John 15:1-8, Acts 2:42
Dr. Anne M. Cameron
March 13, 2011
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
First in a series on, "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations"
In the vineyard, the best grapes are produced under optimal conditions. Those branches nearest the central vine yield the best and most fruit. Of course! They are closest to the nutrients and water. Branches that are scraggly or pinched don't fare so well. They are not so well connected to the source. And branches that are cut off from the central vine? Well, they are dead.
In the backyard, trees and shrubs grow best under optimal conditions, too. Nourishing soil, adequate sun, the right amount of water, that's basically it. However. There is another thing that is also very critical---the correct preparation. How something is planted may often determine whether or not it will survive, let alone flourish. When the directions tell you to dig a hole double the size of the root ball, they really mean it. Not 20% bigger, not 30% bigger, but double.
How many times have you been working away, digging a hole and you bump into a rock or a root and give up? "I think that's probably deep enough!" you say to yourself. In the sweltering heat of summer you may find your new tree or shrub drooping. No matter how often you water, it's fading. It is not immediately obvious. It's more of a long term affect. For things to grow well, you often have to dig deep. You have to dig deep to allow the roots to grow and connect with the source of life.
When we study God's word, we learn scriptural context is really important. This passage today is quite familiar to most of us; so familiar, it is easy take it out of context.
This passage occurs late in the gospel of John. Jesus is soon to be arrested. He has been talking to his disciples a lot, trying to give them final lessons and assurance before he goes off to his fate. They know he is in trouble; they realize his life is at stake, and maybe even their own. They are scared. They don't want to lose him. They don't understand the whole picture, even though he has been trying to tell them for quite some time.
Jesus tells them where he's going (a house with room enough for them), and he tells them who he's sending (his spirit to comfort and guide them). He doles out advice; he crams in final lessons. He comforts and prepares them as best he can. Like a mother saying goodbye to her son at the freshman dorm, like a father reminding his sixteen year old daughter for the umpteenthth time to wear her seatbelt, Jesus keeps talking about love.
Then in Chapter 15 he tells them once again (and once and for all) who he is (and who they are) in relationship to him. It is the final "I am" statement of a whole bunch in the gospel of John (I am bread, I am light, I am shepherd, I am gate, I am way, I am truth).
Jesus saves the best for last. It may be the most important of all the "I ams." It is certainly the most detailed. It is hard to forget. "I am the vine and you are the branches. Apart from me, you can do nothing. I am it. Disconnected from me, you will wither and die. I am what you need, and you will always need me, you will always need to stay connected to me. You can't grow without me."
Our scripture today underlines this intimate connection between Christ and his community---this group of eleven scared men and perhaps some other hangers on, too. Jesus gives two commands here as well: ('abide in me,' and 'bear fruit and become my disciples'). The basic images of this passage emphasize the communal and connectional nature of discipleship. Apart from Jesus, we cannot be disciples. Apart from Jesus, we cannot grow and multiply and bear fruit.
In the churchyard, too, the best churches grow and bear fruit under optimal conditions. Jesus makes it clear in our passage today---fruit-bearing is what we disciples are supposed to do. The question is: what are the optimal conditions for bearing Jesus' fruit? What practices yield the most fruit in communities of faith?
Robert Schnase looks to faithfully answer this question in his book, "The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations." He has studied what vibrant, fruitful and growing congregations do. He has discovered some of the 'optimal conditions.' Not surprisingly---the optimal conditions for growing faith and bearing fruit are biblical. During this Lent we will focus on four: intentional faith development, passionate worship, radical hospitality, and risk-taking mission. Today we speak of intentional faith development.
Communities of disciples grow best when there is sustained and intentional effort put into learning about and practicing the faith. This is how the early church began to grow, thrive, and bear fruit. In the second chapter of the book of Acts we learn that 3,000 people joined the church in one day! Teaching all those new believers would certainly be a challenge, an exciting one, but definitely, a challenge! This is what Luke tells us about that group of folks:
"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common." (Acts 2:42-44).
Learning happens best in community. Jesus had his own "small group", his own "bible study", his own "prayer group," and this was replicated in the early church.
It is difficult to stay connected to Christ. It takes intentional practice. It takes discipline. Discipline is hard for us to do in isolation. We need each other, and in our midst, there also is Christ.
The temptation to go it on our own is great.
The temptation to take short cuts is also great.
The temptation to stop digging, to give up when we get to a hard place, is really great.
Faithful and fruit bearing communities put a high priority on biblical teaching, experiential learning, and accountability groups. When we promise to study together, when get to know one another in our study, we are more likely to keep it up. It's just like anything in life! We are much more likely to stay connected to the vine. We have more energy to keep digging deeper even when we hit a root or a rock or our back is simply tired.
Bible study changes people and deepens faith. Bible study connects people to Jesus and to each other. Bible study fuels disciples so they can grow the Body of Christ, they become leaders and they reproduce. It is a natural outgrowth of being connected to the vine.
Churches that are vibrant and growing are intentional about offering different options (short, medium, and long term) with different emphases and different teachers. Churches that help members stay connected to the vine prune away parts that are no longer fruitful and seek to plant new opportunities to serve different needs and interests.
Intentional faith communities for the 21st century find creative ways to engage the unchurched or the overscheduled or the disinterested in order to help each part of the body dig deeper and create a more nurturing relationship to the One who is our life and breath.
To bear more fruit, we dig deeper. We learn to be intentional, committed, and covenantal in our learning. We learn to be disciplined in prayer and practice. We help each other out, but there is something even deeper that happens when we do this.
We abide. We rest in God. We are filled and fulfilled. We find ourselves drinking from the deep well of God's word and basking in the warm glow of God's Spirit, that same Spirit (the comforter, the advocate) that Christ promised so long ago to his disciples. That same spirit is given to us through the power of God's living word. We are empowered and strengthened. The Body of Christ becomes stronger and we are a part of that!
There is a famous preacher I know (Haddon Robinson) who shared this story of his journey into preaching. He was educated at a time when there weren't any Ph.D. programs in homiletics, so he found himself at the University of Illinois in the Department of Communications. Robinson was new on campus and he sought out his assigned adviser. This man was to be Robinson's mentor and guide through his doctoral studies.
Robinson entered the professor's office, not quite knowing what to expect, a little nervous about what this first encounter was going to be like. The professor sat in the middle of a huge office, lined with all kinds of books, all different shapes and sizes, a veritable library in an office. It was a bit intimidating.
“So you want to be a preacher, eh? You think you can learn something here, do you? You know, Robinson, I have read them all. I have read them all in the original Greek---Homer and Sophocles, Euripedes, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato. I have read them all. And I have read the Bible, too.
You wanna know what the difference is between all these classical books and the Bible? Sure, they are all amazing, beautiful, insightful, mind-boggling. But the Bible? You want to know the difference?
"The Bible is alive. It's alive. All the rest of these---they are long dead and gone, but the Bible lives on. The Bible changes people. That's the difference, and it makes all the difference in the world."
Lent offers us a fresh opportunity every year to get our spades out of the shed, locate our work gloves, and work up some sweat to dig deeper, reach further into ourselves, to become more alive. To live and dwell and abide, because in God's word, in relationship to each other, we stay connected to the vine.