Sometimes I find it helpful to say what a thing is not, in order to get at what that thing actually is, especially when there are lots of ideas about that thing kind of floating around out there in the culture, or even in a particular community, like the Church, that are less than helpful. I think our reading from John’s Gospel is one of those sorts of things. All this stuff about vines, and vineyards, and fire, and fruitfulness can be very easily misunderstood, because, for the most part, we live in a suburban experience far removed from the realities of an agricultural world that serve as the underpinnings from which Jesus draws the images he uses here.
We also live in a place and time where morality – individual piety in terms of what we do and don’t do – gets all mixed up with ideas of what it means to be holy and Godly, as if it’s by our works, our own efforts to prove our worthiness to God, that God judges us. And, of course, nothing could be farther from the truth of the Gospel!
But we come to a text like this from John’s Gospel, and we’re confronted with these unfamiliar images, and we hear people equating branches with individual people, and fruits with individual piety, and fire with individual’s facing eternal punishment in the fires of hell, and fruitfulness with our good works, and it all gets more than a little confusing, doesn’t it?
So let’s start by using a bit of negation – saying what things are not – and see if we can’t come to an understanding of this text that’s more in line with who we know God in Christ to be through his saving death and life-giving resurrection, and what that means in terms of the fruits of that salvation as experienced through the whole people of God, living and serving together as the Church…
First of all, the vine is not the Church. The vine is Jesus. And the One who causes life and fruitfulness to happen in the vine is Jesus’ Abba, his Father. This is about Jesus, the vine, and God the Father, the vinegrower. The vinegrower needs to deal with the reality of unfruitful branches. Such branches need to be pruned, and pruning is tough love. It’s painful. It involves cutting away those branches that aren’t healthy, so that the fruitfulness of the whole vine might be increased.
But let’s be clear about this: dead branches are not those who aren’t holy enough, or those who fail to live according to whatever personal piety we want to lift up as holiness. Look at what Jesus says in verse 4: Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself apart from the vine, neither can we apart from him. Apart from me, you can do nothing! Fruitfulness happens from the vine out through the branches, not, somehow, from the branches themselves. This isn’t about personal piety. This isn’t about being good enough, or doing enough good works, or anything of the sort, as if it were all up to us. This is about the blessings of being connected to Christ Jesus, and the fruitfulness that flows out from the vine through the branches. Fruits are not about personal piety, but about the shape of the Gospel being the shape of our living together as God’s baptized people in the world.
So do good works have a place in the life of the believer, and in the life of the believing community called by God to live and serve together for the sake of the Gospel and the good of the world? Of course they do! But the good fruits Jesus is talking about here are the result of abiding in the vine. They are not our doing, they are God’s doing – the automatic result of abiding in the vine. And more: fruit comes from the whole thing, not from individual branches just hanging out on their own. The bearing of good fruits is about the fruitfulness of the whole vine – Christ, and Christ’s Body, the Church. This is God’s work and our hands, right?…
So once we take it away from the realm of individual fruitfulness, and equating that to individual morality, or individual good works, and start to think about fruitfulness as about how the Church does service for the sake of the Gospel and the good of the world, we start to get a whole different understanding and a whole new motivation for doing the Gospel together in the world. And there’s certainly no dearth of examples that we could lift up about how our Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is doing the Gospel in the world, proclaiming the good news of Christ, as our Baptismal promises say it: in word and deed.
Consider the Malaria campaign that we focused on last Sunday. Countless lives have been saved in the last few years, and as that work continues, in just a few more years, Malaria will be a thing of the past.
And consider this report from the news source, Marketwired.
BALTIMORE, MD–(Marketwired – April 30, 2015) – Lutheran World Relief (LWR), a US-based humanitarian agency with a presence in Nepal, will distribute more than 9,240 quilts, 1,000 personal care kits and 100 water filtration units in hard-hit areas of Kathmandu following Saturday’s devastating earthquake. The items, pre-positioned in a United Nations depot in Dubai, are part of a comprehensive relief effort by the organization that will likely include cash transfers, shelter support and rehabilitation and other critical needs.
The quilts were sewn by members of Lutheran congregations across the country. The personal care kits, also donated by church congregations, contain essentials for personal hygiene like soap, washcloths, toothbrushes, combs, and other needed items. The water filtration units can supply clean, safe drinking water to more than 1,000 people living in the disaster zone.
A $300,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will support the shipment and distribution of these supplies, as well as cash transfers and vouchers to ensure that those who have lost their livelihoods are able to meet their basic needs during this difficult period. These efforts will initially focus on Kathmandu, Gorkha and Lamjung districts and may expand to other areas.
LWR has sent additional staff to Nepal and immediately began assessing needs and raising funds for a comprehensive relief effort. In the immediate hours following the quake, LWR established a relief fund to support recovery efforts and worked quickly to confirm the safety and security of local staff and partners, and the many communities in which they are currently working.
And consider these hunger facts from the ELCA World Hunger web site:
- According to the United Nations, 868 million people – that’s 1 in 8 – are chronically hungry and cannot lead active daily lives.
- 2 billion people live in extreme poverty, living on less than $1.25 per day, according to the World Bank Poverty Overview.
And, of course, the problems are not only global, but domestic, as well:
- Based on a 2011 USDA report, in the United States, more than 50 million people do not know where their next meal will come from.
- 2 million Americans are living in poverty according to the 2012 US Census.
(See more at: http://www.elca.org/hunger#sthash.obONWjC2.dpuf)
The fact of the matter is that, without our bearing of good fruits together through the work of the Church, many more people would suffer much more.
Of course, we see local examples, as well. LSMNJ not only maintains
- An adoption program
- Community development projects
- Immigration and refugee services and refugee resettlement program
- Works with LDR, as we know full well here
Through their partnership in our Sandy volunteer hosting ministry
- Feeding programs
- And a homeless day shelter
But they also maintain
- Affordable family housing in Camden, Peapack and Trenton
- Affordable Senior Housing in Oldbridge, Rooselvelt, Pennsauken, Whitehouse Station, Flanders and South Plainfield
- Healthcare and retirement housing in West Caldwell, Moorestown and Jersey City
And none of these fruits, none of these good works, would be possible if we didn’t continue to abide together in Jesus who is the vine. None of these good fruits would be possible without our faithful stewardship as together we abide in Christ the vine, and strive to do justice and peace together in the world that God made, the world that God loves…
We are branches of the vine that is Christ, by virtue of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the blessed spring of Holy Baptism we are joined to Christ, the vine, and in Holy Baptism we come before God, stripped bare, as it were, drowned to death in the cleansing flood that we might be raised to new life in Christ.
And it’s this Christ, this Jesus, who ultimately was cut off for us, crying out from the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!
It is this Christ, this Jesus, who was cut off and consumed by the fires of death for us, as we confess: he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead.
It is this Christ, this Jesus, who was raised by God’s love and power, the very same love and power by which we will all be raised, as the vinegrower finally brings forth the fruits of the new creation, and gathers all things into the light of God’s eternal saving love and glory.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen!