Bruce Wilkinson tells about hearing the neighbors talk about a world-famous peach orchard close by when, as a child, his family moved to Georgia. Georgia peaches are justly world-famous! “Peaches so juicy, you gotta bring a towel just to stay dry,” he was told. One spring morning, he headed out to look for the orchard. But not a peach was in sight. Not even a puny one. And the trees look like Halloween – straggly and with poles all around to prop up the branches. “The place looked more like a hospital for crippled trees than a world-class orchard.” But later that summer he went back – and everything was completely different! There were peaches all over everywhere – the biggest, most tempting things you could imagine. The branches sagged with their weight, even with their support poles. As he walked through the rows of trees, in awe and wonderment, he prayed:
Lord, someday may my life look like this orchard for You.
May the fruit of my life be so heavy
That You’ll need angels to hold up the branches.
Whatever You need to do in my life to produce this
kind of harvest, Lord, please do it!
Our John reading for today has Jesus’ instruction on doing this.
God’s Planned Interconnectedness of Being
God has planned a wonderful system for life. Everything’s connected so that everything receives what it needs. Nothing – and no one – can thrive on its own. Like Sequoias, which grow so tall because their roots interconnect to bring water vast distances, there is an essential inter-connectedness of life.
The vine, the branches, and the vinedresser show how God works. Each branch is connected to the vine. The vine is the main trunk, which brings up water from the roots, and provides sap that branches need. Most vines are about waist high, with branches growing in both directions along a trellis. The branches draw their needs, their very life, from the vine. While each branch is capable of bearing wonderful fruit, they can’t do anything if they aren’t connected with the vine Their life comes from connection to the vine.
The vinedresser, cares for each branch of the vine, giving the attention each needs in order to thrive: lifting, washing, pruning, tying it up to the trellis – whatever it needs. The vinedresser wants to grow the best and most grapes, so they work to increase fruit production. If a vine drags in the dirt where mold would take over and kill it, it is left and tied back to the trellis. Vines need pruning or they run wild, producing beautiful leaves, but little fruit. The branches are to bear fruit – which won’t happen without the work of the vinedresser. Connections to the vine and care by the vinedresser enable the branches to bear fruit.
Jesus tells the disciples this in hopes that they would understand: they need to remain connected to Jesus -- even after his death. And God will care for them. They are to bear fruit – that is the purpose of branches. Fruit is good works that point to God, particularly love. That’s the next thing in this chapter.
But we have a choice. We sometimes choose to DIS-connect from the life of the Vine, of Jesus. We sometimes choose to center on ourselves, instead of on life in the Vine. When we do this, detaching from the Vine, we don’t thrive. The life-giving connection is severed. Living “at our own center, we limit all our experiencing to ourselves. We cut ourselves off from the stimulation and growth that contact with the fullness of life brings.” Hopefully we reverse direction before too long. Connection with God through Jesus connects us with “vitality, movement and creativity,” as Thomas Hawkins describes it.
It is this connection that provides us with life and enables us to bear fruit. God’s plan is interconnectedness, which gives life and vitality, and fruit. All three parts: God, Jesus, and the community of faith are needed in order to produce fruit.
Pivot to “Other-oriented.”
Another lesson of the evening is Jesus’ model of service. Jesus had taken a towel and washed their feet, just before they began their Night Hike up to the Mount of Olives. Washing dusty feet is a pretty graphic way of demonstrating servanthood. It likely embarrassed them. Jesus shows a sense of calling and fulfillment outside of himself. He models giving ourselves to one another in “other-oriented love,” and the disciples have front row seats for the demonstration. Jesus intends his followers to PIVOT to loving others, not focus on themselves.
Oneness gets us there. We become the life of Christ for others by ABIDING in Christ. This is a continual life force – not like an occasional stop for gas when we are running low – but more like a continual solar power renewal of our yard lights. They draw continually in the daylight so that they can shine at night. It’s ongoing recharging.
We ABIDE with each other as well – part of community together. No one ever lives for themselves alone. And when we love, we take another person so deeply into our hearts that the well-being of the other person becomes more important than our own. Sacrificial love is easier with love – it is actually the primary focus of caring for children, for example. If we become parents or caregivers of children, we put our other wishes on hold to take care of the small person or persons who have taken over our world. We recognize this deep truth in O Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi,” where Della and Jim trade their treasures for gifts for each other -- or more recently in the ending of the 2010 film “Tangled.” Rapunzel would give away her freedom in order to save Flynn Ryder – and he cuts her hair to give her freedom, although he believes it will result in his death. Of course, since it’s Disney, an option emerges where they both win.
