A Sermon on John 15:1-8
Peter was right to be concerned. He and his companions didn’t want to be separated from Jesus. “You cannot follow me now where I am going,” said Jesus on the night before he was betrayed, “but later you will follow me.”
“Lord, why can’t I follow you now?” cried Peter. “I’m ready to die for you!” Jesus looked at Peter and all the rest with compassion. He knew what lay ahead. After his arrest they would run away from him. His death on the cross would sever Jesus from them traumatically. But even after Easter brought a reunion and healing, other dangers would threaten the disciples’ connection with Jesus. An enormous task lay ahead of them: bringing forth the fruits of God’s love in all the world. It would be their mission to love as Christ loves and to be as he is in the world. Jesus was well aware that it was too much for human strength alone. Unless his disciples relied on his strength, burnout was certain.
The world itself would threaten their relationship with Christ. In bad times, the world’s hostility would tempt the disciples to abandon him. In good times, the world’s values of selfishness, power, materialism would tempt them to ignore him. Peter was right to be concerned about being separated from Christ, but he didn’t know how right he was.
“This is how it is,” declared Jesus. “This is how it is, and this is how it is going to be: I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who stay rooted in me and I in them will bear much fruit; for apart from me, you can do nothing. Apart from me, nothing. Whoever does not remain rooted in me is thrown out like a branch and dries up. With me, you can bear much fruit. Without me, you can do nothing.” Peter was right! Disconnection from Jesus is definitely something to be concerned about.
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” It was easy to grasp what Jesus meant. Think about cut flowers. In a vase of water, the stalks continue to live for a while. They drink water for a few days. New buds continue to swell and open for a while. But then it’s all over. Cut off from the plant, the branches are doomed. They are now useless. They’re on their way to the compost pile.
Some years I hang baskets of ivy-leaf geraniums across our front porch. From ivy geraniums I have learned that it is possible for branches to live in an in-between state: not totally cut off, but not fully attached either. Ivy geraniums are in vine form. The branches break off very easily. If you move or transplant the vine, many times branches will break loose, so they’re holding on to the vine by a mere thread of tissue. Somehow they limp along on this feeble connection and still manage to bloom. But they’re frail. They can’t bloom like they should because their connection is so poor. I’ve learned to cut them off to encourage the plant to develop new, strong, firmly attached branches.
It’s this in-between existence that Christ’s branches really need to be concerned about. For some, the connection with Christ is obviously weak. These branches aren’t much concerned about their relationship with Jesus Christ, or about living spiritually fruitful lives. They seldom consider Christ’s will when they make decisions. They seldom avail themselves all the sources of nourishment God has provided. Theirs is a story of unrecognized gifts, unrealized potential, missed opportunities for mission in his name! They are spiritually spindly, like a plant that hasn’t had enough water or nutrients, or the kind of light it needs, like branches just hanging on by a thread. To think of the strength and the purpose that could be theirs if they rooted themselves firmly in the one who is so faithfully attached to them with infinite love!
But these aren’t the only branches that ought to be concerned. Some of Jesus’ disciples take his call to be fruitful very seriously. They give and give and give, in every—or if not every—in just about every arena of their lives: family, work, congregation, and community. For them, the purpose of life is loving service.
You might think these branches don’t need to be concerned, since they so obviously are keeping Christ’s command to love others. Certainly they are on the right track. But there’s danger here. A branch can get so busy doing fruitful things that it neglects its connection with the vine, the source of the mission, the source of the power, the source of their own life. When there’s so much to do, how tempting it is to neglect to feed on scripture, prayer, Christian conversation–activities that don’t seem to accomplish much.
The result? Exhaustion. Burnout. Anger because others aren’t helping. Despair, because these branches have worked so hard, and there is still so much wrong, so much still left to do. With the best of intentions they have ended up limping along on a feeble connection with Jesus Christ, until the pain draws them up short and they start to realize there is no strength but the strength of Jesus. How very much they themselves are in need of him, his strength, his healing, his guidance!
And there’s something else all these branches need to be concerned about. Competing for our attention are all sorts of influences that do not come from God. Think of what a steady diet of TV can do to a person’s outlook on life. Picture a steady diet of shows that always get laughs at the expense of someone’s frailty or from cheap views of sex. Think of how a steady diet of images of violence can numb a person. Consider some of the values of popular culture: that life is about buying things and accumulating things, that life is about looking good, maximizing pleasure and minimizing obligations.
