I know next to nothing about plants. We used to have this plant in our apartment which survived my college roommates and me; lived for another seven years with my parents, and finally came back to live with us when we moved back to Ohio after seminary. This was a hearty plant—it spent one whole winter on an enclosed porch without heat, and kept its leaves the whole time. It wasn’t until we brought it in and had it in our kitchen that it lost all of its leaves and (I think died). I have fond memories of the plant because it’s the only one I didn’t kill in a short period of time.
I’ve tried to keep other plants—fail safe bonsais (several, in fact), and a pepper plant to name just a couple. With this kind of track record with plants, it might seem like I have it out for them—as if I’m some sort of floricydal maniac…but the reality is that I’ve just got no luck with plants.
Charity, on the other hand, has no trouble keeping plants. She’s had orchids, jade plants, shamrocks… Tristan and Gareth help her water them and tend them—and they thrive very well. So, I know it’s me. I can own that.
Like I said I don’t know anything about plants—but it doesn’t take a botanist to know when a plant is unhealthy or dying. Probably any of us—even the florally-challenged like myself—could recognize a sick plant. I suppose this is what Jesus was counting on when he offers the lesson in today’s Gospel reading.
While the teaching is about Jesus as the True Vine, there is the implicit lesson about the health of the plant and its branches. Jesus says that he is the true vine, and that his followers are the branches. He then explains that the unhealthy branches are not worth a whole lot, but those that are connected and healthy bear fruit. Now we can worry about whether or not we are useless branches, or we can try to understand what it means to be healthy and bear fruit.
The good news is that what Jesus is proposing is not complicated. As Christians, we’re already part of the vine, but we’re told to cultivate fruit, the fruit of the Spirit—faith, hope and love (as St. Paul says).
Of course, there’s never a way to quantify these things. However, we recognize them when we see them in one another.
We know faith because there are people who join us in our worship and prayer. They help remind us of how close God is to us when we can’t see for ourselves. They even help us to come back when we wander a little too far…
We recognize hope because it’s affirmed at every baptism, and is invested by the whole Body of Christ in those who are being baptized.
And we know love because it continues to draw us mysteriously ever closer to God and one another.
The amazing thing is, that the best way to bear this fruit, is to abide in Jesus Christ—which is part of our Baptism. I know it seems almost too simple. But it is an important reminder nonetheless.
Because the fact is, we live in a strangely cynical world, a world that can feel inhospitable at times. Our media and our politics mimic it, our preference in entertainment perpetuates it, and our lack of trust in our leaders confirms it.
Our world gets seemingly smaller with the growth of technology and communication. But no matter how small the world seems to get, it never gets any less complex.
All the time we’re adjusting to a more pluralistic society that has multiple faith traditions, and an ever-diversifying populace. But for all of these traditions, Christian denominations, and a variety of things claiming to be holistic—we seem to be ever more fragmented…even uprooted.
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When was the last time that you heard someone say that they are spiritual but not religious? Frankly, I’m not even sure I know what that means.
Or, how many of us when we finally admit that we are Christians are quick to say “but not that kind…”?
I suppose it makes sense, though. It is a spiritually suspicious world; but one which is still hungry for genuine, rooted spirituality.
We have to ask ourselves what has happened to religion, and faith that has turned so many people away? Maybe it’s the fault of televangelists—or maybe it’s the intolerance of certain religions. Maybe it’s because there are too many withering branches that choke out our view of God. Perhaps the fruitlessness of some of the branches threatens to completely obscure Jesus Christ, and at the same time sap the life out of all the other branches. Whatever the case, there is still a world waiting for authenticity and a genuine touch from God.
So, perhaps the most important thing that we can do is continue to bear fruit, to genuinely cultivate faith, hope and love. We have to trust that the one who tends the vine will never allow it be unproductive. Because, even if the world doesn’t understand, or doesn’t trust organized religion; there is no doubt that they will respond to good fruit, especially the fruit of the Spirit. But, just as the reading says, the branches cannot bear fruit if they are not drawing life from the center—the true vine.
I think that this is the other important point about this passage; we can’t really hope to continue to bear fruit if we forget our center in Christ. We can never forget that all of the vocations in our lives: as children; as parents; as partners, professionals and spouses—they all stem from our center in Christ Jesus. If in all of our good works, then, we lose Christ as our center, we may not so much worry about being cut off and burned up, rather we should worry that in cutting ourselves off, we get burnt out.
The point is Jesus Christ must always be at the center of our lives. This of course means being faithful in prayer, worship and fellowship, but also resting in God, and continually drawing life from Jesus Christ.
We need to remember that we are branches connected to the vine of Jesus Christ. And in a world which thinks it doesn’t trust religion, we have the opportunity to offer refreshment, and nourishment through our lives in Christ. We don’t even need to be all that good with plants, just aware of what it is to remain healthily growing in Christ.