Sunday, May 1, 2011

Jesus Said: I Am the Vine – John 15:1-11 and 12-17

Today we are going to begin a new preaching series focusing on three pivotal sayings of Jesus Christ. These sayings are sources of great instruction, incredible wisdom, and lasting hope. These sayings can be for us a way to draw closer to our Savior, while at the same time allow us to come to a deeper and more connected understanding of the nature of Jesus. Over the next three weeks we will look at the sayings of, “I Am the vine and you are the branches,” “I Am the Way, the Truth, and The Life,” and “I will never leave you” as we seek to unpack the importance and meanings of these words. Today we will begin with the saying, “I Am the vine and you are the branches” as we, as a thoughtful people, seek to better the understand the importance of having Christ in our lives, of the fruitfulness that results from that, and the role our actions play in those endeavors.

Look Before You Leap
Many of you know that starting anything from scratch is a difficult endeavor. There are no systems in place that you can build on, there are no people in place to help you out, and there is no history that you can start upon. Everything needs to be started.

There was a young man in that very same position. He was beginning his life in ministry and had found a volunteer opportunity to establish a youth group at a church with a predominately older congregation. The only thing he had in which to begin this group was five kids. That was it.

So he set out by having a few gatherings to get to know these teens. They would gather on Sundays, have a Bible lesson, play outside, and have a snack. After about a month those five kids dwindled down to two, and those two were the choir directors children. This young man felt like a failure. He began to retrace his steps to see what went wrong. Why did this not work? He had the best curriculum, played the games the teens wanted to play, and offered great snacks. He had even taken them on a few mystery destination trips by piling them in his car. Yet this was not working, over half the kids quit coming.

Then it dawned on him. He was doing this alone. I do not mean physically alone. I mean spiritually alone. In all of this he had never asked God for help, for guidance, for blessing. He had been so wrapped up in trying to make this work, he forgot to pray for God's involvement. So right then and there he prayed. Prayed for God to bless this youth group, to grow it, to strengthen it, and to be the guiding force.

And that is where we find ourselves this morning with our Scripture lesson. We read about a lesson Christ was trying to teach the disciples about staying connected with Him using the metaphor of a vine and its branches.

A Vine's Nourishment
In the Gospel of John, Jesus shares this message with the disciples after his last meal with them in the Upper Room and before his arrest, trial, death, and resurrection. As I began looking at this passage, my first question was why a vine? Why this example rather than another agricultural metaphor? What I discovered was rich. I discovered that viticulture, the study of vines, was a prominent aspect of Palestinian life and this metaphor would have been familiar to the disciples. This would have been an example they could relate to and understand its nuances. But more than that, I learned about how a vine grows. A vine, as many of you have seen, grows horizontal to the ground stretching out along a trellis, a pergola, or a fence.

Now for a vine to be healthy is has to stay connected to its root. There is a vine that grows along my fence in the backyard. One day some animal chewed through on of the vines at the bottom and disconnected it from the root. For a few days it stayed green. If you had not known it was disconnected you could not tell from its appearance. However, it soon began to wither. I think about our life and existence within Christ and how often are we like that vine. How often do we sever our connection with God, purposefully or indirectly, and feel we can do it on our own? It is not long before we wither. Either from discouragement, disillusionment, or feelings of failure. Christ is the life that gives us energy. Christ is the source of our nourishment. Without which we cannot survive. For us our connection to Christ is as important for life as it is for the vine to be connected to the root.

The Benefits of Pruning
Another aspect of viticulture is pruning. I have a tree right outside my office window. This winter that tree was cut back to the trunk. I mean there was not a green anything on that tree anywhere. Now as Spring comes, there are green leaves everywhere and you can hardly see the brown trunk at all. Just like that tree, a vine needs to be pruned.

Pruning is that act whereby the live wood is cut back so that the energy of the vine is spent on producing fruit rather than wood. The wood of the vine is like our relationship with Christ. It is necessary for our survival, but it is not the only aspect that is important. I ask you, what would our lives look like if all our time was spent on cultivating our relationship with Christ? If that was all we did, is there any fruit there? No! We are called to go out and take what we learn to others. We are called to share our spiritual gifts with the community. We are called to be salt of the earth. That means, spend time with Christ, listen to Christ, be transformed by Christ, but then go out. Go out into the world telling others all that Christ has done for you. And that means all of us.

Here at Druid Hills we have begun that practice. We have reached out beyond our walls with the Food 4 Kids program. We sought out InterFaith and asked to be a part of that ministry that fills backpacks with food so children in Marion County, that are on the free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs at school, have food to eat over the weekend. We pick up the backpacks at the elementary school first part of the week, go to InterFaith to pack them, and return them the same day so those children can pick them up on Friday. Several of you have volunteered for this. Did you know that a couple of people that volunteered for this have branched out, like a vine, and adopted another school for the rest of the school year. Can you see the growth? What started out with us adopting one school has turned into two schools. We are focusing on not allowing the trunk to get too think and choke out the fruit.

