1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
Sermon Are You Pruned?
Good morning! When I was in high school, my mother had a part-time job as the alto soloist in the choir of an American Baptist Church in an affluent suburb of Pittsburgh. Eventually, she started dragging me with her to church. By that point, I was a freshman in high school, so she couldn’t physically drag me—I was too big for that—but I didn’t want to go. I wanted to sleep in and I really wasn’t all that interested in church. Eventually I got to know and like the other kids who were in the youth group, so I came around to the idea of going to church.
At one point, the pastor felt that the kids in the youth group weren’t getting enough religion, so he thought it would be a good idea to send the youth group down South to church camp. Southern Baptist church camp. I’m a Yankee, through and through, so I had some serious culture shock. And let me tell you, we got a whole lot of religion that week.
As Yankees, we were something of a curiosity to all the Southerners. Very often, we were asked, “Are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Looking back on things, I wonder if they asked us this because they thought the Holy Spirit had given up on everyone north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Or maybe they asked that question of everyone they met.
My problem with that question is theological; it suggests that salvation is a once-and-for-all kind of thing. The way the question is phrased suggests that the work of salvation is completed the moment you accept Jesus. That’s it. Accept Jesus and there’s nothing more you need to do. You’re saved from eternal damnation. Period.
On one level, that’s absolutely true. As Reformed Christians, we believe that Jesus has done all the work that is necessary for our salvation. We believe that we are saved by grace alone, and there is nothing, not a single blessed thing, that any one of us can do to work our way into heaven. So, in that sense, if you are a Christian, the only possible answer to the question, “Are you saved?” is, “Yes!”
The English theologian N.T. Wright has a slightly different take on that question. Instead of looking at what we’re saved from—eternal damnation—Wright focuses on what we are saved for. The short answer is that we are also saved for building God’s kingdom here on Earth; this is our calling. Wright says: “God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end.” For this reason, what we do here on earth matters a great deal.
Our gospel reading tells us a bit about how we are supposed to do that work of building God’s kingdom here on Earth. It’s part of a section of the Gospel of John that scholars call the Farewell Discourse; it starts at the Last Supper and it continues for a couple chapters, until Jesus is arrested. In this portion of the Gospel, Jesus explains the journey that he and the disciples have been on, the meaning of Jesus’ relationship with God the Father and the disciples, and what the disciples will do after the human Jesus has left the world. Simply put, Jesus is trying to prepare the disciples for life and ministry, without the presence of the human Jesus.
Jesus explains his ongoing relationship with the disciples by using the image of the vine. This is a powerful image; wine was an essential product in the ancient world. Most of us are used to tap water that’s clean and abundant. Even if you don’t trust the water that’s coming out of your faucet, you could buy a filter or you could buy bottled water.
But that wasn’t the case in the ancient world. There were no filters or faucets. Bottled water wasn’t an option. Streams and wells were easily contaminated. Rivers ran dry. Rivers also carried sewage. Water wasn’t always safe to drink.
Wine was safe to drink. It could be stored for long periods of time. It could be diluted with water and the alcohol in the wine would kill any germs that were in the water. The ancient world depended on wine, which means that the ancient world depended on vineyards and those who tended the vines.
The image of the vineyard and the vine grower is powerful because it’s an image everyone in the ancient world could appreciate; it’s an image of mutual dependence:
The vine needs the vine grower as much as the vine grower needs the vine. The vine needs the vine grower for its optimal growth and production, even its abundance. It will produce more fruit, even its abundance. It will produce more fruit, fruit in abundance, if cared for.
In the previous chapter, Jesus tells the disciples: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12). Jesus is telling the disciples that they will continue to bear fruit—that is, they will continue to do the work that Jesus has been doing, even to the point of doing greater works than Jesus—so long as they abide in Jesus, even after the human Jesus has died. That is the fruit of being in relationship.
The disciples are where we enter the story; they’re stand-ins for us. If Jesus gives the disciples an instruction, it’s pretty safe to say that we’re supposed to follow that instruction, too. Or in this case, we’re supposed to follow the metaphor. Jesus is the vine or the trunk; we are the little branches that bear the fruit. Jesus is the trunk; he carries the water and the nutrients from the soil to all the little branches; he nourishes the fruit. That fruit, in turn, nourishes those who aren't connected to the branch. The metaphor is profound!
God needs us to feed the people who aren't connected to the branch. Also, little branches have leaves. Leaves catch the sunlight and metabolize the nutrients that are conveyed from the ground, through the trunk to the smaller branches, and then to the leaves, where photosynthesis occurs. This is what the Church does—it nourishes the people who are connected to it and it provides shade and fruit for those in the surrounding community.
