Everything but life. When the church finds you (Part 5)

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 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.” (John 15:1-2)

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21:43)

I spent the first half of my life living in western New York, home to thousands of acres of vineyards situated on hills leading down to the 11 (or is it 12?) Finger Lakes, so-called because they are long and narrow like rivers cut off at each end.

Like other agricultural activities, there is an annual cycle of tasks required to maintain the productivity of the vines. A century ago, the fruit would have traveled by train to larger cities to be sold as table grapes. Today, most of the acreage is devoted to wine grapes.

If you think of the vine as a miniature tree, the branches grow up and out to 4-5 feet off the ground before they sag of their own weight as they grow even longer. The branches are “tied” to the trellis of wires so blossoms don’t get knocked off; each flowering blossom represents bunches of grapes at the harvest.

After the fall harvest, the branches are trimmed. The methods may differ, but the same principle is at work now as it was 20 centuries ago when Jesus used pruning the branches as a metaphor.

Once trimmed, the grower is left with an enormous pile of dead branches. They used to be burned, but then someone realized they could cut the branches to a serviceable length and weave them into something that could be sold, e.g., wreaths. Enhanced with bits of ribbon, dried flowers and other accents, they make an attractive decoration, if your tastes run to rustic simplicity.

There is one thing that these grapevine wreaths are not, however. They are no longer living. Once separated from the vine, they may retain the appearance of living branches, but they will never bear fruit. As for what’s left in the vine after pruning, it will be “even more fruitful.”

I am 63, so as I was growing up, the biggest Christian denominations were starting to lose their influence over my generation. I attended church through high school, but only because the perceived irrelevance of faith hadn’t yet reached the level it now has. Good kids still went to church, but with a nod and a wink to their peers that it wasn’t to be taken seriously.

I became a believer as a college freshman in 1976, after a single presentation of the gospel message, albeit extended over 6 months in several installments of varying length. I joined a campus-based fellowship where I made a whole new circle of friends and attended several weekend conferences and training sessions. By the time I was a senior, I was appointed an officer in the campus fellowship.

And aside from my age and the gold stars next to my name for attending conferences, I had no business being placed in that honored position of responsibility.

In the course of about 3 ½ years, I had been taught and readily assented to the elements of doctrinal orthodoxy, attended church and Bible study regularly and guarded my life and “testimony”—in my case, Christian jargon for reputation, especially among my Christian friends. I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed in me.

But, looking back over more than 40 years, spiritually I was like a grapevine wreath. Everything looked like it was in place, but there was no fruit. Just as the branches were woven together tightly and symmetrically, all the elements of a respectable Christian life appeared to be in my life.

Forrest Gump’s mother said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” The shrill cries of “works righteousness” notwithstanding, what we are is manifest from what we do.

Jesus told the parable of the two sons whose father asked them to go work in his vineyard (Mt. 21:28-32). The first said, “I will not,” but later changed his mind and did. The second said, “I will, sir,” but never went.

Jesus asked those present in the temple courts, including the religious leaders, who did what the father wanted. They answered correctly, “The first.”

And then Jesus declared something that must have hit them like a kick to the solar plexus. “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Ahead of the religious leaders? You have got to be kidding!

In the “looks like the church” model, the one I lived in for several years, that could never happen. But among the true people of God, the one who does what the Master wants grows and becomes “even more fruitful.”

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