We are a collection of mismatched expressions sitting on the rug and couches. Our only commonalities are our love for Jesus and the anxiety that we are all feeling. Some of us are able to hide it behind walls and laughter, while feelings of defeat are evident in the downcast faces and sunken positions of others.
Church planting has been a difficult journey over the past months. We have been struggling with outside circumstances, with family, with relationships, with doubt, with depression. We are struggling to provide for ourselves and families. We are all in seasons of difficulty that we have never faced before. We sinfully wonder if this is a fruitless venture. We wonder where God is in the midst of it.
Still we bow our heads for prayer, fellowship over breakfast, and sing hymns that drift out of the open windows of the Stite's Temescal appartment complex. We hear our voices proclaiming Jesus' name amidst the sounds of neighbors trotting down the stairs and getting their families ready for the day.
We open our Bibles to John 15. Pastor Christopher stands behind the music stand that is our make shift podium.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean becase of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples..."
While we have all heard John 15 preached before, Pastor Christopher begins to talk about the metaphor of the vine, vine-dresser, and grafted branch.
Jesus calls Himself the true vine. Why? What is the symbolism? If we look at the natural order of things, the vine is planted in the ground, has deep roots, and is where the plant gains nutrients. The plant's life is found in the vine. Jesus is the vine because life is found in Him and through Him that life is dispersed to His people.
We are the grafted on branch. Recently Pastor Christian and I went to wine country and were able to take a tour of a winery to see their growing process. They showed us a giant refrigerator where they keep branches that they plan to graft onto their grape vines to produce different fruits for the harvest. They told us that through the grafting process, this completely different plant cleaves to the original vine and eventually the two become one. However it is always the original vine that produces life and gives nutrients to the grafted branch. Only through the original vine is the grafted branch able to produce fruit.
And finally Pastor Christopher touches on part of the metaphor that we often miss. The Father is the Vine-dresser. This is incredibly important but we always skim right past it! The Vine-dresser is over the entire growing process. He protects the vine, he weeds the plants that rise up to choke it, he tills the soil so that it can better grow, he waters it, and he prunes the bad leaves so that the plant produces in abundance.
So what does this metaphor mean?
Romans 6:20-23 talks about how before Christ we were only able to produce bad fruit that leads to death, but that now in Christ we are able to produce good fruit that leads to life.
In seasons of great difficulty it can be incredibly difficult to see growth or feel like we are seeing fruit in our lives. We can become easily discouraged as we look frantically for results in ourselves and others. We can even feel like failures if we are not immediately growing in areas and we try to force growth by sheer force of will. We try to produce fruit in ourselves.
Pastor Christopher's sermon refocuses our eyes and encourages our hearts in the truth of our identity in light of God's. He explains that the text says that we are not the ones who produce fruit within ourselves. Just as a branch apart from the vine is lifeless, we can do nothing within ourselves that will promote life. Only by abiding in Christ can we have life that produces fruit.
To abide means to be in union with Jesus by faith and to not depart from Him. We abide by resting in Jesus, taking root in and accepting the word of God by faith, and by understanding that God has already freed us from sin and has already won! Not only that, but we can rest in knowing that God is the one that is producing fruit in us. He is the one that is tilling the soil of our easily hardened hearts, He is the one who prunes the things in our lives that keep us from growing; We do not do it! The fruits of the Spirit are an outward manifestation of what God is doing inside of us, to bring glory to Himself and to reveal Himself to the world through His people.
For a room of people who has been struggling to produce joy in themselves, how freeing to hear that we cannot produce our own joy, but that God will produce it in us! We simply need to abide in Jesus in word, prayer, and relationship and orient our lives around Him- and ask! Verse 7 reminds us that if we are abiding, we need only ask God and He will be glorified in our asking and desire to cooperate with Him.
We cannot produce, but we CAN cooperate!
How freeing and life giving is that truth? How great the relief of the crushing pressure we often put on ourselves.
As the sermon comes to a close and we talk about the various things that we take joy in and that steal our joy, our time of confession ends on a note of hope. We are reminded of our identities in Christ and we trust that in this season where everything seems to be collapsing in on us, God is producing something beautiful and we need only be open to cooperating with Him.