Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of FirstBaptistChurch in Rome, G.A., on Feb. 22, 2009.
John 15: 1-8
The scripture passage today is one that does not need a lot of explaining. We understand
this image of the vine. If you can think with me, most children at some point have the great idea
that they are going to give someone they love, typically a mother or grandmother, a bouquet. A
child sees all the dandelions in bloom. The child goes and picks a handful and it seems the best
idea in the world. Before the child takes them to mother or grandmother, he sets them down on
the front steps and goes and plays for a while. When it is time to go in, the child runs back to get
the bouquet to take them in. The bouquet is wilted and shrunk and there is no getting them back.
Perhaps you have had the experience in buying a live Christmas tree. What are the
characteristics of a good, live Christmas tree? It has to be your particular kind—fir, spruce,
white pine, whatever. It has to be the right height to fit where you want it to go. It has to be full
on at least three sides. You can always put the bad side in the corner. You always want to make
sure that it is going to keep the needles through the holidays, don’t you? I remember a tree we
had that if you shut the door hard, you could hear those needles hitting the packages. Once you
pull a flower from the plant and it is not connected any more, it will wither and die. The great
ones that you order off the internet last for a while and are better than the ones we pulled as kids,
but they will eventually wither and die also. Eventually the needles will fall off a tree that is cut
off from its roots and it will die, too.
The image that Jesus gives to the disciples and to us as his disciples is that he is the vine
and we are branches. If we are not connected to the vine, then the same thing happens. If you
are not connected, you will not be able to do anything. If you are connected, you can do great
things. But there is really more to this.
Do you realize how many times in the Bible this image of the people of God as a vine or
a plant shows up? Jesus talks about it several times. He talks about, “You shall know them by
their fruits.” A good plant cannot bear bad fruit and a bad plant cannot bear good fruit. You can
look and you can tell about people.
Remember the story where Jesus is about to enter into Jerusalem and he sees a fig tree?
It looked like it should be bearing figs, even though the scripture tells us that it wasn’t the season
for figs. It was blooming out of season. Jesus went up and looked at it, and there were no figs
on the tree. He said, “Cursed are you tree and nobody will ever eat fruit from you again.” When
they came back the next day, the tree was withered.
The Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Psalms in the Old Testament contain
images where Israel is called a vine. The amazing thing is that in the majority of the stories
about the people of God being described as a plant bearing fruit, there is a failure to bear fruit.
Then there is some reaction from the character in Jesus’ parable, from Jesus himself, or through
the prophets. They describe what God intends to do whenever there is this failure to bear fruit.
This is really where the crux comes down. What does it mean to bear fruit? It is kind of
like when you had to write an essay in high school. It was one of those easy subjects that
everybody knew what it meant but nobody knew how to say it. I know what it means to bear
fruit but if we all had to write it down in 25 words or less before we were allowed to leave
church today, we would all want to look over on each other’s papers. I heard one person in a
Bible study say one time, “I know what it means. I can’t exactly explain it, but I know I don’t
like it.” I think he was being confessional because he recognized that there was a lack of fruitbearing
in his life.
What are some of the things that we think about when we think about bearing fruit?
Sometimes we think it is really obvious if a person has a blessed life. If a person really has a life
that is clearly blessed by God, then we know they are bearing fruit. What do we mean by a life
that is obviously blessed? We measure that by material success. “You can’t argue with success.
Just look what they have. God has really blessed them.” That is an indication, in many people’s
minds, that people are faithful. The only problem is that does not stack up very well against
scripture, does it?
Take Zaccheus. When Jesus meets Zaccheus, Zaccheus is very wealthy but Zaccheus has
this tremendous need to repent. In the course of his encountering Jesus, he is going to give away
half of what he has to make up for the kind of person he has been. All this stuff in his life to
begin with is a sign that he has not borne fruit. After Zaccheus repents and begins to walk with
Jesus, it is a sign that he is bearing fruit.
In the Gospel of John, Joseph of Arimathea was a very wealthy person and he bought the
tomb for Jesus to be buried in. His wealth is a sign of blessing.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is across the gulf in the fire and
Father Abraham said, “There is nothing we can do to get over there to help him. He had his
chance.” You just cannot look at things like that. They are not a guarantee. They may be, but
they may not be.
What about being good? When we become Christians, we are all supposed to be good.
Is that bearing fruit? Am I bearing fruit when I am a good person? That is what we try to tell
our children. “You are a Christian now. You have to be good.” Hopefully, that is part of it. We
really do believe that, if Christ has saved us, part of what we are called to do is to reflect Christ’s
character in the world. We are supposed to be Christ-like. I think that would include a certain
degree of righteousness. However, we all know good people who have failed. We all know
people who are not Christians who are really good people. We all know people who are
Christians who do some sorry things. You cannot always look at everybody’s good conduct
awards and tell whether or not they are bearing fruit. What’s going on here?
