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Newaygo United Methodist Church
Saturday, February 16, 2019
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

Making Disciples

Making Disciples

John 15:1-8

Jesus often used images from his surroundings to teach his disciples.  In today’s gospel lesson we hear him talk about being the true vine and pruning branches.  So I thought it would be helpful to share a little information about grape vines that his hearers would understand.  A young grape vine was typically not allowed to bear fruit for the first three years and was drastically cut back each year to help it develop and conserve its life and energy for the more productive, fruit bearing years.  When the vine was mature and allowed to bear fruit, it was pruned back drastically in December and January.  It had to kinds of branches, ones that bore fruit and ones that did not.  The ones that did not bear fruit were pruned back so they didn’t drain away any of the plant’s strength.  Any branch could be cut away that didn’t bear fruit and any branch could be pruned to make it more fruitful.  The vine is not capable of bearing the crop it could without such severe pruning.  Also the wood of the vine is not usable for much of anything, so the only thing to do with pruned branches was to destroy them.  So with those bits of information let’s hear Jesus’ words, possibly as his audience heard them.  Read John 15:1-8.


I would like to tell you about Jim.  When I met him he was a man in his 80’s, rugged and outdoorsy looking.  He would come to the church every day to care for the grounds of the church in some way.  There was a place in the back acres of the church property where water ponded, especially after it rained.  The water left in that area often became stagnant, the ground mucky and the mosquitoes plentiful.  Jim took it upon himself to solve the problem of the stagnant pond, single handedly digging a drainage ditch that wound its way to another part of the property where water was much needed and would not pond.  Jim didn’t ask permission, he just did what he knew was needed to eliminate the problem.  And every day he came he would stop by my office when he took a break to share a story from his many years of traveling and living life.  His wife had died several years before I came to that church and he lived in the same apartment complex as his daughter.  One day he didn’t come to my office, and the next day he was not there also.  So I called his daughter and asked if anything was wrong.  She said that they had moved him to a senior citizen complex in Grand Ledge.  So I decided to go out to see how he was doing.  I kind of missed his stories and was grateful that he had made the property at the back of the church more usable.  When I saw Jim, guess what he had taken up doing!  He was working just as hard taking care of the grounds in his new surrounding, “making things better” as he put it.  He knew better than anyone what plants needed and how to prune to make them stronger.  He loved and cared for God’s good earth.

If anybody knew what Jesus was talking about in today’s passage it would be Jim.  He could relate to the image of the vine.  Jim would probably understand that we were created to bear fruit.  And he would know the importance of pruning.  But what does good fruit bear?  It bears the seeds for the future, not a future wrapped in possession or wealth or power, but a future wrapped in that which truly lasts, that which will never be destroyed, that which is the kingdom of God which contains the possibility of peace and assurance and the greatest hope for the future..  There is a depth to our faith that comes from years of pruning and many of us only tap the surface of our faith.  Sometimes we tend to dabble in prayer and scripture and good deeds when it seems to fit our needs.  At times we struggle with our faith when things go terribly wrong, but we also have moments of a sense of being right with God.  But God is calling us to much more.  God calls us to embrace the Good News and to realize the depth and riches of a way of being that often is at odds with the ways of society, sometimes at odds with our anger and disturbances about the issues we face, sometimes at odds with our disappointments.  In a very real sense we are being pruned constantly so that our faith grows deep and strong, even when it seems like we are losing faith in the tragedies of life.

Jesus is the vine, lasting, strong and capable of reaching his tendrils deep, helping us cling to God’s vision of a transformed world, a transformed people of God.  Unfortunately the dead branches we find in our churches and in ourselves can produce powerfully negative effects.  Those dead branches can be woven into that which tries to weaken that which should be producing good fruit.  Perhaps a powerful image of that is the crown of thorns we use during lent.  The dead branch of a thorny vine was woven into a crown which symbolizes the suffering Jesus went through before he died.  An attempt was made those many years ago to destroy what God had given.  The good news is that the strong vine overcame the destructive, weaker branches to bring new life to the fruit that was about to be produced upon the face of the earth. 

We all have dead branches within us that need to be pruned to help us bear better fruit.  Perhaps it’s our anger, maybe our pride, maybe our attitude and judgmentalism.  Perhaps it’s our unwillingness to listen or to ask.  Maybe it’s those practices that actually distance us from our sense of God, some sin that we refuse to give up.  God is calling us to give up the non-productive, dead spaces in our lives, giving up our need to control to let God take control and remold us closer to His image in Jesus.  God will continue to prune the dead spaces in us until we are ready to embrace the new life offered. 

My friend Jim had been pruned throughout his life until he was attuned to God enough to be motivated to use his gifts and talents to make the world around him a better, more beautiful place.  His faith had grown deep and he took things in stride.  He seemed to know what truly mattered and he bore much fruit in what he did.  And I suspect that God was using his stories to do a little pruning in the people he met and told stories to.

Jesus was pruning the dead spaces in his disciples.  He knew the one who had lost faith and would betray him.  He knew that his disciples would struggle in their faith in those days following his death.  And he knows that his disciples in today’s world would continue to struggle and would need pruning.  He is continuing to make disciples, and then pruning those disciples to bear stronger, even better fruit.  Jesus is not finished with us yet!

This week I watched some live streaming of the work being done at the United Methodist General Conference in Tampa.  Many times I watched as the debates got off track with the amendments to the amendments to the amendments and the 3 speeches for and 3 speeches against whatever was before the floor of the conference.  But as votes were finally taken I had a sense that the dead weight was being pruned away and the Spirit was moving through the conferencing process, looking for the places where the fruit was good and re-energizing and vitalizing the church could take place.  And I realized the real vitalization of church happened in places like this where people are actually doing ministry and offering God to those around them.  This is where the action really is and when we are passionate about our faith, the vine grows stronger and we see ourselves as disciples, spreading the Good News through our voices and actions.  We are the ones who are capable of bearing good fruit in this community.    

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