Third in a series on health and the Christian life.
To read last week’s sermon on maintaining a healthy inner life, check out my colleague Joe Iovino’s blog.
This week’s text: John 15:1-11
Thomas Bramwell Welch was a 17 year-old immigrant from Glastonbury, England when he joined a church of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion in Watertown, NY. The year was 1843, the same year that the church (now simply known as “The Wesleyan Church”) was formed. In the church’s Book of Discipline, the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion strongly opposed the “manufacturing, buying, selling, or using intoxicating liquors”, and “slaveholding, buying, or selling” of slaves.” The latter stand was part of the staunch abolitionist in the North leading up to the Civil War, but the former grew out of the church’s strong views on temperance and the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness and sanctification that goes all the way back to John Wesley.
As a youth, full of zeal for his Lord and his church, Thomas Welch took both of those Wesleyan convictions seriously. In his late teens he became very active in the Underground Railroad, transporting escaped slaves from the southern states into safety in Canada, continuing that work throughout the war. He graduated from seminary became an ordained Wesleyan Methodist clergyman at the age of 19 and, after the war and the end of chattel slavery in the U.S, he began to think of ways to address the Wesleyan church’s disciplinary requirement to only serve “unfermented wine” during Holy Communion.
There were ways to have unfermented wine before Welch started working on the problem: reconstituting grape juice concentrate, for example, or boiling raisins—neither of which was particularly appealing. So, in 1869, Welch used the relatively new idea of pasteurization to develop an unfermented grape juice for communion that could be preserved and served easily, calling it “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine” and persuading churches to use it at the Lord’s Supper. When it didn’t take off right away Welch, who by that time had turned to dentistry after his pulpit voice had failed him, left the grape juice business to his son Charles, who later started the Welch’s Juice Company, which we now use not only in communion, but in a lot of other ways as well.
Nowadays, there are more than 100 vineyards across the country that cultivate the Concord Grapes that are used in Welch’s grape juice. When I was back home in PA a couple of years ago, we drove past one of those vineyards—acres of neatly dressed vines bursting with purple grapes—some of which you might have had this morning (we actually use Newman’s Own Grape Juice from Costco for communion, but all grape juice owes its origins to Thomas Welch).
Thomas Welch died in 1903, but his fruitful legacy remains. He was concerned that all people have the chance to live free—free from slavery, free from addiction to alcohol, and he devoted his life to those causes. His Christian life was all about bearing fruit in the lives of others, bringing them to health and wholeness.
I often wonder if Thomas Welch thought of John 15 as he moved among those grape arbors in northern New York. Jesus’ image of a vineyard with vines, branches, and fruit would have made sense to him as he contemplated his mission in life and the legacy he would leave. In one of the great “I am” statements in John’s Gospel, Jesus lays out for his disciples the kind of relationship between those who follow him (the branches) and himself (the vine)—a relationship meant for the purpose of “bearing fruit” for the health and wholeness of the world. Thomas Welch’s life bore fruit that changed the lives of many people and the question I want to deal with today is how we, too, can live spiritually healthy lives that bear fruit for God’s kingdom
So far in this Lenten series we’ve looked at a couple of different kinds of Christian health—first, physical health, where we talked about our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, and then last week Joe talked about the health of our inner lives. Both of those measures of health are vitally important, and this week we add to them the dimension of spiritual health—a way of living that isn’t just about me and my life but also about the fruit I am bearing for the world. What Jesus illustrates here is a profound spiritual truth: God’s love always comes to me on its way to someone else. When I am spiritually healthy, connected to Jesus the true vine, then my life will be fruitful.
It’s no coincidence that Jesus uses the image of vineyard to describe his relationship to his disciples. The metaphor of the vineyard is used several times in the Old Testament to describe God’s relationship with Israel. In Isaiah 5:1-7, for example, God plants and tends a vineyard but it yields “wild grapes” or inferior fruit — a metaphor for the apostasy of Israel and Judah. The same vineyard imagery is used in Jeremiah 2:21, Ezekiel 19:10-14, and Hosea 10:1. In each of these cases, however, Israel is the “vine” and the ultimate source of poor “fruit.” In the Old Testament, “fruitfulness” was another way of saying “faithfulness,” thus a lack of good fruit meant that God’s people had failed to be the true, nourishing vine that would bolster God’s reputation in the world as the ultimate vine grower. That being the case, it was the vine grower’s job to do some pruning and replacing, which is what the prophets saw the exile as being all about. Later, God would replant the vineyard with a new stock and that new vine, the “true vine,” would be Jesus himself who embodied the new Israel, God’s Chosen One, the One through whom the whole world would be saved and blessed.
