Acts 8: 26-40; Psalm 22: 24-30; 1 John 4: 7-21; John 15: 1-8
Many of you know that I am a gardener. Kathleen Walker and I have run a business called Heavenly Gardens for 17 years. Normally, I would tell you that there are business cards at the back of the church; however, we are now women of a certain age, and digging in the dirt is becoming increasingly arduous. So although we love what we do, we’ve stopped advertising.
Gardening, growing things, was a very big thing in the Palestine where Jesus walked. Still is. Whether they were gardeners or not, people understood vines and branches. They knew their crops well; they knew their grapes and they knew their wines. They knew about pruning and they knew the right way to do it.
Some branches produce fruit, and they are pruned carefully and taken care of and nurtured. Some branches don’t produce any fruit, and they are removed, tossed out, and burned.
Now, here in the year of our Lord 2015, we are most definitely people of productivity. It is, for the most part, the standard by which we live, how we measure our success, how other people measure our success. Productivity is the basis of our economic system.
Those who produce are rewarded, and those who don’t are thrown out. Within our education system, the students who do well and produce are recognized and supported.
Those who don’t just get lost in the system. Every professor knows the mantra – Publish or Perish. Careers and promotions are based on productivity. Productivity, at some level, is at the core of the debates we have about poverty and welfare and health care and the elderly. “They” don’t produce, and our care of them – and for them – often reflects what we think of that, whether we know it or not.
We have, I think, become convinced that productivity is the goal for everything. Only the fittest survive. I wonder sometimes – no, often I wonder – if that isn’t how many of us live our spiritual lives, if we even admit we have spiritual lives. How many of us have been told in some form or fashion – or come to believe – that pruned and productive branches go to heaven and removed branches go straight to hell. Think about that.
Pruned branches produce, so they are rewarded. Non-productive branches are punished.
In that sad, serious, misunderstanding, fruit is God’s demand upon our lives and the means by which we can appease God. God will be happy if I produce; God will be unhappy if I don’t.
If we’re not very careful, we’ll get stuck categorizing ourselves – and one another – into fruit-bearing or non-fruit bearing branches.
There is, though, a deeper issue than simply the production of fruit. Productivity doesn’t usually create deep and abiding and intimate relationships. Productivity creates deals, transactions. Jesus is not talking about – let alone demanding – productivity. He wants – and he offers – connection, relationship, intimacy.
The fruit or the lack of it that Jesus is talking about is a manifestation of our interior lives and health. It describes and reveals whether we are living connected or disconnected lives. Fruit production is the natural consequence of staying connected – the branches staying connected to the vine. You can see that in long-term friendships, in healthy marriages, in community loyalty. We don’t choose whether or not to produce fruit. We do, however, choose where to abide and how and with whom to stay connected.
You all know how that is, I expect. Sometimes we lose touch with a particular person. We no longer know where she is, what she’s doing, what’s happening in her life. And then one day you run into her. And it’s a bit awkward – often really awkward. No one is sure what to say after the hearty Hello! There’s not much to talk about. There was no deep abiding presence, the connection is lost. I remember my 25 year high school reunion. I was one of the few kids who left town after school. Everyone else stayed there, stayed connected. That reunion was downright dreadful. The connection was lost, and it seems as if what used to be had been thrown away. But there are those other people you run into after five or ten or twenty years. You seem to pick up where you left off all those years ago. Even though you were apart; you never really left each other. There was, and remains, a connection – and mutual abiding – that time, distance, and the circumstances or life seem unable to sever.
So, what fruit am I producing? How much? Is it an acceptable quality? Those are good questions if we understand and ask them diagnostically, as questions, not about the quantity of our lives, but the quality of our lives. That’s what Jesus is after, you know.
That is the deeper question he is asking us. It is the invitation to join in the conversation, jump into the game, to participate and live life as fully as we can. That only happens when the life, the love, and the goodness and holiness of Christ flow in us. We become an extension of and a manifestation of his life and love and holiness.
It is a relationship of union, even as a branch is united to the vine. We live our lives as one. This isn’t just about relationship with Jesus. It affects and is the basis of our relationships with one another. Love for Jesus, love for one another, and love for ourselves become one great big love. We soon discover we are living one life, and the fruit of that life and love is abundant, overflowing, and Father-glorifying. No report cards, no dreaded performance appraisal, no publish or perish, no rush to the finish. A life in relationship with Jesus, other people, and ourselves is a whole life, a fruitful life, the kind of life Jesus talks about all the time. He’s the vine; we’re the branches. No way we won’t produce fruit.