Monday, May 7, 2012

Bearing Fruit


Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5a)
Jesus instructs his followers to bear fruit.  Bearing fruit is not about accomplishing something.  It’s about becoming someone.  
We live in an achievement-oriented culture, so it is no surprise that some of us will assume that Jesus expects us to accumulate a list of moral and spiritual accomplishments to add to our resume.
But when Jesus talks about bearing fruit, he is not referring to awards won, grade point average, degrees awarded, projects completed, offices held, titles conferred, surgeries done, or cases won.  
These can all be good, but they are fleeting.  They will pass away with all temporal things.  He has in mind something permanent, something that stretches on into eternity.  He has in mind our character.
Van Gogh's The Green Vineyard

Character is our me-ness.  Timothy Keller says that our character is what we will do when no one is looking.
I like to say that our character is our accumulated habits of thinking, willing, feeling, and acting.  Character is like our second nature.  It’s how we will respond to things without effort and before reflection.
The fruit we bear is our character.  Jesus teaches us that our character can grow in grace over time.
Many people assume that character is fixed.  We suggest that point of view when we say, “Oh, that’s just John,” when John does something offensive.  We’ve all learned to roll our eyes.  We haven’t accepted John on his own terms.  We’ve actually written off the idea that John could make some progress.
But Jesus teaches us that life is all about making progress in our character and leaving open the possibility that others can do so as well.
For instance, a person predisposed to feelings of despair could become habitually joyful.
A hard-hearted person can learn to show tenderness.
Someone who tends to be resentful can become forgiving.
A person constantly beset by anxiety can come to know an abiding peace.
Because of the fall, all of us have some glitch in our character.  To bear fruit is to make progress in our character.
Let’s look more deeply at bearing fruit by considering three questions:
First, what makes it possible to bear fruit?
Second, what do we have to do to bear fruit?
And finally, what happens if we do not bear fruit?

Vine and Branches
So, let’s look at that first question.  What makes it possible to bear fruit? We are all aware that we cannot just decide one day to have a different character, precisely because our character is a network of ingrained habits.
Think about the struggles so many of us have with common habits.  Those who have dieted or tried to quit smoking or introduced exercise to a sedentary lifestyle know that at least initially you spend a lot of time fighting yourself.  
You feel deprived when you don’t get dessert, stare longingly at the smoker across the room, and look for every excuse to go back to bed instead of heading to the gym.
In fact, millions of dieters simply regain their weight and just as many smokers resume their old habit after a short time.  Exercise equipment is a constant at garage sales.  It’s generally in great condition for having rarely been used.
Icon of Christ the True Vine

The moral of the story is that willpower is not what makes progress in character possible.  We cannot bear fruit on our own.  We depend upon our relationship with Jesus to bear fruit.
Jesus illustrates his point when he says that we are branches and that he is the True Vine.
Branches rely completely on the vine.  They draw their sustenance, their very life, from the vine.  Branches bear fruit only when their connection to the vine is strong and healthy.
Following Jesus means to be in this kind of intimate relationship with him.  We rely completely upon him and he pours life into us.  And the life he gives us is a kind of life we cannot provide for ourselves.
Just like the branch, the fruit we bear—the progress we make in character—is a result of our connection to Jesus Christ, the True Vine.
It is not our willpower that makes progress in character possible.  Our relationship with Jesus makes bearing fruit possible.
Abiding in Jesus
And this leads us to our second question.  What do we have to do to bear fruit? We have already suggested it.  We have to abide in Jesus.
To abide in Jesus is to rely upon him completely, just as the branches rely upon the vine.  This is, of course, an illustration.  But Jesus explains it.
He tells us two specific ways to abide in him.  We rely upon Jesus by being saturated by His words and by drawing on his love.
Abiding in Jesus’ words means to read the Bible.  It is not enough to read the Bible for momentary inspiration.  Neither is Jesus telling us to read the Bible for theological knowledge.
Abiding in Jesus’ words means to be saturated by his teaching.  When we devote ourselves to sustained, intentional, attentive hearing of the word, we begin to see ourselves, other people, and the meaning and purpose of life through his teachings. 
Hearing Jesus’ words this way happens in personal devotion but especially when we gather in worship and hear the word preached.
Jesus also tells us to abide in his love.  (John 15:9)  In other words, rely upon his love for our sense of significance and our sense of security.  Think of all the hurt feelings and conflicts we have had because someone else did not acknowledge our achievements or did not reciprocate a kindness.
Think of the times when disappointments made you think you’re a failure or rejection made you feel like a nobody.
These are all signs that we were not drawing on Jesus’ love as deeply as we can.  When we do, we have an assurance in the face of anything that we are valuable and that things will work out for good.
Herbert Gustav Schmalz's Christ at Bethany

When we abide in Jesus’ words and in his love, he does his finest work in us.  We bear fruit.  Our character begins to resemble his character.
This is what he means when he tells his disciples that God is glorified when we bear fruit.  Our redeemed character glorifies God precisely because it is his own handiwork.
God does not change us in an instant.  Our transformation is gradual, incremental, uneven, sometimes maddeningly slow and almost imperceptible.  
We need not despair that we have not arrived at perfection.  Instead, we can rejoice that, by God’s grace, we are making progress.
Withered Branches
And this brings us to our final question.  What happens if we don’t bear fruit at all?
Some people assume that God will stop loving you.  Here’s a news flash.   When you turned to Jesus Christ you had God at “yes.”  From the first instant God loves you infinitely.  You can’t make him love you any more.  And you can’t make him love you less.
God does not love you for your achievements.  But when we do not bear fruit, it is a sign that we are not relying upon Jesus’ love.  We have shut ourselves off from it.
Jan Wijnants' A Landscape with a Dead Tree
When a branch is cut off from its vine, it eventually withers and dies.  And that is what happens to our soul when we choose to seek our spiritual sustenance from something other than Jesus.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that all living things either grow or they decay.  For biological life, a point is reached at which all paths lead down.
Spiritual life too must either grow or decay.  However, Jesus teaches us about a life that will grow eternally.  The life that he gives will never undergo decay.  It will bear fruit for eternity. 


This sermon was preached at St. Mark's Cathedral on Sunday, May 6, 2012.

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