The Fruitful Way (A Process for Making Disciples)


Bordeaux-vineyardsJohn 15:1-17

When you think of fine wine (that is, if you think of wine at
all, which you may or may not depending on your tradition – I am a Welch’s man,
myself) your mind and palate might wander to a particular region of France. The
French have a long history of vintage winemaking and have provided the names
for most of the well-known varieties of vino. Champagne, Bordeaux, Chardonnay,
Burgundy, just to name a few, are all regions that give monikers to certain
types of French wine that, in order to be authentic, must have originated in
that region. The stuff that ball players spray on each other after the World
Series, for example, might be called champagne, but
if the bottle indicates it came from anywhere other than a specific region in
France, it’s just “sparkling wine.”

Some things are inviolate about winemaking. One
foundational principle that applies to wine, whether it’s produced in France or
the Napa Valley of California is this: great wine is always a reflection of a particular
vineyard.
 Repeat: Great wine is
always a reflection of a particular vineyard.

If you want to pick a good wine, in other words,
you have to know the source. The label will tell you everything you need to
know before you even pop the cork.

Jesus obviously knew a little about wine
himself, since we often see him at parties in the gospels and since he knew
exactly what kind of wine would blow the minds of the guests at the Cana
wedding feast (John 2:1-12). So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that he used the
metaphor of a vineyard to describe his relationship to his disciples — a
discussion that appears a few chapters later in John 15. Jesus knew that the
best way to tell what kind of product you were getting would be to look at the
label and see from where in the world it came. In this case, the source isn’t a
place but a person — Jesus himself.

Jesus begins by saying that he is the “true vine,” the source
of growth and fruit-bearing, in a vineyard that is tended by the “Father.”  The Creator God is thus the real winemaker, the
one who tends the vineyard and assures its quality.

Our Old Testament lesson tells us that this
vineyard has a long and storied history. 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 unfaithfulness of Israel
and Judah. The same vineyard imagery is used by the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel,
and Hosea. 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 fine winemaker. That being the
case, it was the winemaker’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.

The-VineBut while the vine is the source for good fruit, 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). And the purpose of those disciples,
those branches of the Jesus vine, is to “bear fruit.” Notice that the disciples
of Jesus aren’t the “fruit,” the end product themselves, 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 great
growth
for the whole world.

So, what is the “fruit” that disciples are to bear? What
characterizes its quality? Well, Paul outlines some of these in Galatians
5:22-23 when he talks about the “fruit of the Spirit.” A fine wine is made of
grapes with a variety of flavors and textures, and so are disciples. Paul says
that the “fruit” of a disciple is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Disciples of Jesus
produce these flavors when they are connected to him as the true vine.
Remember, though, that the fruit disciples bear isn’t for themselves—it’s meant
to be enjoyed by others. As branches, connected to and “abiding in” the source
of God’s love and grace (v. 4), disciples of Jesus are the conduits of the
vine’s nourishment and not the end product. In
a world where there is much bitterness and cheap imitation fruit that people
tend to get drunk on, disciples offer a different quality, an alternative for
the world. We might call that alternative “grace:” the quality of God’s
unmerited love and favor, his offer of forgiveness and his saving life.
Disciples of Jesus don’t keep the fruit of grace to themselves, they share it
and multiply it. Remember what we like to say around here, 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. Good fruit begets more fruit, in other words.

Think about an apple tree, for example, another fruit-bearing
tree with branches. What is the purpose of an apple tree? To make apples, yes,
but even more so the purpose of an apple tree is to make more apple trees! The
pleasing fruit is enjoyed by people and animals, which leads to the seeds
inside being spread and planted. If we’re really bearing fruit as disciples of
Jesus, that fruit will multiply in the lives of others.

