I don’t know what your experience has been living in this area, but I have discovered that trying to have a garden is an exercise in futility. When I first moved here we bought a small ranch-style home that had a huge backyard. I was proud of the backyard because I saw an opportunity not only for my kids to play, but also a chance to develop a big garden. So, one Spring day I got myself a rototiller and began to tear up the ground. My intent was to have a nice, big garden with lots of tomatoes and peppers. It was fun to see the plants start to peek out of the ground and start growing. Every day I would check their development, try and get rid of any weeds, and water the plants.
One day Zach was playing in the backyard with a friend and they were tossing around a football. After some time went by I noticed some of my tomato plants didn’t look right. Some of them looked like they were stomped on or maybe hit by a football. I confronted Zach and told him to be more careful. Of course, he denied any wrongdoing.
The next morning, I woke up, made some coffee, looked out into the backyard and noticed right away EVERY SINGLE PLANT in the garden was smashed down. I was in disbelief as I struggled to imagine Zach would do this to me. As I walked out to the garden to get a closer look I then noticed that there were deer tracks all throughout the dirt.
Since then, I have continued to notice that we have a massive deer population problem here in Loveland! All of you that go away for deer hunting season just need to come to my neighborhood! But the point is this: while it may be hard to develop a garden here in Loveland, God is in the business of gardening all the time.
Our Scripture today comes from the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John. This is a unique section of Scripture in that the other gospels do not spend this amount of time on Jesus’ last words before he heads to the cross. Jesus gets his disciples together for one last time. He begins by washing their feet and telling them to serve one another likewise. He then begins to teach them many things to prepare them for what is about to happen in the next few days. What I want us to focus on is the passage that deals with the topic of gardening.
Jesus begins by recognizing that GOD IS THE GARDENER
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
Jesus’ main point here is that God is the gardener. As the gardener He is most interested in making sure that we do the very best in producing fruit. That means of course that, in agricultural terms, those branches that are not producing any fruit will be trimmed off and those that are producing fruit will be pruned to produce the best fruit possible. A good gardener will want to do the best to maximize their potential harvest. More tomatoes are a very good thing! God is not an absentee, deadbeat dad that just started everything and then walked away from it all. He is our heavenly Father that wants to bring out the very best in us.
Jesus’ next point is to explain what it means that JESUS IS THE VINE
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
Jesus connects himself to this agricultural analogy by explaining that he is the vine. The vine is the source of life and sustenance for the branches. The branches must be connected to the vine to produce any type of fruit. To not be connected to the vine means the branch will wither and die. Once again though, Jesus emphasizes that not only is the gardener interested in producing fruit, but if we remain in Christ, who is the vine, he too wants us to produce fruit. The fruit that we produce from our lives will either demonstrate that we are disciples of Jesus or not.
Jesus concludes this part of his talk with explaining what it means that WE ARE THE BRANCHES.
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.”
Now I want us to sit here and think about the passage a bit.
The SOURCE of love comes from the Father through Jesus. As a plant produces necessary nutrients for the branches to produce fruit, so too the love of the Father, through Jesus, give us the necessary stuff we need to learn how to love. As He loves us, we need to love each other.
Jesus goes on to foreshadow the fact that He is about to give up his life for these disciples. Jesus also breaks down any type of hierarchical mindset that the disciples may have. He doesn’t call them servants in relation to him, but instead he calls them friends. He then explains that the fruit he is most interested in the disciples producing is LOVE! That is our main fruit that ought to be evident in our lives as Christ-followers!
This is my command: Love each other!
Now let’s for a moment consider Jesus’ audience while he is speaking these words. He has 12 disciples of which we know that one is about to betray him, and one is about to deny him 3 times. And all of them are about to abandon Jesus in his moment of greatest need. Knowing this alone would be reason for me, if I were Jesus, just to cancel this whole Last Supper and give up on these guys. But when we consider some of the backstory of these disciples I think we can see some hope. Matthew was there, along with Simon.
Let’s talk about MATTHEW. What we know about Matthew is that one of the gospels is attributed to him. But through the Gospels we also learn that he was a tax collector when Jesus called on Matthew to follow him. Now a Jewish tax collector was seen as one who has sold out to the Roman government and betrayed the Israeli people by working for the Romans. The Romans were the occupying force that was over Israel at the time. Many Israelites were looking for a savior who would be a political revolutionary by overthrowing Rome and establishing them as the dominant kingdom. Any Jewish person who worked for the Romans would be seen as a traitor, especially a tax collector.
Now let’s consider SIMON. He has been referred to as the Zealot. A zealot was one who was a Jewish nationalist who was fiercely opposed to the Roman occupation. Zealots were known to assassinate Jewish people who were considered sellouts to the Romans, especially tax collectors.
So, without Jesus being the common denominator in this story, Matthew and Simon had really nothing in common to bring them together, and they had every reason to hate and despise each other and wish the worst on one another. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to the political climate of the first century.
But the common denominator that brought them together was Jesus. And Jesus taught them to love each other. Going back to our gardening analogy, Jesus was teaching them that while there may be two very different branches, they are still all connected to the vine and expected to produce fruit, and that fruit will be evident in their love for each other. I suspect that God did a lot of pruning especially on these two in order to shape them into disciples who love each other. While Jesus met these two where they were at in their lives, Jesus had a transformative effect on inviting them into the kingdom as brothers in Christ.
