Fruit is one of those things that is enjoyable in its own right. It’s good for eating, but it’s also got a bigger purpose. The meaty part of a piece of fruit—the flesh of an apple, say—is there to provide nourishment for the seeds that are inside the fruit when that fruit falls to the ground and itself sprouts up and grows. Fruit provides nourishment for both other creatures—like animals, bugs, or even people—and also for itself so that it can keep on producing more fruit in the cycle of life. Fruit is more than just something juicy and delicious that we eat because it tastes good. It has a real scientific, biological purpose.
And so when we talk about the fruits of Spirit, it’s more than simply talking about things that make our lives happy, polite, or nice. The fruits of the Spirit serve a purpose beyond mere good living. They provide spiritual nourishment for us, individually, but they also nourish others as well. Through our lives, as members of the body of Christ, when we bear fruit, we witness to the amazing power of God to bring death from life, hope from despair, and light in the darkness. Others are nourished by the fruit that we bear in Christ, and so the cycle of life keeps going through us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, when we bear fruit in our lives. As we go into the sermon today, I want you to think about how your life bears the fruits of the Spirit. How are you nourished in your relationship with God and how is the rest of the world—people and all creation alike—nourished, cared for and helped to flourish, because of the love that God first showed us?
Let us pray. May the only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Before I went to Kindergarten, I spent almost every day at my grandparents’, my father’s parents’ house. They lived right beside us. There was a line of arborvitae that separated our houses. The driveway to our house was on one side, and directly on the other, on my grandparents’ side, was a grape arbor. I can remember climbing up on the grape arbor like a jungle gym, and sitting under its shade in the summer. It smelled sweet, like grape juice—which Grandma Spigelmyer would make out of the grapes at the end of the summer. She’d can the grape juice in quart jars, with grapes inside along with the juice, and store it in the cellar.
I always found the grape arbor fascinating. It was a twisted mess of vines with big leaves. Thing was, if you were looking to find grapes on it, there weren’t many, at least compared to how many leaves were there. This thing was bushy! A forest of vines and leaves, but not terribly many grapes. Great for shade, but not so great for fruit.
You know why I’m talking about the grape arbor. Today’s gospel text is that famous one where Jesus calls himself the vine and we the branches. People love this passage. We love this passage. And to be sure, it’s a great metaphor, a great way to speak to the deeper reality of our relationship with God that transcends human language. Like a vine provides everything needed for the life of the branches—nourishment, roots in the soil, connection to the leaves for sunlight—so God provides everything needed for our lives. “The eyes of all look to you, O Lord,” the psalmist cries, “and you nourish them in due season. You open wide your hand, and provide enough for the yearning of everything.”
Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. Jesus is what binds us together with each other and roots us in our relationship with God. We share mystical union with God and with one another through a very real connection like a vine and its branches. What’s not to like about that? We can definitely understand why people like this way of speaking of our relationship with God, with Jesus, and with one another. It gives us a sense of connectedness to something greater than ourselves and speaks to our desire, our need to be not only in relationship with each other, but in relationship with God who ultimately is the true source of all our relationships. This vine, this Jesus—this is our communion, our holy communion, with God and with each other. Through him, with him, in him, we are rooted to God and joined to one to other in something far greater than ourselves.
And yet, as much as we like this way of speaking of our relationship with Jesus as the vine and we the branches, there’s something unsettling about this passage. At least for me. Did you notice it? Jesus tells us he is the vine, we the branches, and the Father the vinegrower. What’s more, the “Father removes every branch that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes.” Jesus elaborates, as if the point wasn’t distressing enough—”Whoever does not abide in me,”—that is, whoever isn’t in life-giving, meaningful relationship with him—they’re “thrown away like a branch and wither.” Branches like these are gathered together, he tells us, thrown into the fire, and they burn up. I imagine the brush pile that my grandparents had not far from the grape arbor where we collected the branches from the trees all about their yard. Every spring my father would light it up, and the flames would reach high into the sky, and the heat would be so intense—and all the branches were consumed, reduced to nothingness, mere white ash. The embers would smolder for a few days sometimes if it didn’t rain.
The picture Jesus paints here of the branches being cut off and thrown into a heap to be burned—that’s what we think of here. We hear words of judgement from Jesus about ourselves. We are quick to hear Jesus say, “Shape up or ship out.” If we don’t get ourselves together, if we don’t live in meaningful relationship with him, a relationship that bears fruit, then the Father, the vinegrower, is going to come in, cut us off, and throw us into the blazes of hell. Our minds rush to that place when we hear these verses, and yet should they? Is that what Jesus is really saying here? Or is it like the promise of God first spoken in the garden, twisted by the cunning lies of the devil? “For indeed,” Jesus tells us in the beginning of John’s gospel, in the beginning of this same gospel where we hear him call himself the vine and we the branches—”for indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” So what are we to make of this all? What’s Jesus really saying?