To have good fruit, however, you have to have good branches who are connected
to the vine. Look closely at a grapevine,
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). When a branch gets the idea that it can make fruit, make
wine, on its own, it dries up, withers, and is no longer useful – it is
gathered up and thrown into the fire (v. 6). The effective branch is intimately
connected to the vine, but it also depends on the other branches to support and
strengthen it, balancing the nutrients and providing protection from the
elements. 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, while the branches that are carrying no fruit are
removed, we must remember that 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 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).
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.

Besides daily immersion in the
Scriptures, there are other ways that the branches stay connected to the vine:
Prayer is an essential connection that enables the flow of love and nourishment
from Jesus to us and us to him. Worship and fellowship remind us branches that
we are not only connected to Christ but also intertwined with each other.
Bearing good fruit is the result of a daily discipline as we live under the
authority and care of the ultimate vinedresser!

Great wine is the reflection of a particular
vineyard, and God wants to tend the finest vineyard ever, the one that takes
the ultimate prize for grands crus (great growth). As disciples
of Jesus, the true vine, we are called to embrace our role as branches —
channels for God’s grace, so that when the world samples the fine vintage of
God’s love and grace, they will want to know the winemaker!

Last week we read John 14 and talked about Jesus as
the way, and we said that walking the Jesus way, coupled with believing the
Jesus truth, leads to living the Jesus life. Now, here in chapter 15, we get
the quality of that life laid out before us—a fruit-bearing life. It doesn’t
happen by accident. It’s an intentional process: Planting, sinking roots,
nurturing and pruning growth, and bearing fruit. The steps matter, and it takes
time and a sense of purpose to grow the finest fruit.

You know, the early Methodists latched on to this
fruit-bearing image. John Wesley believed that the fruit of discipleship was
“holiness of heart and life”—a life that reflects God and is lived for the
benefit of the world. He believed that the people called Methodist were called
to be conduits for God’s love and grace, branches who consistently bore good
fruit. He developed a process by which people could move from being the mere
potential of a seed to the fruitful way. He recognized that people simply
couldn’t simply be branches on their own—they needed the other people to help
them stay connected to Jesus the vine and, together, grow a great vintage that
reflects God to the world.

To be a Methodist meant that you were a member of a society
(the equivalent of the church), but that in order to grow as a disciple you
needed to go deeper. The class meeting was a requirement of all the early Methodists,
and it was in those weekly meetings that people focused on growth in their
relationship with God and allowed themselves to be pruned by confessing their
sins to one another. The class meetings were governed by three simple rules:

GENERAL RULES

1. Do no harm.

2. Do all the good you can.

3. Stay connected to God through the public and private
ordinances of God, which included daily prayer and Bible reading, attending
worship and receiving the sacraments, meeting with other Christians for mutual
support, learning, fellowship, and accountability, and engaging in public and
private acts of compassion and justice toward others, particularly the poor and
the vulnerable.

The groups would meet and check in on how each member was
doing with these simple rules. They supported one another, lifted each other
up, challenged each other when needed. The discipline of the class meeting
wasn’t where discipleship happened but, rather, where they made sure that it
happened. Like branches of the vine, we cannot exist and bear fruit on our own.
We need others to intertwine with us and, together, with God’s help, we will
bear a bumper crop!

I really believe that this model, outlined by Jesus and
activated by John Wesley, is the way that disciples get made. They don’t happen
by accident or osmosis, as we said last week. The vineyard needs tending or all
it produces is wild grapes. Rampant growth without pruning leads to a
substandard crop. Good fruit is the result of careful, daily, maintenance.

My deepest desire is to see Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church
be a community of faith that bears great fruit for God’s kingdom here in the
Tri-Lakes region and beyond. We already have good roots. The seed that was
planted in a truck stop on Baptist Road in the early 90s has clearly grown and
begun to mature. Interestingly, a grapevine reaches its prime fruit production
at about the 20 year mark, which is where we are right now! The question for us
is, how will we manage our growth and continue to bear great fruit for years to
come?

