One of the things that I enjoy about the Super Bowl is watching the commercials. Perhaps my favorite commercial of all time was the one that was first shown in the 2011 Super Bowl. I probably can’t tell you who played in that game, but I do remember this Volkswagen commercial that shows a child dressed in a Star Wars Darth Vader costume attempting to use “the force” around the house. So through the magic of the Internet and YouTube, let’s take a minute and watch this commercial right here in our church (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R55e-uHQna0).
So in this commercial we have the Star Wars music playing in the background and we saw a young boy dressed as Darth Vader. The boy marched around the house and raised his hands dramatically at some household gadgets, at the family dog lying on the floor, toward a doll seated on the bed, but nothing ever happens. The little boy seems to be disconnected from the source of power.
We saw Darth Vader’s arms drop to his sides, and he slumps over feeling totally rejected. He goes to the kitchen and stands at the counter with his black-helmeted head on his hand. But then his father pulls into the driveway, and Darth Vader runs outside with renewed excitement. He stands in front of the car as his father goes into the house and walks into the kitchen. Darth Vader hasn’t given up! One more time he raises his hands and points them dramatically at the car. He waits, hands upraised. Suddenly the car’s yellow turn signals light up and the engine starts!
The startled little boy stumbles backward. And then we see that the father, having some fun with his son, had remotely started the car from the kitchen. The little boy whirls around in amazement and sees his father through the kitchen window.
Now this commercial in a playful and dramatic way is illustrating to us today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus tells us in today’s lesson in verse 5 that “apart from me you can do nothing.” Just as the little boy in this commercial could do nothing without the help of his father, we can do nothing in our lives as well without the help of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson uses the image of the vine and the branches to teach us about the importance of staying connected to the source of our power that comes only from God. Jesus tells us that He is the true vine, and that His Father is the vine grower, and that we as believers are the branches. Jesus is saying to us that we can only live and grow and bear fruit in our lives if we stay connected to Him. And this power that we receive from Jesus is the Holy Spirit that keeps us alive and gives us those gifts of the Spirit (Isaiah 11:2-3) that we need to live a Christian life that bears fruit.
However, if we choose to live our life by not being connected to Jesus, then just like a branch that is cut off from the vine, we too will wither and die. In fact, a week ago in the Blade’s Saturday Religion section, there was an article about a study that was done that shows that faith is in fact the key to aging well. Psychologist Richard Johnson says in an interview that “if there’s any distinguishing thread between a 49 year old who seems old and a 94 year old who seems young, it’s the spiritual spin.”
Although there are certainly many physical, emotional, and mental aspects that also affect aging, Johnson says that “if that spiritual component is missing, then aging becomes really a very dismal thing.” Johnson also argues that “it’s not just faith in the broad sense…but it hinges on whether people have extrinsic or intrinsic faith.” He says that extrinsic faith is sort of like just going through the motions and doing what is expected. However, intrinsic faith comes from your innermost being, from the heart, and means living out your faith everyday and making it the source of your every thought, word, and deed.
One of the most important factors for aging well Johnson says is “being able to grow in the face of loss.” He says it may seem paradoxical but “we only grow when we lose.” And interestingly this is one of the first things that Jesus says in this lesson for today. That His Father the vine grower “removes every branch that bears no fruit… [and] every branch that bears fruit He prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
Pruning, which means to cut off or to let go, may seem counter intuitive but any grower of grapes or fruit trees will tell you that pruning actually makes the plant healthier and more fruitful. Without pruning, plants and trees have this natural tendency to just grow randomly, to become wild and overgrown, they sort of do their own thing. Pruning is needed to train the plant, to rein it in and shape it so it can be more productive.
In the same way that pruning makes the vine or a tree more fruitful, God through the challenges we face in life prunes us as well, so that we can bear more fruit in our lives. And the thing is we cannot prune ourselves, this is something that only God can do to us.
I read this quote once that said, “what we are is God’s gift to us, what we become is our gift to God.” And what we become will take a lot of pruning. This pruning of ourselves is much like the art of topiary where pruning is used to shape hedge-like bushes into those amazing shapes like the ones you see at Disney World that look like Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. God’s pruning shapes us into amazing and fruitful people.
