV) Others tempt us to spit them out, such as Jesus telling the rich man, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22, NRSV) That one might give us indigestion. Another one is “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12, NRSV) That one makes us nervous. Do greater works than Jesus did? We can hardly believe that. Most people pass that dish by. It is good, but it appeals a more mature palate. It take some careful reflection to get what Jesus is really saying here, calling us to stay connected, but I encourage you to develop a taste for scripture and prayer. Stick with it. Chew on the tougher pieces. They are especially nourishing when you really get into it.
Now, to get back to the metaphor Jesus was using; you, as a branch, cannot bear fruit by yourself. Abide in Jesus. That means being focused on Jesus over time. It means making Jesus a regular part of your daily life. If we are branches on the Jesus-vine, then the fruit that we bear might well be “Jesus fruit.” The Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 5 the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That certainly looks like Jesus! Just as grape vines are expected to grow grapes, the Jesus-vine is expected to grow the body of Christ; people that resemble Jesus in every way. In other words, people whose lives radiate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
You have been pruned and prepared by the Word. The growing season is upon us. What fruit will you grow? Will your fruit nourish the faith of another? Will your fruit bless the world around you?
We have to be countercultural. When others are taking the church less seriously, we have to take the words of Christ more seriously than ever. If we do, the church will become stronger than ever. It is my hope and prayer that the harvest will be plentiful in you.
Please join me in prayer.
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.