Jesus articulates this idea of giving oneself for others in the way of the cross. We lose our lives to find them – deny ourselves to live for God. Not literally most of the time, but we do have to “lose ourselves” in God’s bigger purpose and in living for others to truly find the meaning for our lives that we sometimes don’t even know is possible. We have to die to our self-focus in order for God’s life to take hold in us.
“Bearing fruit” discussed in this passage is another way to speak of the love that Jesus requires of his disciples – the new commandment to love one another. That is to be the MARK of disciples, and of the community of faith. Those unproductive branches in the story are those folks within the faith community who do not bear good fruit in love. They are the branches connected to the vine, but not bearing fruit.
Serving others, demonstrating love for others – these are ESSENTIAL characteristics of life in the vine. Jesus wants us to understand so that life is available to us as well.
SO THAT the world changes...
ABIDING in the Vine that is Jesus frees us for a different way of living. ABIDING puts us in constant connection and close relationship with God: Creator, Jesus and Spirit. And this is designed SO THAT the world changes to be closer to God’s dream.
Perhaps we don’t talk a lot about this because abiding isn’t always easy. We have to choose to grow deeper in our connection with God. It takes a lot of decision-making off the table It’s a bit like Steve Jobs choosing to wear black turtlenecks and Levi’s every day to free his mental resources to consider other things. When we choose to follow God’s path, there is clear direction on things like how we spend our time (doing good), how we spend our money (God’s priorities), and how we work on relationships (with the good of the other person in mind). We hold onto an attentive concern for others through a deeply inward centering on God’s plan, God’s dream. To truly live, connected to God, is to obey God and live by God’s priorities.
For this to happen, other priorities are let go. Like aspiring Olympic athletes, we need to prune away anything that would derail our purpose. Aspiring athletes may spend over eight hours a day training, giving up dating, school activities, and hanging out with friends. Those things are “pruned away” because they don’t serve the main purpose, and resources are directed to those things that will bear fruit.
IDENTITY. Of course, this isn’t just about whether or not we choose to fully abide. It is a bit more basic than that: Identity. “What does it mean for the church to live as the branches of Christ the vine?” What would our faith community look like if we truly embraced this as our goal?
Clearly, it starts with connection: with Jesus and with each other. If you look at a grape vine, it’s hard to tell where one branch ends and another begins. They are intertwined. To live, they need to be connected to the vine. Nothing else matters. It is easy at church to let other things pull us off center. Committees, conflicts, things that aren’t quite right in our opinion – all pull us away from focusing on Jesus. And our LIFE depends on THAT connection! It is connection with Jesus, nothing else, that will help us bear fruit. To bear fruit is to act in love – together. The task of the community is to bear fruit by living in love – thereby showing the world the love of Jesus that shows through the church! WE should be known by the acts of love towards each other and the church! This is the fruitfulness that is God’s dream!
Those who “abide” with Jesus become fruitful. Fruitful disciples heal, teach and serve others so fruitfully that the world takes notice. They show love and forgiveness in ways that change lives. The mark of a faithful, fruitful, community is how they love. Their life in Christ spills out to others, bearing much fruit. God’s dream is that love flows through us to others, to all the world.
We can’t love God’s way on our own. We need constant connection with Jesus, the vine, to get past our own tendencies. Connection with the Source will help us pivot so we can focus on others rather than ourselves. Abiding will help us love – even those hard-to-love folks. When this happens, we bear the fruit of love for each other and love for the world. May we stay connected to the Vine, so they’ll know we are Christians by our love – May it be so.
1 Bruce Wilkinson, The Secrets of the Vine for Teens, pp. 5-7.
2 Thomas Hawkins, The Potter and the Clay, 64.
3 Thomas Hawkins, The Potter and the Clay, 64.
4 Dennis Kinlaw, Let’s Start with Jesus, 101.
5 Kinlaw, 103 – concept of perichoresis. Gas vs. solar analogy is my own.
6 Kinlaw, 134.
7 Kinlaw, 134.
8 New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, 754.
9 Hawkins, 64.
10 Wilkinson, 83.
11 NIBC, Vol. IX, 760.
12 Robert Schnase, Five Habits of Fruitful Congregations, 131.