Pruning is cutting away all the useless foliage in our lives. By cutting away all this useless stuff we can then bear the kind of fruit that Jesus is looking for. So pruning cuts away those sinful and wayward tendencies that we may have. And sometimes this pruning can be painful, we may have to give up some things in our lives, or perhaps we may not get what we want, or things may even not work out as we planned. Yet through this pruning that God does to us we actually become stronger, we develop a better character, we grow in our faith, and overtime, like the art of topiary, we are reshaped into the image of Jesus Christ.
Jesus also talks in today’s lesson about bearing fruit. Bearing fruit is the result of being a fruitful branch on the vine of Jesus. Fruit is what happens when we live our lives in a godly manner according to the Spirit. St. Paul tells us in Galatians (5:22-23) what it means to bear fruit in our lives when he says to us that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The first 3 of these fruits are internal to us. These are the fruits we bear in our heart that show themselves in the way we live our lives. Without love, joy, and peace in our hearts it is impossible for us to remain on the vine and bear fruit.
Love is the greatest virtue and reflects the fact that God is love and that we are to love Him and others as we love ourselves. Joy expresses the happiness we have in our hearts knowing that God loves each of us and that we have been saved through the gift of His Son Jesus Christ. And Peace comes from this new relationship that we have with God through Christ. Peace gives us a sense of well-being and makes us peaceful towards other people as well.
The next 3 of these fruits of the Spirit which are patience, kindness, and generosity are the fruits that show how we relate to other people. These fruits show that we love one another just as Christ has loved each one of us. Patience shows others that we trust in God rather than in our own will. That life unfolds according to God’s timetable and His plan rather than our own. And through patience we can endure whatever life may send our way. Through kindness we have a giving spirit and we treat other people with the same kind of love and mercy that Jesus shows us. And through this kindness that is based on love we show our generosity or goodness which means that we work for the good and the benefit of other people, just as God does for us.
The last 3 of these fruits of the Spirit, which are faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, are those fruits that show that we put our trust in God. Faithfulness means that we know that we can trust God because He is always faithful. As faithful people we are then reliable, we keep our word, we do not give up, and we are loyal to our family and friends. The fruits of gentleness and self-control does not mean that we are weak but come from a deep inner strength that is fueled by the presence within us of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ final point in this lesson is about abiding. The word abide is so important that it is mentioned 8 times in these 8 verses that we have for today. Abiding is different from believing. Now belief is confidence that something is true or really exists. And for many people the Christian life is all about believing, what it is that we think we need to know. But Jesus is not talking about just believing or reciting creeds. Belief is a necessary condition but Jesus is saying that by itself it is not sufficient. To stretch this point to its limit even Satan believes in God, but Satan does not abide with Him. So with the word abide, Jesus is leading us to something more than just what we can become by believing.
Jesus tells us in today’s lesson to “abide in me as I abide in you.” Jesus is saying to us “live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you (The Message).” Jesus says that, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” To abide means to dwell in or most importantly to be in a relationship with Jesus.
This image of the vine that Jesus is giving is taking us beyond what we can just believe and is drawing us into a closer relationship with Him. Abiding is then connectedness and Jesus is saying that we need to be connected to Him.
Being connected means that we depend on Him for all the good things of our lives whether this be our food, our faith, our health, family, friends, forgiveness and love, as well as hope and eternal life. And this connection we have with Him is sustained and nourished throughout our lives by going to church, when we hear and study His Word, and when we receive His body and blood in Holy Communion.
This connectedness also means that we are connected to one another. We are all branches on the same vine. St. Paul reminds us of our connectedness or this mutual abiding when he says (1 Corinthians 10:17) this “cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
So it is by abiding with Jesus as branches on His vine that we receive this life giving sap of Christ’s love that sustains us and makes us fruit bearing branches. Just like the little boy in that commercial we saw, we have no power if we go it alone, Jesus holds the remote starter. The only way that we as the branches can bear fruit in our lives is to stay connected to Jesus, because apart from Him we can do nothing. (Ronald L. Fournier © 2012)