5 Easter 12: Readings: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Easter/BEaster5_RCL.html
There are a lot of theories and programs about Church growth. This was the topic of our Vestry retreat last Saturday. As I prepared for that day, I was lead to today's Gospel reading: “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
As I was studying and thinking about this, it occurred to me, perhaps obviously to others, that this is God's plan for church growth. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. There maybe a lot of theories and programs for church growth, but this is God's theory. In his case, it is not a theory; it is HIS PLAN. So we should be be paying very close attention if we want our church to grow.
Now this is so obvious on one level that we might miss the deep significance of what Jesus is saying. He is saying that this is how a church grows. This is how you bear fruit. And we know from this discourse of Jesus that the Father is very interested in fruit.
First off, Jesus says, “I am the True Vine.” There might be others vines. We are part of other organizations in our lives. Jesus says, “I am the True Vine.” In other words this is most important vine we will ever be part of. This is vine where we receive our nourishment. This is vine where we will grow into the fulness of God. It will not happen anywhere else. If want to become the best person you can be, the person God created you to be, its gona happen here, as part of the True Vine.
Next let's look closely at what Jesus says. He says, I am the Vine but my Father is the vinegrower. This is the Father's vine, this church here. He is looking after it. He is interested in it, in how its doing. Is is bearing fruit? His concern is a concern for its nourishment and growth. He is just like a farmer or a gardener. Many of you are farmers and gardeners. You know what it takes to for plants and crops to grow. You have to pay and attention to what's going on and to do the right thing at the right time. This is what the Father is doing for us. He is knows our needs and he is paying attention to us.
In fact the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit created all this growth stuff in the whole world, in the whole creation. They are the primary experts in this area. We are in good hands.
Jesus says the first thing the Father is doing is watching what is going on with the vine. Then he takes action. Jesus says first of all he removes the unfruitful branches. Well, this is kind of scary. He removes the unfruitful branches. Later in verse 6, it says these branches wither and are thrown into the fire. This is even worse.
Another alternate interpretation of this verse is that the Father picks up, or lifts up the unfruitful branches. He pins them back to the vine where they can receive proper sunlight and nourishment. He lifts these unfruitful branches out of the dirt. He reconnects them so they can bear fruit.
God does this for us too. He lifts us up out of the dirt, cleans us up and nourishes us so we can bear fruit.
Next it says that the Father prunes the fruitful branches. This is so that they can bear even more fruit. This pruning part is not so much fun either. But since we have tendencies to go wild, since there is no guarantee that we can be fruitful, the Father must change and guide us. So the pruning must take place.
Next Jesus tells us that we have been made clean by the word he has spoken to us. His word has been one of repentance and belief. The very words Jesus speaks to us make us clean. This is wonderful good news. If we have been down in the dirt, that's finished now. We have a completely new start. Now, today. No sense dwelling on the past. Its over. We are free to begin again.
So far the Father and Jesus have been doing all the work. Now it is our turn. Jesus says, “Abide in me.” He says, “You cannot bear fruit by yourself. You must be part of the vine.” Abide in me and together we can bear much fruit.
And Jesus is very clear about this. Unless we abide in him we can do nothing. He doesn't say, “Without me, you might be able to accomplish a few things.” No. He says without me, you can do nothing. Unless we abide in him, there is no fruit.
This abiding in Jesus in our part. This is our part of the work. Abide is related to the word abode. Abide in me means “make your home in me.” When the day is finished we look forward to coming home. Our home is our place of security and rest. It is where everything about us is known and where we are loved. Jesus says, “Make your home in me.”
To abide in Jesus we have to get to know him more and more. We have to have a personal relationship with him. We have to trust him and believe what he says. This has to be if we want to bear fruit. He says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
On a practical level this means we have times of prayer during the day. This means we take the time to do our bible reading. Unless we know the bible, we cannot know Jesus. St. Jerome says, “Ignorance of the bible is ignorance of Christ.” Like the Ethiopian in the first reading, often we don’t understand what we are reading. We need help. That's what Bible studies are for.
The promise is “if you abide in me and in my words” you will bear much fruit. This much fruit part is exciting.
This is God's plan for church growth – lifting up, pruning, abiding. It is pretty simple on one level and it makes perfect sense. On another level, it may mean quite a change in the way we live and the way we think about church growth. It challenges us to move into a new way of living.
Let's bring it down a personal level. In our lives we have become someone and something. What we have done in the past has formed us into who we are today. That's a simple fact. It has been accomplished, some good, some not so good. But that is all over now. Now, today, at this moment we are becoming something else, something new. What we are becoming is determined by the choices we make today and in this very hour. If we want to become the person God has created us to be, we are asked to throw our lot in with him, beginning now and continuing on from now. This is what abiding in him, abiding in Jesus, means.
What wonderful freedom, what wonderful choice he has given us! And he has explained it all to us in his gospel.
We have the instruction manual, the owner's manual. We can keep on trying to put together the thing ourselves. Or we can consult the instructions.
I used to try to do it without the instruction book. I have learned my lesson. Now I sit down and read the instruction manual first, at least the important parts.
What Jesus is telling us today is important. It is God's plan for the growth of our church and our own personal growth. The two are completely related.
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."