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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

Christ the Vine: Staying Rooted & Bearing Fruit

John 15:1-8

Imagine with me for a minute: if you were a tree or a flower or a plant what kind would you be?  Would you be a sweet strawberry vine?  Perhaps a wise ancient oak.  Maybe you picture yourself as a colorful maple tree in the fall.  Or maybe you’re a cool looking palm tree with coconuts that are hard-shelled and well-protected.  Whatever tree you imagine yourself as, know that you are but a single branch of that tree and that in this Gospel reading Jesus Christ is saying he is the True Vine, firmly rooting you to God, the sustainer of the tree of life.  In this text Jesus is telling his disciples that Christians from all times and places are branches on this magnificent tree of life.


In this deeply mystical teaching, Jesus is showing us just how inseparable we are from God.  Jesus is teaching about our oneness with God and our oneness with each other.  He’s telling us we are so connected to God that it’s like a vine to its branches.  Mystics from all faith traditions point to oneness with God as the ultimate expression of the spiritual journey.  The oneness of the universe: all things in God, and God in all things.  Not absorbed into a oneness where we lose all individuality, but living in a union so interconnected that we are like individual branches on the same tree—where the one and the many exist simultaneously.  We have the privilege to live in mystical union with God, to share in the oneness of the cosmos and discover the beauty of life with each other. 


Last week explored how we can enter into this oneness through spiritual contemplative practices, through quieting the mind and surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s presence within.  When we seriously engage with our spirituality, the Spirit will strengthen our rootedness in Christ, and nourish us that we may grow into mature, healthy trees that bear good fruit. 


Growth can be challenging though, painful at times.  And Jesus tells us that God will prune us in a way that helps us grow.  The idea of getting pruned might sound scary.  Like in our children’s lesson when we saw Ryan cut the excess leaves off the plant.  Pruning can be a hard thing to go through.  And yet this is a common theme in scripture.  Jesus talks about pruning.  John the Baptist talks about burning our chaff.  The prophets talk about God purifying us in fire.  It’s a lot easier to think of such texts as being about other people, not me.  But whenever we hear Bible passages about burning and fire and pruning and cleansing, we need to understand that God desires to prune us—to purify us of sin, to make us holy, to firmly plant us and keep us well-grounded and united to Christ the Vine. 


This biblical tree metaphor is so helpful because it not only reveals how God keeps us rooted and prunes us, but also continues with the metaphor of bearing fruit.  Our fruits are the things we do, the actions we take on the outside because of what’s on the inside.  Good fruits stem from a person who has good roots and who has been pruned and who is connected to God.  If we’re not connected and rooted in God, our actions will stem from our own egocentric desires, our own individual selfishness that doesn’t see the larger picture of how interconnected everything is.  The actions that come from such a disconnected inner state may not always look bad at first—but they will eventually reveal their fruits.  Jesus says elsewhere “You will know them by their fruits” and I think that is the most accurate way to assess whether a person, a practice, an idea, or even a religion is genuinely from God.


It's reminiscent of what the respected Pharisee Gamaliel said in Acts 5 to the Jewish council as they debated what to do about the early church.  He said essentially: “If this Jesus movement isn’t from God it’ll fizzle out on its own, but if it is from God then nothing we do will able to stop it from spreading.”  He understood that they would eventually be able to judge the church by its fruits.


So just how do Jesus’ disciples bear good fruit in the world?  Well let’s look at our first reading this morning.  The disciple Phillip is travelling about in the days of the very early church.  He runs into an Ethiopian eunuch who is reading the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.  Now an Ethiopian eunuch was person who would have been an outsider in just about every possible way.  He was a foreigner from Africa.  He was rich and aligned with the power structure.  And he was a eunuch, which was a castrated male, who would’ve been considered not a real man in some cultures and would not be allowed inside the Temple in Jerusalem.  If you’ve ever wondered how Jesus or the disciples would’ve felt about people with non-traditional gender identities today, I think this story is as close as we get in the Bible to addressing the issue.  And we see that Phillip fully accepts the eunuch, fully includes this person who is different in so many ways. 


The eunuch apparently worried that his differences might prevent him from joining this church of Jesus Christ, and so his question “What then is to prevent me from being baptized?” may actually be a legit question and not just a polite way of asking to be baptized.  To question of whether he’s in or out, Phillip offers full acceptance and inclusion and baptizes him.  This story is a tremendous example of how Phillip, one of the twelve apostles, bears good fruit in the world, spreads the gospel of God’s love and grace, and manifests the kind of fruit Jesus taught him about.


Our second reading this morning was a profound scripture passage too.  It is John’s beautiful description of the God Who is Love.  It also adds to our understanding of what it means to bear fruit.  The author says that God sent the Son into the world so that we might live through him.  “Live through him” like a branch lives through a vine.  And then he says, “No one has ever seen God; [yet] if we love another God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”  What he’s saying essentially is that even though people can’t see God, if Christians embody God’s love in the world then they will see God (so to speak) by the way we live, by the fruit we bear.  When love is made visible, God is made visible.  When God’s presence is seen at work in us, God is made known to the world.  God is seen by the way the Body of Christ manifests love in the world, by the fruit that we bear.   


And so we are called to love, as God first loved us.  We are called to bear fruit—to manifest God’s love in the world.  We are called to be the light of the world.  To shine and share God’s love everywhere we go.  Sadly, not everyone is that good at this.  The world is full of people who seem to live their lives completely unaware of their connection to the divine.  And even those of us who may agree in theory that we’re connected to Christ the True Vine, don’t always feel it and act it out.  We all have moments when we do things that are not very Christlike.  And even when we’re not actively sinning, we might be too exhausted to let our light shine, too worn out by life to bear fruit, too depleted and overstressed to share God’s love in any meaningful way. 


This brings us back to the need to stay rooted in Christ, grounded in spiritual practices, connected with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit will refresh us and give us energy when we make time to rest in God’s presence.  God will nourish us, prune us, refresh us, and empower us to grow like a healthy tree planted by streams of water like Psalm 1 says.  When we focus on our inner spiritual journey, we will be refreshed and we will heal and we will grow and mature so that a desire to bear good fruit will naturally flow out of us.  We will be given energy and enthusiasm to do anything God asks of us. 


And we’ll do these things, bear this good fruit, accomplish these good works, not because we have to in order to earn God’s love—but because good fruit and good works are the natural response to being rooted in God, well grounded, healthy and whole.  A person connected to God will naturally share goodness and love, just like a healthy, mature tree naturally bears good fruit.  That’s what this biblical tree metaphor is all about.


Then when we’ve manifested God’s love in a real concrete way, we then go back to that place of inner contemplation where we are refreshed and nourished once again.  Our inner spiritual life and our outer spiritual actions flow one right into the other.


And so we know that Christ is the True Vine.  We know that we are connected to him whether we feel it all the time or not.  And we know that the more we rest in God’s peace and stillness, the more we will be nourished like a tree planted by life-giving waters.  Then, from that inner space of groundedness, God will prune us and God will help us grow.  So that we will share God’s love and bear good fruit in the world.  And we do all this, not because we’re trying to earn something, but because we’ve been so touched by God’s love that we genuinely desire to grow closer to God and to grow into mature, healthy trees connected to the Vine and bear good fruit.  Let it be so in us Lord Jesus.  Amen.

Pastor Brian | Fifth Sunday in Easter | April 28, 2024

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