Imagine with me it’s a January afternoon. We’re out in the backyard, and we’re traipsing through the snow. It’s deep snow, goes up almost to our knees. We’re walking, as best we can, toward a grape arbor. When we get there, we start clearing the snow away from the base of the grapevine, and then we start pruning the branches there. We work our way up the vine, one branch a time, selectively choosing which branches to leave on the vine and which to clip off. It’s cold, and the wind blows in gusts every now and again. You just can’t wait to go inside.
The grapevine looks sorry, all dark and brittle. It seems almost abusive to clip off branches in the dead of winter like this, when the snow is lying knee deep on the ground and the wind is blowing so that we can feel almost every bone. Yet here we are, pruning the grapevine.
That’s not a story I made up. That’s what happened the first time my father and I pruned the grapevine we had planted the previous spring at my house. That year, remembering growing up and the grape arbor at my grandparents’ house from childhood, I had gotten it in me that I wanted to try my hand at growing grapes. I bought the plants, of course without talking to my father first, and brought them home. I dug two holes in the fresh spring soil, right beside the garden, and planted those grapes. The flourished. The vines grew rapidly in the summer heat, and soon my dad said we had to put up an arbor for the vines. So we did.
Now, if you know anything about my father, you know he doesn’t do anything halfway. When he built this grape arbor, you’d have thought he was laying the foundation for a house. We cemented this grape arbor into the ground. At any rate, after the season was over, and we harvested the few grapes that came—grapes don’t normally produce in the first year, but we’d gotten lucky—after the season was over, the plants prepared themselves for fall and winter. The snow came, and the leaves fell off and that was that. All that was left was the vine and its branches. My father, being the green thumb that he was, knew that grapes needed to be pruned to make new growth, so he set me to the internet to research how we went about that.
A vine produces fruit when it’s pruned. Jesus tells us that the Father will remove every branch that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. Far from being a tail of judgement, a picture of gloom and doom, Jesus is telling us that the Father will tend to us as the branches so that we bear fruit. It’s simple, really. The Father will provide what is necessary for us to flourish. And for us to flourish, we need to be pruned. The bad needs to be removed from us, so that the good can grow.
You remember the grape arbor at my grandparents’ place that grew into a shady, sweet-smelling forest but didn’t really make many grapes? And now the grapes that we pruned in the dead of winter producing a huge amount of grapes? The difference, I came to learn from my father, was that my never pruned the vines. They just left them grow—huge plants with loads of leaves, but little fruit. In the case of the arbor we later planted at my house, we pruned it, and although it didn’t have nearly as many leaves, it did produce many times more fruit than ever I saw on the vines at my grandparents’. With the proper care, the branches will produce fruit, and God the Father provides the proper care for us. God tends us and cares for us so that we live life-giving, meaningful lives in Christ—rooted in God and connected to each other.
The best time to prune a grapevine is when, by all accounts, there’s no sign of life whatsoever—either on the plant or in the world around. The best time to prune a grapevine is in the middle of winter, in January. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t make sense to cut branches off the vine in the dead of winter, but that’s exactly when it’s the best time to do it, when all the sap is down in the roots of the plant. Isn’t it fabulous that God prunes us, removes whatever gets in the way of our relationship with him and each other, when things are looking the worst around us?
That’s the point of Easter, the message of the resurrection. Even when everything else around us looks bleak and depressing, melancholy and miserable, God is still at work on us, working life in us. The Father prunes us with the shears of the Holy Spirit, that we bear fruit—fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and harmony. These might not be nearly as shady or seductively sweet as Satan’s fruits of lust, greed, hatred, jealousy, or pride, but they’re signs God is active in our lives, even when everything else says something different. They’re signs we are fruitful branches on the vine of Christ, proof that his resurrection matters, proof that love, that God has taken root within us.
How fabulous that God sends the Holy Spirit into our lives in the winter of our discontent and prunes us with his love—and what’s more, destroys from memory all those things that keep us from living full, abundant, fruitful lives. How fabulous that we are branches on the vine of Christ—rooted in God, connected to each other, and pruned to flourish by the power of the Holy Spirit. How fabulous the God who is love fills us with himself, fills us with love for each other and the whole world, the world God loved so much to come live alongside, in, and with us. How fabulous we are branches on the vine of Christ.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.