Bearing fruit

Some members and friends of our congregation are in Bethany Hills for the weekend; Bethany Hills is the campground for Disciples churches in Tennessee, and we’re very fortunate that it’s only about 40 minutes from here, near Kingston Springs. It’s a beautiful place, nestled between gentle hills, covered with lush forest. There are, of course, cabins under the trees and a dining hall, but there’s also a quiet pond, fed by a happy creek, and lovely trails lead to magical places hidden in the woods, waiting to be discovered. Cell phone reception is really bad out there, which makes it the perfect place to go when you want to get away for a little while and reconnect with the  beauty of nature, with others and yourself, and with the quiet and playful side of God. Bethany Hills is an unhurried place where sun and moon and stars determine the pace of life, and a bell calls you to dinner or prayer. Some of you, I know, are wishing now you could or would have gone with them, don’t you?

Julia, Hope, and Greg have created the retreat around Psalm 1 where those are called happy who delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. “They are like trees,” the psalmist declares, “planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” If you were a tree, which would it be? What kind of fruit would you want to yield? Peaches? Almonds? Apples? Cherries? Mangos? Pecans? In cultures across the ancient Middle East, the tree of life was the vine, and not just any old vine, but vitis vinifera whose fruit has been crushed for millennia to make wine. The grapevine is one of the oldest fruit crops in the Old World. Seeds have been found at early Bronze Age sites near Jericho, dating back to around 3200 BCE, and just recently, in northern Iran, archeologist dug up wine storage jars that are about 7000 years old.[1] Little wonder, then, that the first food crop mentioned in Genesis, after the flood, is the grapevine.[2] But the tree of life? Some of you may have visited a vineyard here in Tennessee or in California, and seen the rows of vines, and you wouldn’t call those shrubby things trees, would you? They’re just not tall enough to qualify. Apparently, height was not the primary concern for people in the ancient Middle East when they chose a tree of life, but rather the kind of life it gave. And besides, the grapevine is a vigorous climber, growing to a height of over 60’ if left unpruned.[3]

Quite a long time ago, I went to Kindergarten in a three-story brick building behind the church, and the entire wall facing the playground was covered completely by just two vines, growing from a sunny patch near the sandbox, all the way up to the roof. Somewhere in the middle, it must have been the second floor, there was a small balcony, just big enough for two chairs, and one of my most vivid memories of Kindergarten is a moment when I was out on that balcony with Sister Rita and there, just above the rail, almost completely hidden behind the jungle-like curtain of leaves that stretched from all the way down on the playground up to almost the clouds, I saw a cluster of little blue grapes. I had tasted grapes before, big green and black ones my mother brought home from the market, but the discovery of such delicious fruit growing right by my playground was magical. “May I eat one,” I asked Sister Rita, and she said yes. She watched as I reached over the rail, held one of the blue pearls between my thumb and the tip of my index finger, and carefully plucked the grape from the cluster. It wasn’t the juiciest grape I ever ate nor the sweetest, but for me, at that moment, that little blue pearl had the whole wonder of life in it.

When Jesus talked to his disciples the night before he was crucified, he didn’t ask them what kind of tree they wanted to be in order to lead fruitful lives after his return to the Father. Instead he told them, “I am the vine. My Father is the vinegrower. You are the branches. Abide in me.” I imagine just about all of them said to themselves, “Why don’t you abide with us? Why can’t you just stay here with us?” The events of the next few days would disrupt their lives like nothing they could have ever imagined. They would betray, deny, and abandon him, and he would be crucified. They would mourn his death and the loss of all that died with him—and then he would return to find them. He would return to bring them peace and send them.

But that night when he washed their feet, he talked about a deep rootedness amid the turmoil and the chaos about to descend on them. He talked about a connection between them, strong and life-giving and eternal. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you.” Abide he says, eight times the word appears in just four verses. Abide is such an old-fashioned word. Of the 17 uses listed in the Oxford dictionary, eight are obsolete. The word seems to belong to another time. “To abide” has to do with persevering, continuing, lasting, staying with it, being at home. No wonder the term is rare. What it means is rare, in this or any time and its absence diminishes us.[4] It diminishes us because we are being pushed further and further into fragmentation and isolation without the capacity to be and abide in a place, to be present in a moment, or to be committed to one another.

Abiding is a key word in John, where love means mutual indwelling or being at home in each other. “Just 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.” Fruitfulness is another theme woven into the text like a pattern into a fabric. Six times Jesus speaks of bearing fruit in these eight verses; our lives bearing the fruit of his life, his life bearing fruit in the fullness and wholeness of our lives. Even the words and phrases wind around each other like branches on a vine, and it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins, but the promise of fruitfulness emerges from the urgent and persistent rhythm of abide, abide, abide. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” My colleague, Nadia Bolz-Weber, climbed through the branches of this text, and at one point stuck out her head from behind the leaves and said, “[Vine and branches, and twigs off of branches] are all tangled and messy and it’s just too hard to know what is what. If I’m going to bear fruit I want it attributed to me and my branch. If I’m too tangled up with other vines and branches I might not get credit.”[5] She knows what she wants and she knows what we want. If it’s all about fruit-bearing, we want some credit for our productivity.

Apparently Jesus doesn’t just want to remind us of our need to be connected to him to be alive, really and fully alive. That alone is difficult enough for us independence-loving solitary trees who want to pick the best spot where we plant ourselves, thank you very much, in order to put down roots. But no, this is no Jesus garden where you find the plot you like and make it your place and start producing. Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, and “our lives are uncomfortably tangled up together. The Christian life is a vine-y, branch-y, jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others.”[6] And that is how we bear fruit. Together. Belonging to him and through him to each other. Abiding in him and through him with each other. The jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others is where life becomes real, whole, and true. He says, “Abide in me as I abide in you,” and he abides; he hangs in with us and holds on to us. We don’t make ourselves fruitful. We simply become fruitful by abiding in him. We bear fruit not by squeezing it out of ourselves but because we are extensions of the vine, pruned by the faithful gardener-God who wants us to be fruitful.

What might the fruit be and for whom is it grown? We know how much the gardener-God loves the world. The fruit is the wine of the kingdom. The fruit is the very life of Christ saving us from getting lost in fragmented isolation and flowing through us to touch and heal the wounded, love the unlovable, and proclaim God’s power and mercy. The fruit is the communion of God and God’s people.


[1] and

[2] Genesis 9:20: Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.


[4] F. Dean Lueking, “Abide in me ...” Christian Century 114, no. 13 (April 16, 1997): 387.

[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber

[6] Bolz-Weber