(John 15: 1-17)
Several years ago, Teresa and I reunited with some of old friends from college. We decided it might be nice to meet in the wine country of Napa Valley, California. So, the three couples all met up for several days of catching up, over-eating and touring as many vineyards as we could. We took several tours and listened to talks about how each vineyard grows, tends, and harvests their grapes and then produce their various wines. We learned about soil and nutrients, weather conditions, and some of the procedures employed for insuring the continued health and productivity of the vines. We even learned about how the resulting grape juice was processed into the different wines, how they were aged and how some achieved their distinctive flavor. Then we got to the real reason we were there. The tasting and eventual purchase of a bottle or bottles of wine that appealed to our tastes and wallets. Much to my chagrin, the Boones Farm winery is not in Napa and you can’t purchase any of their wine in wineskins. Nevertheless, it was quite a learning experience and we came away with the understanding that the vine is carefully tended by the gardener who carefully prunes the branches to stimulate growth and a properly pruned branch produces juicy grapes after drawing nourishment from the vine.
This is the point Jesus is trying to make in our scripture reading for this morning. Jesus tells them that he is the true vine, and his Father is the vineyard keeper. God, he tells us, removes any of his branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. Jesus tells them, you are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. He explains that a branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, he says, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. He continues by saying, I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. This grapevine imagery was one that was easily understood by the people Jesus was addressing. Theirs’ was a very agrarian culture and their very existence depended upon producing a bountiful crop, no matter what they were growing. He goes on to tell them that if they don’t remain in him, they will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches, he tells them, are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. He then gets to his point when he says, if you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.
This is the crux of the whole lesson Jesus was trying to convey. If they did this, they would be his disciples. Discipleship is the act of following and learning from a teacher. Jesus is referred to many times in the New Testament as “teacher”. The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I think, that by your very presence here today, that you are disciples of Jesus Christ. What makes us effective disciples is how well we produce fruit, fruit that is rich in the juice that nourishes the soul and saves lives.
In my Clergy Consultation last week with our new District Superintendent, he asked how we were making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How were we producing fruit? That’s a tough one. Are we having discipleship classes? Are we actively out in the community knocking on doors, evangelizing and inviting people to church? No, and these are things we probably should be doing. However, “fruit” is not limited to soul winning. Producing fruit can mean both love among believers and mission to the world. I took the opportunity to detail to the District Superintendent some of the many missions we are currently involved in, some of the ones already completed, and some still in the planning stages. Even though we may not be knocking on doors or holding discipleship classes, we are following the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities.
Everywhere Jesus went, he helped people, but he could only be in one place at a time in his human form. There is no doubt in our minds that if Jesus wanted to instantly solve the homeless problem that existed then as it exists now, or poverty, or hunger, or disease, or famine, or any of the other problems we’ve faced since the time of man, he could. He’s counting on us to do it through him. If Jesus is in our human form, He can be wherever we are. Through us, the Holy Spirit can respond to the needs of others. Now, this is where it can get confusing to some and overwhelming to others if we let it. We are not responsible for the people in need, but we can be responsive to their needs. We take them as they are, and we do what we can to ease their suffering. Through us, the Holy Spirit can respond to the needs of others. This power of the Holy Spirit, this juice of the grape, not only blesses the recipient but also the giver, and beyond that, the blessing extends to everyone who ever hears about it. For many people life is hard, daily life can be a struggle, maybe not life and death, but a struggle nonetheless. With the help of our disciples, our missionaries at Community United Methodist Church, that life can be a little less burdensome. This is what I told our District Superintendent. We have a renewed mission spirit that has invigorated us and has drawn new members to our congregation and that we are constantly looking for ways to represent Jesus in the moment.
Christ is our vine, and God is the gardener who cares for us, the branches of the vine. He cares for us in such a way to make us fruitful. We branches are those who claim to be followers of Christ. The fruitful branches among us are the true believers who by their living union with Christ produce much fruit. From time to time, the fruitful branches are cut back to promote growth. In other words, God must sometimes discipline us to strengthen our character and faith during those times when we might be branching out in an unhealthy direction or find ourselves engaged in an enterprise that does not produce the kind of fruit necessary for the advancement of God’s kingdom. I think the same could be said about the life of a church. Sometimes, in the life of a church, you do have to do some pruning to stimulate growth. You have to determine what’s not working or producing as it should and make the necessary changes, the much-needed pruning.
Now, many people try to be good, honest people who do what is right. But Jesus says that the only way to live a truly good life is to stay close to him, like a branch attached to the vine. Apart from Christ our efforts are unfruitful. When a vine bears much fruit, God is glorified for daily he sent the sunshine and the rain to make the crops grow, and constantly nurtured each tiny plant and prepared it to blossom.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to love each other as Jesus loved us, and he loved us enough to give his life for us. We may not have to die for someone, but there are other ways to practice sacrificial love: listening, helping, encouraging and giving. We are called to give all the love we can, and then we try and give a little more.
We do produce fruit at Community UMC. Fruit that is sweet, that nourishes those of us who attend and come to worship, but also a fruit that is rich in juice that nourishes others in our community whose thirst needs to be quenched. Our juice has nourished countless people here in the Port Hadlock-Chimacum-Irondale area, other parts of Jefferson County, Okanogan County, Texas and Puerto Rico. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us and we are disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Disciples who are growing into the task as we take our nourishment from the vine tended by our master gardener.
Please pray with me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. I know I’m not the solution to the needs of others. I want to be responsive to the Spirit’s initiative with the Spirit’s resources. Teach me to be responsive to, not responsible for. Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Use me. For the glory of your name, Jesus, Amen.