Renew and Remake, but Always Remain

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
January 13, 2019

John 15: 1-11 (CEB)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. 2He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. 3You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. 5I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. 6If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

9“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.

There was a farmer who was part of a small congregation in rural South Carolina. One year, the farmer planted several acres of watermelons, which he had presold to a grocer in New York City. When the truck arrived for the melons, though, there was a dispute over who was to harvest and load the crop. As a result, the deal fell through, the truck left empty, and the farmer was left with a field full of watermelons. At that moment, the farmer decided give all the watermelons to the youth group at his church. He figured they could sell the melons at a roadside market to raise money for missions. As the farmer approached the youth with the idea, he offered only one condition—that the youth had to get the watermelons harvested. So the next Saturday, the youth and their leaders grabbed their work gloves and gathered in the field to begin harvesting the watermelons. Though it was an all-day project, the youth quickly learned that some of the branches had separated from the vine, had turned brown, and probably had no fruit worth finding. But the green, living branches were still connected to the vine and likely had tasty watermelons under their leaves. And each fresh watermelon brought joy to the harvester, a good sale, and money for mission.

This is the story Jesus is telling his disciples. They can wither and die, or they can grow and thrive. And the difference between the two is one simple matter—whether or not the disciples are connected to the vine, to Jesus. So this morning, let’s allow these words from Jesus to bring our lives back into focus. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.” Wherever our lives may have taken us in 2018, however we may have wandered or strayed, whatever may have rearranged our priorities, or tempted us, or disoriented us; we have now, at the beginning of this New Year, an opportunity to get back on track, to reconnect to the vine, and in that connection to find life again. Our life purpose is to remain in God in Christ Jesus. Only when we do this is God glorified. So here’s how it works; Jesus is the true vine, God is the grower, and we are the branches.

The vine grower has tough work to do, indeed. The Greek word, kathairo is translated as “prune” or “cleanse.” It is the same word used in the foot-washing scene in John 13, and it carries the sense of cleansing, making pure, freeing from blemishes or shame. Vines have to be tended to in order for the branches to bear fruit. Jesus’ words to his disciples and to us invite all to stay close to him by placing their trust in him. He warns that no one can go it alone, trusting in their own strength. On our own, we are cut off from our life source. We cannot bear fruit. There has to be renewal, a remaking, but that means pushing away all that stifles our connection to the vine. “The purpose of these verses is to demonstrate that we branches will be cared for by the divine vinegrower who knows just how to develop us, exactly when to prune, when to wait, and when to harvest.”

This is a word we all need to hear today, friends. The temptation to live for ourselves is great. The temptation to “go it on our own” is tremendous. We live in a society that promotes independence and making something of yourself. We value personal achievement over shared sacrifice. The question most commonly asked these days is not, “What can I give,” but “what can I get?” It becomes very easy to think that it is all up to us and our own resources as we try to solve problems and meet challenges. But what we need to remember is that we are a covenant people, and our first priority is our relationship with God. To this, Christ says, “If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned.”

Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever feel “burned out”? Perhaps we can begin to understand why. Because we are growing away from God, because we are separating ourselves from the life-giving branch and bearing no fruit. Following Christ is never an easy road, but God will take care of us. But we have to have trust that God’s work in us is good, because that is a difficult process as well. Even branches that do produce fruit are cut or pruned in order to produce more fruit. So how does this process of pruning come into play in our lives? How does this keep us connected to Jesus? How does this bring glory to God?
As beginning gardeners soon learn, certain flowers benefit from being “deadheaded.” “Deadheading” is pinching off the first flowers produced by the plant, which results in fuller plants with more blossoms down the road. But it’s hard to do even that, isn’t it? Those first flowers are so pretty that it’s incredibly difficult to pinch them off! Yet that is what is required. The laws of nature seem to contradict what we desire. Still, there it is. Pruning now results in more beautiful plants later. But that takes faith, doesn’t it? And this is no less true when it comes to our life with God in Christ Jesus. In faith, we have to allow God to cut back the surplus. We have to be open to his movement within us, pruning away even the “good” so that we become “great” in God, so that God is glorified.

In a vineyard, the best grapes are produced closest to the central vine. As you can imagine, that is where the nutrients are most concentrated. So, the branches are not allowed to ramble all over the arbor. They are pruned and kept short. Cleansing and pruning are the work of God and the words of Jesus. They determine which branches are cut off and removed, and which are pruned. The mystery of these actions, the cleansing and pruning, is that the plant looks useless and dead. Yet the branches’ connection with the vine ensures new life and new growth. With God as the grower, with God doing the maintenance, we are assured that new life and new growth will result. Though sights may deceive, “never judge a book by its cover.” Despite how the plant looks, its connection to the vine makes it alive and not dead.

There was a teenager who didn’t want to be seen in public with her mother, because her mother’s arms were terribly disfigured. One day when her mother took her shopping and reached out her hand, a clerk looked horrified. Later, crying, the girl told her how embarrassed she was. Understandably hurt, the mother waited an hour before going to her daughter’s room to tell her, for the first time, what happened.

“When you were a baby, I woke up to a burning house. Your room was an inferno. Flames were everywhere. I could have gotten out the front door, but I decided I’d rather die with you than leave you to die alone. I ran through the fire and wrapped my arms around you. Then I went back through the flames, my arms on fire. When I got outside on the lawn, the pain was agonizing but when I looked at you, all I could do was rejoice that the flames hadn’t touched you.”

Every day, that mother faced a sign of death. But in reality, what had been cut away had allowed for her daughter’s life to thrive. There is no doubt that was a painful experience. And she lived not only with the physical scars, but the emotional ones every day. And we must be prepared for some pain as well. We have to be ready for the Father’s pruning knife, though it always hurts. Because we sit here this morning, we are connected to the vine. But so that we might produce good fruit, we have to let the Father cut away our growth away from Christ.

God is glorified, as are we, by the bearing of good quality fruit, and lots of it. For that to happen, there will be extra growth that needs cutting away. The temptation to go it alone, the desire to serve self, the illusion that our lives and experiences are only about ourselves. Wherever we have strayed, we have to know and allow that God is looking out after our best interests, he is molding us and forming us so that we are never too far from the life-giving vine. This is Jesus calling us back to our covenant relationship, to a life lived in connection with God. This is Jesus saying to his disciples, “When I am gone, do not forget to talk about me and do the things we did together, like heal, serve the poor, and spread good news.” This is how we stay connected to the vine. Jesus’ words, though, are not a to-do list. Instead, he says, “Abide.” Stay. Remain. Dwell. Endure. Simply be present with me. So this morning, I pray that we might all say, “Lord, I live in you so that you may be glorified through me.”
“Lord, I live in you so that you may be glorified through me.”

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