Out in the world, we are nourished by God's love; God's light. But as a bunch of disconnected individuals, that energy doesn't do much work in us. However, when we are connected to one another and fed by Jesus, we can bear much fruit—fruit that can feed the people outside the church. That only works when we're connected to one another, to Jesus, and ultimately, to God the Father.
Similarly, if there's a branch that isn't bearing fruit, it needs to be pruned. I think we also need to read this as a metaphor for the church. If there's a ministry that isn't working, isn't bearing fruit, then it needs to be pruned so it doesn't drain the energy of the congregation.
If there is something that gets in the way of relating to the community outside of our walls, that also needs to be pruned. For instance, we could get a bunch of people together some Saturday, go down to the Hall of Records, stand on the benches, and shout to the world: “Are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior?”
We could do that as part of our outreach. But that’s probably not the most effective way of communicating who we are as a community of faith. I don’t think it would play well in New Jersey. I mean, I don’t think it would play well in this congregation. I’d probably find an excuse not to be part of it.
What we have to do is prune back all the branches that drain our energy, all the branches that aren’t bearing fruit, all the branches that get in the way of making necessary changes, and all of the branches that get in the way of forming relationships with the community outside of our walls.
Five years ago, I was serving my first congregation. I was an interim pastor and I’d been there close to a year. I knew the congregation was winding down its search and I was starting to look for my next call.
I interviewed for a position at a church in a small town in the Monongahela River valley, about fifteen miles south of Pittsburgh. It’s a mill town. In previous generations, a lot of the people worked in a nearby coke works—that’s a factory that takes coal and refines it into coke, which is then used in the steel mills to melt the iron ore. Or was. There’s a lot less demand for that kind of coke these days.
The coke works doesn’t support nearly as many jobs as it used to. Also, the air quality in the towns near the coke works is terrible—which is a big improvement. It used to be atrocious. Anyone who could move out of that little town did. Long ago. That particular congregation has been in decline for thirty or forty years.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to serve there, but I also knew I needed a job. I submitted my credentials and I was invited for an interview. When I got there, they gave me a tour. I kid you not—every Sunday school classroom was filled with old furniture. Old couches, chairs, and desks. Old costumes from Christmas pageants. They held on to everything, hoping they might need them again. Sometime.
I asked how many people they had in worship on a Sunday. They said 30-35, on a good Sunday. I was dumbfounded. I asked the obvious question: How can you possibly pay a full-time salary if that’s all the people you have in worship? “It’s not a problem,” they said. “We have endowments and memorials!”
I had a nice conversation with their PNC, but as I was leaving, I felt depressed. I would only take this call as a last resort. Here’s the kicker. As I was driving out of town, I passed another Presbyterian church! And I knew there was another Presbyterian church just across the river from those two. Why weren’t they partnering with one another? It didn’t make sense that there were three, small Presbyterian churches in such close proximity.
As I was driving home, it dawned on me. That congregation was trying to hold on to its past. They couldn’t hold on to the people, so they held on to the stuff. The result was that they didn’t have any room for partnership. All of their space was occupied with the stuff that used to mark who they were. The only reason the congregation hadn’t closed its doors years before was the faithful stewardship of previous generations. But the fruits of that stewardship were a church building filled with old furniture, not with people. I can’t imagine that was the future that all those faithful stewards envisioned.
I may have said this before, but you folks are wonderfully unsentimental! I mean that. Over the last couple years, you’ve cleaned out closets and Sunday school rooms. You’ve thrown out old junk and made space for new people. That’s pruning the vine. And new people have come in.
The new people aren’t sheep from our flock, but they are our partners in ministry. The rent from all of our partners keeps this congregation afloat. They water our roots, so that the vine and branches are kept healthy. By making space for them, we have the chance to expand and grow our relationships with others. This keeps us situated in the right place to do ministry; the right place to engage in the work of building the kingdom.
Instead of asking other people, “Are you saved?” we need to ask ourselves: Are we pruned? I think this is a better question. It’s a question that looks forward. Pruning is constant work. We have to be willing to prune anything that gets in the way of healthy growth. You’ve been doing a good job of this in the time I’ve been here, but we can’t let up now. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you depart from this place, prepare yourselves for the work of ministry. Prune every branch in your life that does not bear fruit. Be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 N.T. Wright. Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne (2008), 179.  Wright, Surprised By Hope, 176.  Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 197.