Today’s gospel, as part of our sermon series on the 7 ‘I am…’ statements made by Jesus, talks a lot about bearing fruit. Many of you are very familiar with the cycle of prepping soil, planting seeds, tending plants through the growing season, and finally harvesting the result of your labor – the fruits of your garden. There is a sense of timing and a sense of preparation – we cannot simply go from the hard, frozen ground to a bountiful harvest without proceeding through these important steps. I confess that I was not raised on a farm, but I’m guessing most of you already knew that! I used to maintain a garden at our previous home and one year I decided to expand my garden and planted corn for the first time. I wasn’t sure exactly when to start planting corn, so I used the area farmers as a guide. When they prepped their field, I had Mark prep ours! When I started seeing their neat rows I knew they had probably started planting, so I did too. I admit my corn was a lot shorter than theirs as I was probably about 2 weeks behind them, and I wasn’t using a genetically modified seed that would allow 2 crops/year. So we proceeded through the prepping, planting; and into the tending stage – weeding, fertilizing, and watering when nature didn’t take a hand. There is work involved in order to bear fruit. But let me tell you, that was the best tasting corn I had ever had!
Jesus notes several times that we as the branches need to remain connected to the vine in order to bear fruit. There are two things I wish to explore with this scripture. First, how do we as the branches remain connected to Jesus, the true vine? And second, what is Jesus talking about when he mentions ‘fruit?’ What is the fruit that he sees as an indicator of a healthy branch?
I talked with the children a little bit about ways we can grow our faith in God. We talked about attending worship, prayer, reading the Bible, listening to or meditating on God. There are other ways as well – fasting, tithing, in all things seeking first the kingdom of God. When you look at this Jerusalem Cross, it would be all the stuff on the left side, under the categories of ‘devotion’ and ‘worship.’ We as human beings tend to be a bit self-centered. If you doubt this at all, hand out with a two-year old for a while! Dedicating time and energy on prayer, reading Scripture, meditation – these are all ways for us to put God’s will ahead of our own. These are the ways in which we recognize God as our Creator, our giver of life. Jesus as the True Vine is our source of life itself, and we are to ‘abide in him.’ To abide means to align ourselves with Jesus, becoming more and more like him. The more we align ourselves with Jesus the Christ, the more natural engaging in the acts of the right side of this cross becomes.
Many will argue that worship is simply not important anymore. With the advances of technology, the instantaneous nature of communication, we can be in our own little world with almost no interaction with others. Yet Jesus indicates we are branches connected to the vine. Healthy vines always have multiple branches – no one branch has the cornered market on the vine. We as human beings are made to be in community with one another. Here is a great insight – we cannot do everything on our own. At times we will need help from others, and at all times we need the power and unshakeable love of God. Our Christian community is vital to the health of the vine, the health of our church, the health of our neighborhood, and beyond.
The scripture tells us that branches such as we are cannot bear fruit if they are not connected with the vine. We need to be connected with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is simply not possible to bear good fruit and not maintain the connection to the vine. I have often gotten angry when I’m working in the garden and accidently rip off a fruit-bearing branch of a bean plant or a cucumber vine. Once the connection is severed, it is no longer possible for that branch to bear fruit. So as a community of God, we need to stay connected with our source of strength and encouragement. But why is it important to bear fruit? And what is this fruit to which Jesus refers?
Some will argue that bearing fruit encompasses the right side of this cross – engaging in acts of justice and acts of mercy. Some may question the need to bear fruit. Paul talks in his letters of how faith, not works, is what will bring us eternal life. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he was struggling with their understanding that they had to follow the works of Jewish law in order to find salvation. Galatians 2:16 says, “…know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” Here Paul is noting that we cannot earn God’s grace – it is a gift freely given to anyone who wishes to receive it. So it seems as if we shouldn’t need to worry about bearing fruit – all we need is our faith.
It is true that our good works alone are not enough. Yet Jesus sums up the law in 2 parts – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor. We are charged to bear fruit by honing our love for God, and serving our neighbors. We do not do good deeds in the hope of winning salvation, but as a result of our forgiveness for our sins. None of us is expected to live in a vacuum. Our community provides the strength and reassurance we need to face difficult times and also to share God’s love with others.
The book of James has some interesting statements about faith and works as well. It appears initially that James did not agree with Paul’s assessment, because James basically says that faith without works is dead. It doesn’t get more basic than that. The difference appears to be the use of the term ‘works.’ For Paul, works are deeds done to fulfill Jewish law, such as maintaining food laws and submitting to circumcision.
For James, works are those actions we do because of our faith – we help the poor, we comfort the grieving, we care for the sick, we feed the hungry. We share God’s love as the messengers of the good news. We are all sinners; Christ died for our sin; if we confess our sin and seek ways to abide in Jesus, we will have the blessings of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – the fruit of the Spirit that can only come from God.
I would argue that bearing fruit involves all aspects of this Jerusalem Cross. As we draw closer to the vine, we as the branches become healthy and stronger in our faith, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. As we embrace our close connection to Jesus, we engage in acts of justice and mercy as ways to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Jesus is the true vine and we are the branches. At times, God as the gardener will prune fruitful branches so that we can bear even more fruit. Some of us may feel we have been through the pruning – it’s painful at times. But let us stay connected to the true vine – our source of power and strength. We are here for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We are a part of this community for a reason. We have sustained the storms of change throughout the years and I believe God has more in store for us. God is not finished with us yet. Let us renew our commitment to God and dedicate ourselves to bearing good fruit. I’d like to reread part of the scripture from John chapter 15 beginning with verse 11: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” Verse 16 says, “…you did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” Let us stay connected to the true vine and bear good fruit. Amen.