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Expo Preaching
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Pruned branches bear fruit

Sun, Mar 14, 2021
Passage: John 15:1-17
Let's make sure we're a church of branches who remain in Jesus. And who bear much fruit

Message text

Morning everyone. For those who haven't met me before, my name's Natalie and I'm one of the ministers here at St Hil's.

Our passage this morning clearly centres around an image of a vine. A grapevine – with the vine, the branches, the fruit and the gardener all singled out and discussed in the passage.

I have to admit to not knowing much about grape vines. My main connection with vines was on an amazing trip a few years ago, and even then, the vines were more at a distance than up close and personal. But I'll share with you anyway.

In 2018 our family had the wonderful opportunity to go away for 6 weeks when Brian and I both had long service leave. Given where we are now with international travel, the trip seems like even more of a treat in retrospect.

I'd never been to Europe before, and part of our trip was a three day bike ride from Mainz to Koblenz in Germany along the Rhine river. The scenery as we rode was just gorgeous. Mostly there were steep hills on either side of the river, covered with grapevines up the hills.

Here's a few photos to show you what we saw. The first few are just gratuitous holiday snaps – just coz we can't do anything like this right now.

But these last two photos show the vines that we rode past every day. You can see the steep hills, with the beautiful green vines. I have no idea how they did the harvesting because the hills seemed so impossibly steep for cultivating anything.

For anyone who lives in the Rhine valley, this metaphor of the vine, branches and fruit would have a really personal impact. It would be so familiar to them, and touch on something that was an indispensable part of their lives. And I think the disciples would also have been much closer to this image than we are.

But I think we can still get a sense of its impact as Jesus uses it here.

Before we go any further, let's get the details of the image straight.

In verse 1, Jesus says: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener." And verse 5: "I am the vine; you are the branches."

So: Jesus is the vine; God the Father is the gardener, and all those who trust in Christ are the branches.

Now not only is Jesus the vine, but he's the true vine! This contrast picks up the Old Testament use of the vine as an image of Israel. And in the Old Testament, the vine of Israel consistently failed to produce the fruit that God looked for in her. Isaiah 5:7 makes this really clear:

7 The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

 

Jesus contrasts himself with Israel. In fact, he replaces Israel as the vine of God.  Israel was the vine who failed. Jesus is the true vine, who won't fail. The vine who will produce the fruit that God looks for.

You might have noticed, as you listened to this passage being read, that there were a few key ideas that were repeated often. And those ideas kind of swirl around, in a very Johannine sort of way. They all connect and inform each other. The repeated ideas that I picked up were about: bearing fruit; remaining in Jesus; keeping Jesus' commands; loving one another; and answered prayer.

[at 11 talk about this a bit more and put a photo up on the screen]

So those are the ideas we're going to explore now.

  1. Bearing fruit

First of all, bearing fruit.

It's clear, isn't it, that the main purpose of a grapevine is to produce fruit? Even for us city slickers, that seems obvious. No fruit means no wine. Surely a sad state of affairs for any vineyard. And for any wine drinker!

John 15 also makes very clear how important and necessary it is for the branches in the vine of Jesus to bear fruit. In fact, producing fruit is the whole purpose of the branches on this vine. Verse 8:
8 This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. John 15:8
And again in verse 16:
"I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last" John 15:16
It's our job, as people chosen by God, to bear fruit that will last. I'm going to hold the suspense on what that fruit is for a while.

Because the real emphasis of this passage is on how to be sure we'll be fruitful in our lives.

One of the ways we can be fruitful is by allowing God, the gardener, to prune our lives. And John mentions that in verse 2. I'm just going to flag that now, but I'd encourage you to follow that up in your Connect Groups. Because the emphasis of the passage is on how we can actively work to bear fruit for God.

2. Remaining in Jesus 

And we do that by remaining in Jesus.

Two words really stand out as being repeated a lot in this passage. One is fruit, which we hear 9 times. The other is remain, with 11 occurrences. So John really wants us to hear this. Remain!!

Now I don't know about you, but remain seems like a passive word to me. Maybe with some negative connotations. When I think of remaining, I think of my child remaining on the couch longer than I was anticipating.  Or the socks remaining on the floor. Or the cobwebs remaining on the windows. Clearly, I have a problem with the remaining that happens in our house!

But in this passage remaining is active. It requires us to do something. And it's a really positive word.

Jesus urges us to remain in him, just as he also remains in us. There's a sense in which we and our lives are to be totally and inextricably linked with Jesus and the life he gives us. Just like the branches of a vine can't be separated from the vine itself if they're to stay alive and fruitful.

So how do we remain in Jesus so that we bear fruit in our lives? How do we stay organically connected to Jesus?

Verse 7:
7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. John 15:7-8
Us remaining in Jesus is linked with his words remaining in us. And that in turns leads to us bearing much fruit.

Do Jesus' words remain in you, friends? Do Jesus' words remain in you?

If we want them to remain in us, we need to work at it. There are many ways to do this, but I think there's an imperative here to work on things like being regular at church, being part of a connect group, persevering in our own bible reading and in prayer to help us take on board the words of Jesus that we read.

Now that just sounds like exactly what a minister would say, doesn't it? Of course I want you to be regular at church! Of course I want you to join a connect group (and the lists are still up in the foyer if you're interested)! Of course I would say it's a good idea to read the Bible and pray.

But you know what? I can't think of any better ways of making sure that Jesus' words remain in us. And that goes together with us remaining in Jesus.

Our world is full of words. Words that come at us thick and fast. They come at us from every perspective except that of Jesus. Words from the left of politics. Words from the right. Words from interest groups and lobbyists. Words from social media. Words from friends and family. Words in music and literature. Some of these words are good words. Some not so good. But most of them are not the words of Jesus.

How will the words of Jesus remain in us if we don't make space to hear them?

So how are you making space to be sure that the words of Jesus remain in you? This isn't easy at all. I'm not underestimating the challenge. I certainly struggle with it too. And I understand that there are seasons of life when just keeping life together seems all we can manage. But let's be committed and creative about making space for Jesus' words in our lives. During Lent I've been reading this book along with Revelation. Something I haven't read before, to help Jesus' words remain in me. I'm super happy to make some recommendations for reading the Bible in manageable and interesting ways. Or of apps that help us to listen the to the Bible and learn. I'd love to hear your ideas too.

How can we make space to ensure that the words of Jesus remain in us? So that we then remain in him.

Don Carson writes this about Jesus' words:

‘Such words must so lodge in the disciple's mind and heart that conformity to Christ, obedience to Christ, is the most natural (supernatural?) thing in the world.
(The Gospel according to John. D.A. Carson, 517).

And that brings us to another way that we remain in Jesus. By remaining in his love. And we remain in his love by keeping his commands.

3. Keeping Jesus' commands 

9 "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
John 15:9-11
Now keeping commands doesn't sound very exciting. Following rules. And this has been an interesting reflection through the covid pandemic, hasn't it? I think many people have been surprised at how compliant Australians, and especially Victorians have been, through 2020 and now into 2021. We've stayed at home. We've worn masks. We haven't gathered.

Is John 15 just about rule keeping in the same way we've kept the rules about covid?

While there may be some similarities, the context of Jesus' love for us makes keeping his commands very different to following laws in a pandemic.

Obedience and love are inextricably linked in this passage. Which may seem counterintuitive to us. And that interlinking makes a vine such a great image with its intertwined stem, branches and fruit.

What really grabs my attention here is that Jesus has kept the Father's commands and so remains in his love. Even within the Godhead, there's obedience by Jesus to God! And therefore there's love. So Jesus calls us to model our relationship with him on his relationship with the Father. We're to keep Jesus' commands and remain in his love, just as he's done with the Father. Love makes all the difference. This isn't just about following rules. It's about remaining in a relationship of love by obeying Jesus. And it's about joy!

Jesus wants to rejoice in us, and he wants our lives to be full of joy too. Love and joy transform obedience into something very different to rule keeping.

I want to come back to the quote from Don Carson I read a bit earlier:

‘Such words must so lodge in the disciple's mind and heart that conformity to Christ, obedience to Christ, is the most natural (supernatural?) thing in the world.
(The Gospel according to John. D.A. Carson, 517).

Jesus' words need to be part of us, so that we can keep his commands. So they're second nature to us. Again, the organic image of the vine reminds us that obedience isn't just a dry, rule keeping exercise. It's about life and love and joy. And as well as having Jesus' words as part of us, we can ask God for help.

4. Answered prayer

We can pray!

There are big promises here about how God helps us bear fruit when we ask him for help. I'm not going to say more now, but tease this out in your Connect Groups or chat with me later if you'd like to.

So, if we trust in Jesus we are each branches in his vine. We're called to bear fruit. I know we still haven't talked yet about what that fruit is. We bear fruit by remaining in Jesus. We remain in Jesus – in his love – by keeping his commands. And by asking for his help in prayer.

Are you feeling very vine-like, with all these ideas interconnecting? 

5. Loving one another

We remain in Jesus by keeping his commands. And then Jesus highlights one particular command.

12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
            John 15:12-14

Love each other. Jesus already said this earlier the same evening.

34 "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
John 13:34

He's really nailing this home with his disciples. And with us. Love each other. How? Love each other as I have loved you.

Here we get to the absolute heart of God's message for all of humanity. ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends'. That is exactly what Jesus did in his death on the cross – he laid down his life – for his friends (and his enemies). For us, so that we might be drawn into God's family by accepting his love in Christ.

