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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Fresh Fruit (John 15:9-17)


As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.  You did not choose me but I chose you.  And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.  I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

You know that feeling when you walk into a movie that has already started, when you tune into an episode of your favorite show that began five minutes ago, or when you walk up on a conversation already in progress and you’re just trying to catch up?  Do you know that feeling?  That is sort of the feeling we get from how the lectionary has divided this morning’s Scripture reading.

Today’s text starts at the halfway point of one of Jesus’ teachings.  This afternoon, after you have taken your Mom out for lunch, of course, go back and look at verses 1-8 of the 15th Chapter of John’s Gospel to refresh yourself on what Jesus had to say about him being the vine, us being the branches, and how God prunes the branches so they will bear fruit.  In short, God is glorified when our lives bear fruit, and the branches that don’t bear fruit, well, read your Bibles this afternoon and see what happens to them.  As we will see in today’s reading, we should expect the faithful who abide in Christ to always produce a harvest of God’s fruit, fruit that will last.  May we pray.

As many of you know, my father is a retired Methodist minister, which meant our family moved from time to time.  What you may not know is that my mother grew up on a farm in Western Pennsylvania.  And so, in the backyard of every parsonage we lived in, Mom typically had a small vegetable garden and also planted a few fruit trees.  It became a running joke in our family that if Mom planted fruit trees or blueberry bushes or raspberry bushes - we were sure to move the following year.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t one or two churches where Dad said to my Mom, “Julie, plant some fruit trees in the backyard so next year we can get outta here!”

Have you seen that television commercial where kids are running around on the soccer field, and the one kid is dressed like a carton of french fries and another looks like a donut with arms and legs?  It’s an ad for some nutrition supplement for kids, and the know-it-all soccer mom whose kid is running up and down the field and scoring all the goals leans over to the mom of french-fry boy and sorta condescendingly says, “Well you know, kids are what they eat!”

We are what we eat, as are plants, to continue using the analogy of Jesus in this text.  Whatever a plant consumes has a direct impact on the fruit it produces.

I spent a summer in college making wine.  One of the things I learned was that not all grapes are equal.  For instance, take two Niagara grapes - the most popular white grape grown in America.  Because they are both Niagara grapes, you’d think they taste the same, right?  As it turns out, they could taste completely different depending on a variety of factors, including how much sun and rain they got, whether they were on an east-facing or west-facing slope, and the particular characteristics of the soil in which their vines were planted.  You are what you eat - what goes in determines what comes out.  Root determines fruit. Say that with me: Root determines fruit.

Or, I think of the flowers Ashley and I have planted.  Here are two photos I took yesterday morning of some of the petunias in front of our house - some of which are in a pot, and the others of which are in the ground.  All of these flowers were initially the same size, bought and planted on the same day, are 20 feet apart from each other, and receive essentially identical amounts of sun and water, and are subject to the same temperature.  And yet, one group is rooted in good, expensive, nutrient-rich soil from the garden center, and the other in bad clay - and look at the difference it makes.  What goes in determines what comes out; we are what we eat.  Root determines fruit.  Say that with me: Root determines fruit.

The same can be said for our lives.  Take two people who are otherwise identical, yet one whose life is rooted - I mean rooted - in the love, forgiveness, and grace of God and the other whose life is rooted in anything else; I guarantee you will be looking at two people whose lives are producing vastly different kinds of fruit.  Whatever you have rooted your life in will directly determine the fruit you produce.  If the root is love, then the fruit is love.  Say that with me: If the root is love, then the fruit is love.

In the stories of Jesus and particularly in today’s text, a strong correlation is made between faithfulness and fruitfulness, yet for whatever reason, we have perhaps been overly contended to be faithful, and not terribly concerned with being fruitful.

Fruitful is never optional for the faithful, as Jesus describes faithful people in this way - those who “abide in his love” (v. 9).  Abide simply means “to wait,” “to endure,” “to remain stable,” or, and here’s the one to pay attention to, “to dwell in or live with.”  And so those who abide in Christ’s love “live” in his love.  Think of it this way - if you’re an American, where do you live?  America.  How about if you’re a Canadian?  You live in Canada.  How about if you’re a Brazilian?  You live in Brazil.  Now, how about if you’re a Christian - where do you live, then?  The same principle applies.  If an American is someone who lives in America and a Brazilian is someone who lives in Brazil, then a Christian is someone who lives -- you got it -- in Christ.

And so, if we live in Christ, if we are literally rooted in his love, a bumper crop of the fruit of Christlike love is the inevitable result.  The faithful life is always a fruitful life.  If the root is love, then the fruit is love.  Say that with me: If the root is love, then the fruit is love.

In verse 12, Jesus says, This is my command; that you love one another just as I have loved you.”   The fruit of his life is unconditional love toward us, and the fruit of our life is to be unconditional love back toward him and toward each other.  Now, as we talk about love, put away all of those images of love that make it sound like a puppy-dog wrapped in rainbows covered in hugs dipped in chocolate sauce. Love is not a feeling or an emotion; love is an action, love is a choice.

