The theme for today is bearing fruit. In John 15 Jesus speaks to his disciples saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” He tells them that if they want to bring forth fruit–by which he means new disciples, they must abide in him, and let his word abide in them. Jesus says that those that abide in him and bear fruit will be pruned by his Father the vinegrower so that they will bear even more fruit.
Jesus says that those who fail to abide in him will bear no fruit. Their fate is a sad one, for they are “thrown away like a branch and wither.” These withered branches are then gathered and thrown into the fire. Some people think the fire refers to hell. I don’t think so. This teaching by Jesus is one of the nine metaphors that are the 4th Gospel’s equivalent of the parables, and as with the parables, I would not push the details of these metaphors too far. Nevertheless, this teaching does utilize the stick and carrot theory of motivation. The stick is our fear of being a branch that falls from the vine and is thrown away to wither and burn. The carrot is the promise of Jesus that his fruit-bearing followers may “ask for whatever (they) wish, and it will be done for (them).” Why? Jesus says it is because “God is glorified when (we) bear much fruit and become (his) disciples.”
In this metaphor of Jesus the vine, the fruit that is born are converts, new believers. One may reasonably ask, “Are there other fruits that we may produce?” I think so. Just this week, I received an idea for a sermon from Rob Landry. Rob wrote:
“I once heard it said that in a pluralistic world a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.”
That is a powerful statement: What kind of fruit does our Christian faith produce for those who reject it for another path, whether another religion or a competing ideology, such as agnosticism or atheism?
I would suggest at least four things:
1. The world often benefits from Christian stability. The first-century church grew because of the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. Rome was seldom at peace, but it did impose a measure of order and justice on the world of its day. The same can be said of the Pax Christi, the Peace of Christ. The nations controlled by Christians are often as belligerent (or even more belligerent) than many non-Christian nations, nevertheless, these so-called Christian nations have imposed a measure of order and practical justice in the world.
As individuals, Christians are challenged to peace, and the love of our enemies, because of our citizenship. This is not true of all the Abrahamic faiths. Judaism is a religion of the land. Jews believe that God gave them Canaan land and they intend to hold it at all costs. They are fierce warriors which our military admires. Likewise, Muslims say that once a land has become predominantly Muslim and ruled by Muslim Law, that land is theirs forever. They will wage holy war to keep it. By contrast, ideally, though Christians may certainly love and defend the nation where they hold citizenship in this world, at the highest level Christian are encouraged not to have a particular attachment to a particular land. As Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” In the epistle to Diognetus which dates to the late 2nd or early 3rd century C.E. we read:
Christians live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign country.
It must be so for, as St. Paul reminds us, our citizenship, our commonwealth is in heaven.
2. The world often benefits from Christian charity. In Matthew 25, Jesus told his disciples that whoever watered, fed, clothed, visited, or sheltered the least of the least, watered, fed, clothed, visited, and sheltered him. This has inspired countless acts of service, including shelters, meals, clothing drives, orphanages, hospitals, and countless other forms of charity. The world would be a poorer place without Christian Charity.
3. The world often benefits from Christian curiosity. In the book of Colossians, we read that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation…in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” Christians are interested in the visible and the invisible, in what we know and what we don’t know. At our best, we see life as a voyage of discovery, and we seek to make every thought captive to Jesus Christ, whether those thoughts are religious, practical, or scientific. No wonder Karl Barth said that “theology is the queen of the sciences.”
Every time Christians have failed to participate in this voyage of discovery we have decreased our ability to speak with authority to the world. Take the practice of medicine. For nine centuries the popes in Rome utilized Jewish and Muslim physicians because Christian physicians preferred superstition and dubious tradition to what we now call the scientific method. Likewise, we failed and distanced ourselves from the world of reality when we condemned Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin.
Today, many of us are at it again. When we deny the threat of things like climate change and the Covid 19 pandemic, we do our faith a disservice. I am not talking politics, here. I am talking the truth. If the truth we have in Jesus is not able to encompass all truth, then J.B. Philipps was right: our God is too small!
4. Finally, I would mention that the world benefits from Christian community. In his poem, “Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost wrote that “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” That perfectly captures Jesus’s vision for the church. Jesus knows that the world is filled with people who are without roots, lost, and alone. He wants them to have a place where they can experience the acceptance and security of home. That place is not a building, or a mountain, or a land, it is a gathering of people that we call the church. The church is not a showcase for saints, it is a hospital for sinners, the failed, the failing, and the lonely. It must always be our task to go out, and “bring them in.”
Thankfully, we are not alone in our efforts. According to Acts chapter 8, the Ethiopian Eunuch has missed the 11:00 o’clock service of the first church of Jerusalem, but God called upon Philip to go to a desert road that the man might become a part of Christ community, the church. This passage was dear to Zinzendorf, the founder of the Renewed Moravian Church. When he sent out Moravian missionaries, he told them to look for “Candaced souls.” He said, “I want to speak to those to whom God has already spoken.” It is my conviction that we find them everywhere, and when we find them, they are looking for a place to call home.