Discipleship Flow Chart.001I am proposing that the way to our future is grounded in
these practices from our past—an intentional process for growing fruit-bearing
disciples. Here’s how it works:

We start with the seeds that get planted in a person’s heart.
Think about that person who comes here for the first time—maybe a seeker, maybe
someone who has been away from the church for a long time, maybe someone who is
disconnected and drying up, looking for new life. Maybe it’s someone you have
invited (most people come to our church in this way!). We want to be a church
that nurtures that seed of faith, so we provide an excellent environment for it
grow. Our worship, our fellowship time, our facility, our ushers and greeters
and people in the pews can be fertile soil. We want someone who comes here for
the first time to feel welcome enough to want to come back and become a regular
attender.

We then invite them to go a little deeper with some roots. We
invite them to Coffee with the Pastor, which is a chance to talk a little about
the church and begin to share our stories with each other. It’s there that we
invite them to go even deeper—to become firmly rooted in Christian faith and
our Methodist tradition and practice of making disciples.

We call this Blueprint for Discipleship. It’s a ten-week
class that teaches about our belief and practice, but also offers an
opportunity for an experiment in community as people begin sharing with one
another about where they are in their connection to Christ. Each week, the
class takes time to ask each member the classic Wesley question: “How is it
with your soul?” We talk about ways we can grow with Christ. We encourage each
other to practice the daily disciplines that enable us to begin bearing fruit
(some of which we’ll be looking at in our fall sermon series). We discover the
spiritual gifts God has given us and we begin to feel a call to serve in some
area of the church or the community.

We will offer this class several times a year. In fact, we’re
offering it at three different times starting September 9: one at the 9:45
hour, one at 11:00, and one on Sunday evening at 6:30. Eventually, this will be
the class for new people at our church. Right now, we are asking all of you to
consider taking the class so that we can all begin the journey together,
investing in the life of fruit-bearing discipleship. We want our whole
congregation to begin afresh on this new path of growth.

After the ten week class, the groups then will continue on to
form what is the centerpiece of the Methodist way of making disciples: the
covenant group. The covenant groups mirror the early Methodist class meetings:
a regular (weekly or bi-weekly) opportunity for people to gather in small
groups to encourage one another, pray together, check-in on their walk with
Christ, learn together, and spur one another on as fruit-bearing disciples.
These groups will form the backbone of our church, providing each person a
place to know and be known and a team of fellow disciples who will help them
grow, lift them when they are down, care for them when in need, and serve
beside each other in the world. Each covenant group will take on a mission of
their choosing, either in the church or in the community, as an outgrowth of
their connection to the vine.

The ultimate result of this growth? Fruit-bearing disciples
being deployed into the world—into workplaces, schools, homes—all the different
sectors of society in which we live and work. Disciples who are nurtured in
community then share the grace they have received with the rest of their world.
They see their mission as transforming the world around them to look more like
the kingdom of God. They are not just religious people who go to church on
Sunday, but people who engage God’s larger vision for the world and see their mission
in life as being part of it. This is what we were meant for. As Jesus put it to
his disciples in John 15:16, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I
appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father
will give you whatever you ask in my name.” What Jesus has done in the world,
his disciples will be able to do—indeed, even “greater things” (14:12). But
only if we are fully connected to Jesus, the vine, and bearing fruit.

What will be the outcome of this new process? I believe it
will radically change peoples’ lives. I believe it will make Tri-Lakes UMC,
which is already a good church, into a great church that reflects the life of
God’s kingdom and makes a difference in our world every single day. I believe
we will be producing disciples, following the command of Jesus, who will make
more disciples. That’s what we’re called to do!

You will be hearing more about this as we move through this
fall. For now, I simply want to extend an invitation to you. Come and see. Come
and grow. Be a fruitful disciple who is on the way with Jesus, reflecting God
the winedresser’s work. You will never be the same, and neither will the world!

 

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