Here is the audio file.
Last week, we reflected together on the last of the seven “I am” sayings, I am the true vine. We took note of its three movements—the vine, the vinedresser, and the branches. Life comes from the vine and flows into the branches. The vinedresser prunes the vines so that the life flowing into them will result in fruit; the vinedresser cuts away the branches that are dead. So it is that our connectedness to God is Jesus. He is the one through whom God’s life comes to us. God the Father, as the vinedresser, prunes us with the words of his Son that we might bear fruit. But just what is fruit? If Jesus is the vine, the Father, the vinedresser, and us, the branches, what is the fruit that is the sign that the life of Jesus is being lived through us? That is what we are going to look at today.
The answer is both distressingly difficult and wonderfully. Difficult insofar as it is just so hard to see not simply in our common life but in the common lives of the churches throughout history from the book of Acts to the present day. Its appearance is so exceptional, in fact, that when it does occur, we are amazed. We are shocked. We call the people who embody it saints. We call the groups that embody it renewal movements. The people and the movements get written up in history books while the pious lives of most of us go unremarked.
Think of the names: Edith Stein, Theresa of Calcutta, Francis of Assissi, William Wilberforce, Billy Graham. Think of the movements: the Catholic Workers Movement. The Little Sisters of Charity. The Church Missionary Society. The Order of the Friars Minor. Why, the names of people and movements cross all the divides of Christendom and are celebrated regardless of historical distance or theological disagreement. These are names invoked with awe. Names cited in our prayers as examples that God would give us the grace and strength to emulate. What they did and do is hard. The fruit they bore for the kingdom of God is hard work. Obviously hard.
And yet, as Jesus describes what the fruit is, it is so simple. So easy to understand. Why, you get the impression that as far as Jesus is concerned, this isn’t supposed to be the exception in our common life, but the rule. This is how things are supposed to happen. Indeed, if we take the organic nature of the vine metaphor seriously, it’s not merely a matter of “supposed to.” It is much stronger. It is more a matter of “inevitably will.”
If we are united to the Lord Jesus, if we are connected to him as branch to vine, such that his life flows into us, the bearing of fruit will take place. As sure as bud gives way to blossom and blossom leads to apple (ok, I’ve switched from vines to trees, but go with me), we will bear fruit. If we are being pruned by his Father as we attend to his word and fed by his life as we come to his table, we will bear fruit. Indeed, not only will we bear fruit, but we will do so joyfully. I have said these things that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. Fruit bearing is an organically inevitable, normal, joyful consequence of our real, life-giving union with Jesus.
But we still haven’t said what it is yet. Are you ready? Here it is: This is the fruit we will bear if we are united to the vine: we will love each other. That’s it! Love each other. Bear much fruit. Abide in my love. Obey my commandment. This is my commandment—love each other.
So simple. So inevitable. So normal. So joyful. So absolutely and frustratingly rare. Why?
We might begin to find the answer to this question when we realize that the love with which we are to love each other is the very love that binds the Son to the Father. What does this love look like? That’s what the entire Gospel of John is all about. And it is encapsulated in the verse many of us memorized as children. The verse with which we comfort or strengthen ourselves as we come to the table of the Lord in the BCP: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.
It is a love that is demanding, that is sending, that is strong and that is costly. How costly? Do you remember Jesus words about fruitfulness in John 12? Unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Jesus elaborates on that theme here: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. The love with which you are to love one another is the love with which I love you. I will show you my love and the Father’s love by dying for you. That’s the love you are to abide in. That’s the love that flows from me to you. That’s the love that bears fruit, that is the fruit of being united to me. That’s the love that I command.
And now we are beginning to see just why fruitfulness is so simple and yet so very difficult and so very, very rare. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the great Catholic popular apologist of the early 20th century put it aptly: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” We would rather say with the TV preacher that God loves us and wants us to be materially prosperous, or with Oprah, that God loves us wants us to be psychologically sound and happy, than to say with Jesus that God loves us wants us to give our lives for the sakes of the lives of others as an embodiment of that love.
But, my friends, that is what Jesus says. And if we would be his friends, that is both what we must say and how we must live. Again, not in the sense of struggling to get as close to the impossibly high ideal as we can on our own, but in the organic sense of being pruned, being nourished, and being fruitful.
Indeed, our fruitfulness has nothing at all to do with our own powers or our own initiative. Our fruitfulness hinges on the free choice and lavish love of him who is the vine—I chose you. I appointed you. You will bear lasting fruit. There again we are faced with the language of inevitability. Our fruitfulness, our capacity to obey the command to love, hangs not our capacity for niceness or compassion, but on the choice of him who has united himself to us in love, who prunes us with his words, who feeds us with his very self by his Spirit in the gifts of bread and wine.
During his long pontificate, Pope John Paul II canonized 482 people and beatified 1388 others. In other words, he “officially recognized” 482 people as saints and 1388 others as blessed. These people, he said, are examples of faith and holiness and fruitfulness and the adventure and joy that is the Christian life. That’s more canonizations and beatifications than all previous popes before. Why did he do that?
Because he himself recognized that the Christian life as described by Jesus in this passage was reckoned to be both easily understood and difficult to actually live. So, he wanted believers to see that it could be lived, that there were examples of fruitfulness all around us if we have eyes to look for them, that the Christian life can be joyful and abounding in the costly love with which God loves the world. The people he canonized were people from all walks of life, from both sexes, from all inhabited continents. Saints, he said, in effect, are found everywhere. They are gifts of God to all of us. Examples to be embraced and emulated whatever our vocations might be.
It was John Paul II’s way of saying, it’s not as rare or as difficult as we have been trained by the father of lies to believe. The examples of self-giving love are there. We just need to look for them.
Now, look around, saints. Because if you have been called by Christ, that’s what you are. You don’t need to wait for the church, in any official way to recognize that it’s true. It’s already true. So look around. Do you see the fruitfulness that is the love of Christ here? Do you see it among us? I do. I see it in lots of ways and in lots of places.
I see it on Out of the Cold Fridays.
I see it on bicycle ambulances.
I see it when we welcome visitors with a cup of coffee before service.
I see it when we make sandwiches for the mission.
I see it when we invite people to join us for worship.
I see it when we celebrate the new life in Christ when someone is baptized.
But I’ll tell you a secret. I want to see more!
Not more in the sense of piling activities on top of activities until we burn out. More in the sense of seeing the love of Christ so infuse whatever we do—whether we have been doing it for a long time or not—that it ceases to be chore and becomes instead the completion of our joy.
So, I want to give you in the time we have left, a 7 step programme for fruitfulness, a 5 factor lesson on love, and 12 tips on radical discipleship which you can incorporate into your lives.
No I don’t, actually.
Because it’s not a matter of programmes, lessons, or tips. It is a matter of prayer: “I appointed you to go and bear fruit . . . so that the Father will give you whatever you ask!” Isn’t that daring? Not daring in the sense of bravery, but just daring—don’t you think Jesus is daring us to ask? I think he is.
So, let’s ask. It is my prayer for this parish and its priest that the Father so to prune us with his word, so to enliven us with the life of his Son in the power of his Spirit, that we would bear lasting fruit. That we would, organically and inevitably love one another to the very end.
I do not that God would make love easy, but that he would make us fit for the challenge to love in Christ’s love, with Christ’s love and as Christ loves.
Will you ask with me?