Now, at this time in our denomination, and at this time in the history of our country, we would have to be blind to not see that there is a lot of divisiveness. If you spend any amount of time on social media, cable news or talk radio, you will see people taking sides on any number of issues and viciously demonizing the other side that may disagree with them. It has gotten so bad lately that we have even had a congressman suggest we are heading into a next civil war. It has gotten so ugly, and so nasty. We have completely lost the ability to have any rational debates trying to figure out what is best for everybody. Instead, we surround ourselves with people who agree with us and we demonize those who may disagree with us. We strip them of their humanity and denigrate them with names that are used to demean them and make them less than human. This is the culture and society we live in right now.
What I want to challenge you with is will we as a church just reflect the divisiveness of the culture or will we rise above all of this and be the kingdom people that is seen through our love for each other? If we love each other the way Jesus calls us to we are going to be a big, shining light in a world that is lost in darkness. We will be branches connected to the vine, producing large amounts of fruit.
But if we don’t live into the fullness of loving one another I would say either be prepared to be pruned or even cut from the vine. This is a deal-breaker. We need to learn how to love each other. Now I will admit sometimes it is difficult to put this into practice. I catch myself at times thinking how much easier life would be if everyone just thought exactly how I thought! I come from a family that is very diverse (that’s putting it nicely) in their political and theological perspectives. I have to restrain myself at times to be very careful about what I am willing to talk about to them. It takes effort sometimes to remind myself that love is the common denominator here, not our political candidates, not our random theological or social positions on hot button issues, not on my personal ideas on how I think they should be raising their kids, and on and on and on.
Honestly, the people who have had the greatest impact on me within the context of the church are those who showed love to me regardless of where I was at in my faith journey. They saw something in me that I had a hard time seeing in myself. They told me they see Jesus in me, when I didn’t feel that way at all. They invited me to participate in small groups and church when I felt like an outcast. They invited me to be involved in the Kingdom of God by showing grace, love and compassion when I felt, disconnected, angry, lost and shunned as a “backslider”.
As I thought through this passage, I was reminded of the fact that Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that we could have a lot of great things going on in our life but if there is not love, then it is all meaningless. In the letter to the Galatians he writes about the fruit of the Spirit and the first one mentioned is love. I don’t think that that is a coincidence. He intended for that to be first because without it, the rest means nothing. You really can’t have the others without love being the foundation.
Let’s consider the disciple John himself. He was called one of the “sons of thunder”. In the gospel of Mark, we see that Jesus is getting ready to travel to Jerusalem with his disciples and he decided to send messengers ahead of him into Samaria to see if they could pass through. But they were not welcome. John’s reaction was to ask Jesus if he could call down fire from heaven to destroy them! This was John! As they were heading to Jerusalem where Jesus would be executed.
But what is fascinating about John is that we can see how his faith evolved after the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus by looking at his letters that he wrote later on in his life as a significant church leader. 1 John 4:7-12 says,
“7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
When Jesus was speaking to the disciples just before he went to the cross, it would appear that he may have been planting seeds within the minds of the disciples because what we see with John is a person whose thunderous personality softened over time. As he matured in the faith, and he was able to better understand Jesus’ mission, John knew that love was the mission of Jesus and co-mission for us. We must love one another.
If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us!
Let me give you a paradigm in which we can think through or process our theological thoughts using 3 concentric circles. I am borrowing this diagram from author and pastor Greg Boyd. I have read some of his books and listened to his podcast for years and this concept has really helped me out a lot in processing my thoughts.
In the center of this diagram is JESUS. He perfectly embodies the love of God for us and he models the type of love that we ought to have for him and for each other. He is the means whereby we experience the love God has for us.
The next circle is labeled DOGMA. These are the beliefs of the church that make us distinctly Christian. Many of these beliefs are reflected in the creeds of the church such as The Apostle’s Creed. The belief in the Trinity, and also the humanity and divinity of Christ would fit this category. These are like the non-negotiables that define Christianity.
The next circle is labeled DOCTRINE. These are important beliefs that we have but may have different views. Many denominations have different views on what exactly happens in the sacrament of communion, how it should be performed and who can participate. Some denominations believe that God is involved in every detail of life while others believe that there is some degree to free will.
And the final circle is labeled OPINION. This circle represents different ways in which we may interpret particular doctrines, such as how to interpret the Creation story in light of evolution, and there are different views on how to understand the atonement, the afterlife, the apocalyptic literature such as the book of Revelation and on and on.
Notice in this diagram that Christ is always central. His love for us and our love for each other. That must be the most important thing. The wrestling match comes when we try to determine what is dogma, doctrine or just opinion. Regardless of whatever issues we may be struggling with as a church we need to always keep Christ central.
So, at this point, I would challenge all of you to take an assessment of your life and make sure you are not getting caught up in the divisiveness of our culture, with all the hate and anger that is out there, but instead we learn how to be more and more like Christ through our love for God and our love for each other. We must make sure that we are connected to the vine and that we are demonstrating the fruit of love in our growth as a Christian. Always keep the main thing, the main thing.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” So, let’s make sure that our faith is centrally located in the love of God and the love for each other. This is the one and only way that we will stand out as kingdom people and rise above all the hostilities that divide and label others. Love one another. This is not an opinion but what is central to our faith. Let us love one another. Amen.