[A sermon on John 15:1-17 preached at Wine Before Breakfast on April 9, 2019.]
When I heard that I would be preaching on John 15, my immediate reaction was “Oh good! I love these verses.” In my mind, this was a very straightforward passage.
Then I read it in its fullness… and remembered that there’s actually a lot in there that makes me pretty uncomfortable.
Fruitfulness vs productivity:
Straightaway, Jesus tells us that we are the branches to His vine, that God is the vinedresser, and that any branch that doesn’t bear fruit is removed. Yikes! This begs the question, then: what does it mean to be fruitful?
The world would say that fruitfulness and productivity are synonymous.
We measure the fruitfulness of a country by its Gross Domestic Product. Employers determine the productivity of their employees, and hire and fire accordingly. If people don’t produce, the world says that they are not fruitful. Even in the church, we fall into defining fruitfulness as productivity; how many programs we can run, how much money we can raise, how many hits we can get on social media.
This way of defining fruitfulness is very clearly not what Jesus is talking about. Not only is it unhealthy and insufficient for people who are in the workforce, it completely excludes those who are not able to “produce” due to physical limitations, mental health struggles, trauma, and a host of other reasons.
No, the fruit that we are called to bear can only come about by abiding, staying, dwelling, resting in the words and the love of Jesus.
To abide is:
To be friends with Jesus; not slaves, but friends, who are allowed to know the very heart of God.
To give and to receive love that is marked by self-sacrifice, as opposed to self-promotion and upward mobility.
To receive the life-giving flow of the Spirit, and to bear the fruit of that spirit: the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
All of this leads us to engage in loving, Kingdom-bringing co-creation with the One who made us.
This kind of fruitfulness is NOT the “productivity” of the world. There are many folks in my life who have not been part of the job market for decades, if ever, and who bear the most beautiful fruit of wisdom, humility, peace-making, encouragement and gratitude.
Fruitfulness as a choice:
So, what about those uncomfortable verses about unfruitful branches being cast away? Well, we always have the choice to receive the life-giving flow of Christ’s love, or to pinch ourselves off from that flow. We will not fall into unfruitfulness by accident; such withering entails the choice to close ourselves off to love.
It strikes me that when Jesus talks about branches withering and being cast into the fire, it’s not God doing the casting. It’s other people. “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” Other translations say “men gather them and cast them into the fire.” When we choose to be closed off to the life-giving love of Christ, we do wither.
And the world, with its focus on productivity at any cost, self-promotion over self-sacrifice, and oppression in the place of shalom, seeks to consume us. The wisdom of the world is to use, burn- up, consume, other people along the way, if that is what’s necessary.
This is not what God wants for us! God wants us to abide in Christ, and to bear the fruit of love, joy and peace.
While this isn’t a complete answer to the questions that these verses raise for me, it’s something.
But wait! There’s more in these verses that makes me scratch my head. Jesus says that if we abide in Him, we can ask God for whatever we want and it will be given to us. He says this twice in the span of these 17 verses.
I honestly have no idea what to do with that, especially after a week like last week, when Sanctuary lost not one but two community members. When my co-worker’s husband who has MS was back in hospital with an infection. When a friend at The Dale told me that he was attacked with a machete and couldn’t pray anymore because all he has left to say was “fuck you, God”.
How does this seeming guarantee from Jesus about our prayers being answered fit into these situations? I have no idea. So I’ve just been holding onto a prayer from a book called “The Celtic Wheel of the Year” that speaks to Jesus’ abiding with us even when we don’t necessarily feel Him or have the heart to pray anymore:
Praise to you, Forsaken One,
for huddling with [us],
in the smooth-walled corner of abandonment.
Praise to you for suffering with [us] the roofless grief
for the loved ones lost too soon.
For knowing [our] pain, praise you.
While I don’t have any particularly satisfying answers for the big questions raised by this passage, the one thing I do know is that Jesus asks us to abide in him. And that this abiding is deeply good, even in the midst of the questions.
Because Jesus asks us to abide, I’d like us to spend just one minute doing that together. Let’s sit in the quiet of this space and dwell in the love of Christ. Some of you may be very at home in silence and contemplative prayer. For some of us this may be new. I invite you to plant your feet on the ground, your palms on your thighs, close your eyes and breathe deeply. If you like, imagine a vine deeply rooted and bearing beautiful fruit. For the next minute, let’s abide.
[one minute of silent abiding]
There are twelve more days until Easter Sunday. I invite you to join me in abiding in the deep, deep love of Christ, in an intentional way for these dozen days.
When you’re feeling unproductive and inadequate … abide.
When you feel that you’re in the smooth-walled corner of abandonment…abide.
When you are feeling joyful, grateful, fruitful… abide.
I’d like to close with a quote from Greg Paul, a pastor and friend to many of us in this community:
“I want to live, truly live. I want to grow, to know the sustaining sap of the vine rushing through me, and to bring forth a fantastic abundance of fruit. I want my companions on the journey to be able to share that fruit, as I share theirs. Someday, when the journey’s done and we’ve finally arrived home, all us little branches will hoist a glass with the Vintner himself and with the Vine too. It’ll be a well-aged, thoroughly intoxicating vintage—when held up to the light, a rich, deep, deep red.”