But while the vine is the source, there’s a vital link between the vine and its fruit. The “branches” are thus the focus of Jesus’ teaching with his disciples. “I am the vine,” says Jesus to his followers, “you are the branches” (v. 5). Notice that the disciples of Jesus aren’t the “fruit,” the end product, but the conduit for the vine’s nourishment. The quality of the fruit thus depends on the branches’ connectedness to the vine itself. What Jesus is describing here is the necessary interrelationship between himself and his disciples — a relationship characterized by mutuality and indwelling, but one that is also focused on bearing fruit for the whole world.
Look closely at one of those Pennsylvania grapevines, though, and one of the first things you notice about its branches is that it’s very difficult to tell them apart individually. All the branches twist and curl around one another to the point that you can’t tell where one starts and another stops. Jesus’ use of branch imagery is thus a way of expressing that it’s not the achievement of an individual branch or its status that matters. The quality of branches and fruit depends solely on the quality of their connectedness to the vine. When it comes to discipleship, each “branch” or individual gives up his or her desire for individual achievement in order to become one of many encircling branches — a community that is rooted and nurtured by Christ and points to his reputation and quality, not their own.
With that understanding of branches in mind, there are a couple of things that we branches must remember in order to stay effectively and fruitfully connected to Jesus. First, we have to remember that branches are fruit-bearing, not fruit-making. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me … Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (vv. 4-5). We’ve heard these words of Jesus many times, but we also hear the call of a culture of workaholism, achievement and success that can lure disciples of Christ into thinking that we can be fruitful as a result of our own efforts. When a branch gets the idea that it can make fruit on its own, it dries up, withers, and is no longer useful (v. 6). The mission of a branch isn’t to look good or to call attention to itself, but to give all the glory to God, the one whose name is on the label (v. 8).
Second, the “fruit” that we are to bear, like the choice grapes used in grape juice or wine, is full of many textures and flavors. Paul outlines some of these in Galatians 5:22-23 when he talks about the “fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we’re connected to Christ, functioning as spiritually healthy people, these fruits will be evident to those around us. As branches, connected to and “abiding in” the source of God’s love and grace (v. 4), we are conduits and not the end product. Remember, God’s grace and love always come to us on their way to someone else; someone who will be able to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) because we have been faithful branches.
But how do we best stay connected to the “true vine”? How do we maintain spiritual health for the purpose of bearing fruit? Well, to draw back on our Methodist roots, as Mr. Welch certainly did, healthy branches or healthy disciples get their nourishment from the vine via the “means of grace.” You may have seen this graphic before—which we call The Rule of Discipleship. It’s based on the Wesleyan idea of the means of grace—those works of piety and works of mercy that make up the healthy Christian life. These are the regular practices that keep us useful as the vital conduit between Christ and the world, but they are also practices that regularly “prune” away the things in us that take away from our fruit-bearing health. If we’re focused on using these means of grace, they will help us to cut out those practices and habits that don’t help us grow, just like on a well-tended grapevine where the branches that are carrying no fruit are removed but even the most fruitful branch is pruned in order “to make it bear more fruit” (v. 2). Branches on a grapevine are prone to growing too aggressively, producing more and more leaves and shoots that can bleed nourishment away from the grapes and sometimes even hide them from the sunlight. A good winemaker or juice maker knows that trimming back excess growth is key to maximizing the branch’s effectiveness.
In the vineyards of Jesus’ day, grapevines grew naturally along the ground instead of being propped up on poles or lattices as they are today. The vinedresser would come along to lift and “clean” the vine, pruning away the excess and dead growth. Jesus uses the same image to describe the way the disciples themselves had been “cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you” (v. 3). That “word” was the teaching and commandment of Jesus and the disciples’ meditation on and obedience to that “word” would help them “remain” or stay connected to his “love” — the nourishing flow from the vine (v. 10). The means of grace helps us to cut away everything that distract us from bearing fruit and cleanse us for the work of Christ.