Jesus wants us to know that love is an action.  He says, “Greater love has no one than this: than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (v. 13).  Perhaps one thing we need to do here is understand the term “friend” as Jesus uses it.  He says in verse 14 that those who do his command (read that as those who love as he loves) are his friends.  To Jesus and indeed to his entire culture, to call someone a “friend” meant something much deeper than the casual way we use the term.  For instance, I have almost 1500 facebook friends; how meaningful a personal relationship with them do you think I honestly have?  I have facebook friends who I don’t have a clue who they are, let alone why I ever accepted their friend request in the first place.  Honestly, I have facebook friends who are people I don’t even like all that much!  How casually we use the word, “friend!”  We meet someone who finds out we have a mutual acquaintance, perhaps someone we went to high school with but haven’t even spoken to in 15 years, and we say, “Oh yeah, I know so-and-so, he’s a friend of mine!”  Maybe this is just me, but if I haven’t talked to someone in 15 years, I question whether we have cheapened the word “friend.”

Aristotle said that a friend is somebody who helps you to be wise or good; and Kierkegaard said that to love another person is to help them love God, and to be loved is to be helped in loving God.  Sounds like what Jesus was talking about.

Did you ever think of the people Jesus chose in the first place?  Fishermen, tax collectors, low-lives, brawlers - outcasts and social rejects, really.  It’s almost as if anybody can be a friend of Jesus, even the most unlikely sorts of folks, perhaps even people like you and me.

When Jesus calls us friends, he is saying that we are deeply, profoundly, intimately connected to him.  He is saying that he has given us a bond to him that cannot be broken or severed.  Being a friend was a position of honor, it was akin to being named family with all the responsibilities that go along with that.  In fact, when Jesus says friend, just think to yourself “family.”

Like family, Jesus didn’t give us a choice in the matter.  He never asked if we wanted to be his friends.  What’s more scandalous, he never asked if I wanted to be friends with his friends.  Have you ever hung out with someone who brings another friend along - the friend-of-a-friend, and they are the most obnoxious person on the planet and there’s no way you ever want to see them or hang out with them again?  It causes you to question your friendship with your mutual friend, and you may find yourself avoiding that friend just so you don’t have to interact with their other friend.

But Jesus doesn’t give us a choice.  He chooses us to be his friends, and he chooses everyone else to be his friends, and he says “You are ALL my friends, whether you like each other or not!”  Remember, when Jesus calls us friends, he’s really sort of called us “family.”

You don’t choose your family.  I have weird cousins.  So do you, probably.  Not only that, but I’m sure I am somebody’s weird cousin, and I’m sure you’re somebody’s weird cousin, and guess what, we’re all stuck with each other whether we like it or not.  Jesus chooses his friends and bestows such a tight-knit relationship on us that we become like family.

We are friends, you and I, family, if you will, because we are connected, made one, united in Christ. And so, as Jesus has loved us, so too are we to love each other.  Remember, love is an action, and Jesus said the greatest love is one that is willing to lay down its life for another.  He doesn’t say we have to like each other, but he does call us to love each other.  As we look around church on any given Sunday, we may see people we know and like, know and don’t like, or don’t know at all.  Whatever.  It doesn’t really matter.  Whether we like each other or not, Jesus commands us to look out for each other’s good - even to the point of giving our life.

Giving our life will certainly mean something different to each of us.  It might mean surrendering your ego, or your will, or your need to be right or in control.  It means giving up whatever you prize most for the love of God.  It could involve making a sacrifice of time, talent, or treasure, but one thing is for certain: when you love, it can no longer be all about you.  The one who loves Jesus will do his commands, to love others as he has loved us - freely, abundantly, sacrificially.  Somewhere along the way, we realize the impossibility of trying to love God and live for ourselves at the same time, and that’s the point where we surrender, we give our lives, if you will, not just part of our lives, but our whole lives over to God.

There’s that old hymn we sing sometimes that says, “I surrender all.”  It doesn’t say “I surrender half” or  “I surrender part” or “I surrender some.”  It says “I surrender all.”   Doing that is a way of laying down our life at the feet of Jesus and saying, “This belongs to you now.  Do what you want in me and with me.  I want to abide in your love and live in your grace; I want your joy to be in me and my joy to be made complete.  I hold no part of myself back, but I freely give all of me.”

But then what?  Jesus’ instruction is simple: “Go and bear fruit, fruit that will last (v. 16).  Jesus hints that are two kinds of fruit we can cultivate - fruit that lasts or fruit that rots.  Which one we produce is determined by the soil in which we are planted.  We are what we eat, and what goes in determines what is produced.

Remember, root determines fruit.  Say that with me. Root determines fruit.

If the root is love, then the fruit is love – say that with me: if the root is love, then the fruit is love, and friends, that is always the fruit that lasts.

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