Pruning allows a vine to remain healthy and productive. By cutting back and trimming away at the vine, all the growth efforts of the vine will be beneficial and not wasted on vines that will bear little or no fruit and stave off the act of us being completely fruitless.

The Real Killer: Dead Wood
In my research I discovered something else about vines. Dead wood is a real killer. Did you know dead wood is a sign of decay and rot and if left untreated can and will destroy a vine? It will spread until all the life and energy of the vine is consumed and there is nothing left.

As disciples of Jesus Christ we need to be careful of dead wood in our lives. We need to be careful of the decay and rot that comes in the form of passivity, apathy, or any other quality that hampers the growth and transformation of other believers. This month in my newsletter article I asked the question, “After all, what good does it do to try and bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, to bring them into our community, if we are inducting them into a community that does not obey everything Christ commanded us to do?” If we allow ourselves to become infected with dead wood, then we are not being everything Christ called us to be. Do not be afraid of being pruned. Do not be afraid of having your dead wood cut out. While it may not be easy, while it may not be painless, it will benefit us in the long run. Be mindful of those traits that cause you to be less than Christ called you to be. Be mindful of the dead wood that can stunt your transformation and your fruitfulness for the Kingdom of God.

As a teen, my parents had a grape vine along the west fence of our one acre backyard. As I was old enough it was my job to mow that yard. One of the things I loved to do, as I drove by that vine, no I did not push mow that acre, was grab grapes off that vine. The only caveat was there certain spots where the grapes were good and others...not so good. We never pruned that vine so the grapes were only good from the center and as the years passed the amount of grapes decreased. Now when I go home, that vine never produces fruit. It is just a woody vine that is not much to look at because it has decayed and become rotten. Do not let your pursuit of Christ, and His teachings grow stale or apathetic. Constantly pursue, be ever vigilant, and do not let dead wood take away from His teachings and righteousness in your life.

This far we have covered different aspects of vine growth, the benefits of pruning, and the dangers of dead wood. All of these aspects are important because of the fruit. If you do not prune a vine then the trunk will take away energy needed to produce a hearty crop of fruit. If you do not rid a vine of the dead wood, then the decay and rot within in it will infect the entire vine, chocking it out and eventually it will wither away. The reason the farmer does all of these things to their vine is so that the branches will reap a bountiful harvest. Folks, we are the branches on the vine of Christ. We are those arms that are called to produce fruit for the Kingdom of God. Matthew 7:20 tells us, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (NIV). People will know we have been transformed by God by how we act and how we engage with others.

The Hebrew word used here for fruit, karpo.n, or frouta, means fruit, grain or harvest. But it also means result, outcome, or action. The fruit we produce is more than just our relationship with Christ, it is what we do as a result of that relationship. Do I learn what Christ wants to teach me and then keep it to myself? What good is done if I take all Christ has taught me and done for me and I do not share it with others? Last week in worship we talked about Christ sending His disciples as God sent Christ. We are called to be fruit. To produce a positive result, outcome, or action for the Kingdom of God. The word for fruit is used 89 times in Scripture. 89! That in and of itself is significant.

This community that we are all a part of is incredible. They way you reach out to each other, support each other, love each other. I am honored to be your pastor and witness that type of fruit. I implore you to not stop there. Continue to reach out to others. Telling them of what Christ has done for you. Telling them of how Christ loves them and is waiting to be a part of their life. Keep bearing fruit and focusing on what Christ called you to be.

Remember that young man I told you about that began a youth group and forgot to ask God to be a part of it? Well after he prayed and invited God to be the driving force of that youth group, to bless it, grow it, and strengthen it.; God did just that very thing. It took several months but this young man stayed faithful. He stopped trying to tell these teens what he thought they wanted to hear, what he thought would make them like him, and began to tell them about what God had done in his life. He began to share with them all the ways God had been by his side, guiding him, teaching him, and loving him. He talked to them about the grace and mercy God had brought to his life. He also kept the mystery destination trips going, added some concerts, service projects, and lock-ins. After several months the group grew to 30, 6 times its original size, because the leader remained in Christ and taught the group the importance of that. And it stuck. You see several months ago, 10 years since this all took place, five of those kids looked up this young man because they wanted to stop by and see him. Those past 10 years they had all stayed a part of the branch, a part of each others lives, and focused on God. One is a personal trainer helping others keep their body, their temple healthy. One is a nurse helping to heal those that are sick and injured. Another one is getting his degree in music and has designs on becoming a worship music leader in a church upon graduation. This one man, who abided and remained in Christ, showed others how to do the same, and God is using them to make an impact because of that fruit.

These verses from John this morning are rich with meaning. They set the stage for our actions as a community of believes and disciples of Jesus Christ. Our challenge is this: remain in Christ; make Him the foundation for all that you are; bear fruit; so as to bring glory to God our Father; love each other; as you become friends and not servants. Friends, Christ has given us a wonderful metaphor but an even bigger truth. Remain in Christ, seek out Christ, and give Christ away. Be fruitful, be faithful, be Christ-full.

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