One commentator described it this way:
‘The eternal divine love reached its complete and unsurpassable expression in the death of Christ, which was at the same time the death of a man for his friends'.
Barrett

The death of a man for his friends. That's what Jesus has done for each of us. That's what he calls us to do for each other. To love each other! To lay down our lives for each other!

How does this look for us, St Hil's?

Many of you will remember in 2019, we worked through our Journey of Fruitfulness vision process. Our leadership team led us through. We had four whole community meetings. We listened to each other. We talked to each other. We covered lots of ground. One of our learnings was that some people had and did feel very loved and included in our community here. But other people did not feel loved. They didn't feel included or welcomed or integrated. They felt like they'd never been able to break in.

After our first Journey of Fruitfulness community meeting, we said that in 2022 we wanted to be a community that ‘is a diverse, rich, interwoven variety of people across generations, backgrounds and experiences, easy people & difficult people, who need acceptance, belonging with our imperfections & vulnerability'. We wanted to be a place where all sorts of people belong.

After our fourth community meeting, we said that we wanted welcome and connection culture to be central to our community. We wanted rostered teams as well as the whole community to facilitate new friendships.

Summarising all of that, we wanted to love each other and newcomers better.

That's a really huge challenge, isn't it?

But I've been super encouraged through last year and now as we've been back together. Through covid, I saw lots of effort being put into loving and supporting one another.

And this year, back in person, I've also seen that in action. We've had a number of newcomers join us this year, and I think they've had a great experience. Several have said they've felt super welcomed and that they've been enveloped into connect groups really quickly.
So I want to encourage us to keep working on this. Keep working hard at loving in this community. Because it is hard work. It's about laying down our lives. For our old friends, for our new friends, and for our potential friends in this community. One small thing we can each do is give someone a call. Someone you haven't seen at church for a while. Someone you've seen in the distance but not chatted to. Just pick up the phone. Doesn't have to be super long or serious. Just a check in. Haven't seen you for a while. How are you?

Jesus loved us – it's the heart of what he did for us. And he calls us to love each other as the heart of who we are as his followers. Be encouraged friends, and let's keep loving well.

6. Bearing fruit

 So, we who trust in Jesus we are each branches in his vine. We're called to bear fruit. We bear fruit by remaining in Jesus. We remain in Jesus – in his love – by keeping his commands. By asking for his help in prayer. We keep his commands particularly by keeping his command to love one another. This whole package deal is how we bear fruit for Jesus.

So, the million dollar question: what is the fruit we're meant to be growing in our lives?

It's kind of odd, isn't it, that Jesus doesn't seem to say specifically what that fruit is. I think that's because Jesus really wants us to work hard at remaining in him. And then the fruit will follow.

Basically I think the fruit that Jesus the vine grows on us as his branches is all the things that show in our lives when we obey him. It's definitely love for each other. Every big and little way we love each other. And every other action or word or thought by which we keep Jesus' commands.

I'd like to finish now by sharing some examples of someone who truly bore fruit for Jesus in his life. And that's Don Helmore. Don died a fortnight ago. Many of you may have known Don. He was around St Hil's for a really long time. Most of his life. And he died at 94.

Let me share a few ways that I saw Don bearing fruit for Jesus.

When I visited Don a few weeks before he died, he was in hospital. We had a lovely time together and he mentioned that his eyes were too bad for him to read his Bible any more. What can I read from the Bible for you Don, was my question for him. Just read any of the words of Jesus, he said. Don was a man in whom Jesus' words remained.

Don didn't leave many instructions for his funeral. But what he did leave was a note of the two Bible readings that he wanted. Psalm 139 and the end of 1 Corinthians 15. God's word was important to Don. It remained in him and helped him to keep Jesus' commands.

Don was also a man who loved the way Jesus did.

A few years back my mother-in-law Val needed to move from independent living in Sydney to supported aged care here in Melbourne. Don found out that Val had moved down. And so he offered to visit her. And he did. He visited her regularly. She sadly died a few months after she got here. Don didn't know us very well. He didn't know Val at all. But he reached out to her with the love of God and servant heart of Jesus at a really difficult time in her life.

Don also loved by sharing Jesus with others. Don lived in an apartment in a retirement village. He had lots of friends there. And during lockdown he wrote a poem for each of the other people living in his apartments. Each poem was tailored to the person it was written for. And each poem included a reflection about God. Don, at 93, wrote evangelistic poetry during lockdown last year. How amazing is that! He told me that every person he wrote a poem for came and talked to him about it. And what they talked to him about was the God bit of the poems.

Jesus said: 5 "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

St Hil's, let's make sure we're a church of branches who remain in Jesus. And who bear much fruit.

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