As I try to sift this down to put it into something that all of us can understand or identify,
to me a person is bearing fruit if they help people love God more. If you read further in the
passage of John 15, there is a lot about loving one another in the commandment that Jesus has
given to his disciples. Let’s say someone is not a Christian. I can be bearing fruit in my life if I
help that person love God more and they make the decision to accept Christ. If someone is
already a Christian and somehow in the witness of the church a person grows to love God more
and invest their life more in the things of God, then I would say that. as a church, we are bearing
fruit. It is hard to argue against this. This really does seem to capture it all and put it in its most
simple form. We bear fruit when we are participating in the work of Jesus Christ and it has the
result that people love God more.
The one thing that we are very clear about is that the Christian life is never an end in
itself. It is not about, “We’re in; they’re out.” It is not about going to work and saying, “I am
Christian and you are not. I’m in; you’re out. Sorry. Wish you could be good like me.” It is
never like that. It is never about that if I am a Christian, God blesses everything I do and I am
always successful. It is not about that if I am a Christian, God always answers my prayers and
does not answer your prayers. It is about I am a Christian because I know what God has done for
me in Jesus Christ, and because he loved me first, I love him. Now my life is tied to this great
work of Christ. My life is tied to Jesus himself. What I want more than anything is for other
people to love Christ, too. That is the goal.
If you could look at your life and keep a score card of how many people love God more
because of things that you have helped with, done, said, whatever, wouldn’t that be a sense of
bearing fruit? If nobody did, I would be hard pressed to find something else that made me feel
like I was bearing fruit. If nobody loved God more because of my life, what in the world could I
substitute that I could still say, “I am bearing fruit. I don’t care what you say.” I don’t know
what it would be.
So how are we doing on the fruit bearing? Are there lots of people loving God more
because of you or me or all of us together as a church?
What happens if we are not doing very well? Let’s just say we are looking around and
we say, “I don’t know. I can’t really name a lot of people who are loving God more.”
What are we doing to do? The first thing we want to do is come up with a plan. If we
could feed people in Christ’s name and tell them, “We are giving you this food because Jesus
loves you,” then people would love Jesus more. That would be a way.
We could have a witnessing class. Everybody will meet and we will go out and witness
and tell people that Jesus loves them and they will love Jesus in return.
What we always do when we find ourselves coming up short is to come up with a plan.
We are going to work the plan. Has anyone ever told you that? That is not what the passage
says. The passage doesn’t say, “If you don’t bear fruit, you had better get a plan right away.” It
says very clearly that if we are in Christ, we will bear fruit, and if we are not in Christ, we won’t.
What Jesus says in this passage is that you almost can’t help it. You will bear fruit.
If we do a self-examination of our lives and think, “I am not bearing a lot of fruit in my
life,” instead of going out and getting a plan and saying, “What is the first thing I can do,” the
first thing we can do is to recognize that we need to get connected. When we are connected and
Jesus is truly working in and through us, the fruit will begin to bear.
What kind of life would it be if, because of you, people really did come to love God
more? What could that mean for their lives and what could that mean for the world? We need to
bear fruit. We need to get reconnected.
When I start talking about this, I feel like I have said the same thing a hundred times in a
million sermons. There really is no way to do this without having some time with God. There
really is no way to do this without listening to Jesus. There really is no way to do this unless I
am meditating on scripture and genuinely and earnestly praying.
People love nature and say, “I am going to go out and worship in nature.” The next time
you go out in nature, instead of just observing the lake, trees or whatever it is, just clear your
mind of everything and offer this prayer: God, whatever it is you want me to be concerned
about, you bring it to my mind while I am here. Then watch where your thoughts go. You might
start thinking about someone in particular. “God, is that you are telling me that I need to be
concerned about that person? Are you bringing that person to my mind?” If you just go out in
nature because you love nature and all you ever think about is catching a bass or whatever, I
don’t know how much worship that is. But if you use it as a way to shut everything else out so
that you can wait for that impulse of the spirit that starts making you think about the Soup
Kitchen, Homeless Shelter or a person in your Sunday school class that has been in crisis or
someone at work or down the street that you know has been lonely or in need, maybe that is God
speaking to you and saying, “It’s time for you to do something. Let’s go bear a little fruit.”
If we find in our lives that there are not many people loving God more because of things
we have done and the way that we have lived, we don’t need a plan EXCEPT the plan to
reconnect to Christ. If we abide in him, we can do anything. If we don’t, not much gets done.
Abide in Christ. See what miracles God can work for you.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.