That’s why one of the key means of grace is searching the Scriptures. Interestingly, in our congregational survey, this was practice you cited as being the most difficult for you, but it’s also one of the most critical keys to spiritual health. Reading, meditating and praying through the Scriptures is one way in which disciples are “pruned.” The words of Jesus about the kingdom and the story of his life, death and resurrection focus us on what’s truly important for bearing the fruit of his grace and love to the world. When we are focused on the “word,” we are able to cut out all those other offshoots and tangents of temptation and sin that can choke out great growth. When the writer of Hebrews says that Scripture is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12), he might have as easily said that Scripture was the ultimate set of pruning sheers, trimming us for the life of discipleship we were meant to live. Such pruning can be painful as God uses it to lop off old habits and cut away the growth of sin that we somehow think is attractive, but it’s absolutely necessary if we’re going to embrace our purpose as conduits of God’s grace.
Staying regularly in God’s Word is critical to our spiritual health and the church is here to help you with that. Many of you are involved in Bible studies, which is great, but there’s really no substitute for daily engagement with Scripture. We’ve provided a simple way for you to begin reading Scripture daily if you are not doing so already. Joe writes very helpful devotions every day that you can access through our web site. Every devotion features a passage of Scripture, some commentary, a prayer, and an application for the day. If you haven’t been connected to these yet, they are a great way to begin a daily discipline of letting Scripture prune you and dress you for bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. It only takes 5-10 minutes a day to begin letting the Word of God shape you, like it did for Thomas Welch and so many others throughout history. Don’t skip your daily dose of Scripture—it’s vital for a healthy life.
Another work of piety is prayer. This is the most difficult one for me, by the way. It’s so easy to get distracted by the cares of the world and the racing thoughts of our busy days that we forget that God wants a relationship with us and is ready and willing to commune with us in prayer. Jesus himself spent hours alone with God in prayer, despite all the pressures around him, because he knew he needed to tap into the source of his power and love. He spent time listening to God in silence and speaking his praise as well as his concerns. And if Jesus knew that prayer was vital to his spiritual health, then it should be our priority as well.
The hardest thing for most of us is wondering what to pray. My mind wanders, I get distracted, and that makes prayer difficult. But we have rich resources for prayer even if we’re not contemplative types. The Psalms, for example, are a treasure trove of prayers for every need and circumstance. Praying them daily is an ancient form of discipline that can shape your relationship with God. Praying for the needs of others is also a way of connecting our thoughts and our wills with God’s desire for the healing of the world. Prayer is an exercise that helps keep us spiritually healthy and connected to the vine.
Regular worship is a means of grace that keeps us connected to community and to God. Receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, putting that marvelous grape juice to good use, is another means of grace that connects us to the redemptive work of Christ in our lives. That’s one of the reasons we serve it at every service every Sunday—it’s a means of grace that reminds us of who we are and whose we are.
But while those disciplines are important works of piety, those works are never to be separated from works of mercy. Wesley gave a few examples of those works of mercy—most taken from Matthew 25 where Jesus commands his disciples to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are sick and in prison—to live out the message of the kingdom as good news for the world. Methodists understand that the purpose of these means of grace isn’t merely for ourselves. They are not the ends, but the means—the end is bearing fruit for the world in the fruits of the Spirit, in acts of service, mercy, and justice. We may be the most pious people in the world, but if we keep God’s grace for ourselves and bear no fruit, we will eventually dry up and be cast aside, as Jesus warns. We have to move from seeing spiritual disciplines as a chore and rather see them as nourishment for the real work of bearing fruit for God’s kingdom.
What are some of the ways you are paying attention to your spiritual health? What are some of the means of grace that you use to stay connected to Christ and bear fruit? What works of piety and mercy are you focusing on and where do you need to get more connected? Lent is a great time to add disciplines that will help you bear more fruit. If you need help with that, don’t hesitate to talk with Joe or me, or someone who you know has a health spiritual life. We’re here to help you be healthy, fruitful disciples!
Whenever you come forward for communion and take a piece of bread and dip it into grape juice, remember that it is part of Thomas Welch’s fruitful life—a life spent setting people free from slavery, from addiction, and from pain. These are the very things Jesus came for as well—to set us all free and put us on the path of health, connectedness, and fruitfulness.
As we partake in the sacrament, may it remind us that we are branches—conduits of Jesus’ grace and love for the world. May we be healthy and may our labels bear the mark of Christ!