The popular culture around us can be dangerous, especially when we accept what it says without careful examination. It’s easy to feed on its message instead of on Jesus’ word.
“I am the vine; you are the branches,” says Jesus. “Those who don’t stay firmly rooted in me are thrown out like branches and dry up,” he warns. “You can’t bear fruit unless you abide in me.” The call here is to abide in Jesus, not just go along for the ride with Jesus. Get rooted in him and stay rooted in him. Branches, tend to your connection with the root every single day!
There’s no way to get around this: It takes discipline. And discipline takes effort. Individually and as a congregation we must use every means we can to open ourselves to the influence of Jesus. The hymn we sang a little while ago calls it taking time to be holy. Feeding on his word, scripture, day after day and week after week is a requirement. Prayer—alone and together—is a requirement. Participating in worship every Sunday we are well and sharing the sacraments is a requirement. Making friends with God’s children, that is, connecting ourselves with other believers in Christ’s body is a requirement.
Some people will argue with that last requirement. They think that participating in the corporate life of a congregation is optional. Some will even say that they don’t want to be associated with a bunch of hypocrites. For them faith is a lone-ranger activity: me and the Lord, and that’s enough.
Here is the best story I’ve ever heard illustrating why it is crucial to be connected to a family of believers. A minister went to see a man who wasn’t coming to church. He told the man, “You need to come to worship. You need to participate in Christian fellowship.”
“I can do just fine on my own,” the man replied. “I can read my Bible and worship God by myself.”
To this the minister said nothing. But the two men happened to be sitting beside the fire. The minister took the tongs and moved one of the coals out of the pile of coals and off to the side by itself. The two men sat there in silence and watched what happened. After a while, the isolated coal died. It burned out. But the pile of coals still glowed brightly.
The man turned to the minister and said, “I see what you mean. I’ll be in church next Sunday.”
“Stay rooted in me. You cannot bear fruit unless you stay rooted in me. Apart from me you can do nothing.”
Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot sustain the ministry and mission of this congregation. Without his power, we cannot love each other and the world as he loves us. We’re completely dependent on Christ for the gifts of faith, hope, love and the power to put them into action.
And we’re dependent on each other. We’re his body. Every single member of the body needs every other member of the body. Each branch is connected to all the rest through the vine. What happens with one affects all the others.
The life of our church requires everyone’s prayers! No exceptions. If we’re not all prayerfully seeking Christ’s purpose for our church, then something is wrong. Everyone’s presence is needed at worship. No exceptions. You are needed. And when someone is unable to come and participate actively in worship, then it’s the responsibility of the rest of us to help him or her connect in another way.
Everyone’s gifts are needed. Your gifts are needed. There is no such thing as a person with no gifts to offer Christ. Everyone, no matter what your age or what your weaknesses has something to give. There are no, and I mean no, exceptions! Everyone’s love and commitment are needed. The heart of the congregation needs everyone’s heart. It needs your heart.
Without this determination to stay rooted in Christ for dear life, the Morton Presbyterian Church cannot bring forth the fruit God longs to produce through us.
I read a fascinating story about how hard a plant will work to grow. A few years ago some researchers at Amherst College conducted an interesting horticultural experiment. They planted a squash seed and nurtured it carefully until the vine produced a squash about the size of a person’s head. Then they put a band around the squash that was attached to instruments that would tell them how much pressure the squash exerted to grow against the constraining band. They expected it to exert about 500 pounds of pressure. Within a month, they were proven right. It was registering 500 pounds of pressure against the band. Yet it was still trying to grow. At two months, it was exerting 1,500 pounds of pressure. At 2,000 pounds of pressure, they had to reinforce the band to keep it from breaking. The experiment ended with the squash exerting 5,000 pounds of pressure. It finally broke the bands that had been measuring its force.
When the experimenters cut the squash open, they found that it was full of dense fibers that had grown to push against the restraints. They also discovered that the squash plant had sent out over 80,000 feet of roots searching for the strength it needed to grow against the force holding it back. It had an incredible root system!
What if all Christ’s branches were that determined to be rooted in him, that eager to connect with him, that determined to fulfill his purposes? Think of what Jesus Christ can do with just a few branches trying to cling to him just as tightly as he clings to them! “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Christ Jesus said. “But with me, you can bear much fruit and become my disciples.” Let it be so here!