Sermon; Easter 5B; John 15:1-8
I've been talking about the difference between belief and faith. Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Yes, definitely, without a doubt. Do you have faith to step out into the abyss, out into the unknown, and be changed by resurrection? Ummm. That is something else entirely. Because when we live into a resurrection faith we will be changed, and that change often scares us.
In today's gospel Jesus uses an image that everyone in his audience could recognize: that of the vine and vine grower. I am not a gardener, and I did not inherit my grandmother's green thumb, but I do understand the image Jesus is putting forth.
We have two trees in our front yard. I'm pretty sure they're healthy and their branches produce much fruit (or, actually, leaves in this case). Even so, after every good wind there are always several dead branches that fall to the ground. These get picked up and placed in a pile by the Honey-It'll-Be-Easy project to be burned later.
Having these branches come down, though, makes me think that the trees might need a good pruning. You know, the kind that makes any elm or oak tree look like a freshly shaven poodle. I should really talk to an arborist about that. But anyway . . .
Have you ever noticed that after a tree gets pruned it comes back looking neater and fuller? My grandmother used to hack plants apart without mercy or remorse and they all ended up better for it.
This gospel got me thinking about my grandmother and the trees in our front yard. It also got me thinking about how those branches represented belief and faith.
As we moved away from the Gospel of Luke and resurrection stories into the gospel of John and pre-crucifixion stories, I said that maybe the Lukan passages were about belief and the passages from John were about faith. I also pointed out that faith is greater than belief. Belief is easy – do you believe in the resurrection? Faith is much harder – if you believe the bridge is supposed to be there, are you willing to step out into the abyss? Faith is putting our belief into action. Faith will challenge us, scare us, and change us.
In the gospel today Jesus makes an interesting statement that I really hadn't noticed before: he says that the vine grower will remove every branch that bears no fruit and that he will prune every branch that bears fruit to make it bear more fruit. In other words, he removes the dead branches and prunes the healthy branches.
I think the branches that bear no fruit, the dead branches, are the branches of belief. Do you believe the tree is there? Yes, definitely, without a doubt. After all, it was the tree that caused me to be here in the first place. But after awhile, belief in the tree isn't enough and the branch withers and dies, whereupon it is removed and put in the pile to be burned.
Do you have faith that the tree provides life? A branch that lives with that faith produces fruit, or, in the case of my two trees, leaves. And in living into that faith, in producing fruit, the branch will be pruned to produce more fruit.
Have you ever thought about the act of pruning? In pruning, the gardener cuts back living branches. From the plant's perspective, this is a painful process.
When I was a senior in seminary there was a group of prospective students touring the campus. I was on my way somewhere when their guide – I think it was a professor – stopped me and said, “Todd, can you tell these people in a few seconds what seminary is like?” No pressure there . . .
So I said, “It's like you're a rose bush where everything you've thought about your faith and the church are the different branches and flowers. When you get here, all that gets hacked away until you're down to the stump. And then you begin to grow and flower again more abundantly and more fully.”
Note the difference in all of this: if you're a dead branch, you're simply removed. If you're a living branch you'll get cut back in order to produce more abundantly. And that second action can be painful.
If all we have is belief, if that's the only thing we rely on, we will stagnate and die. When John was baptizing in the Jordan he told the Sadducees and Pharisees, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor,' for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.”
Belief will cause us to spring forth. Belief allows us to say without a doubt and with conviction: Alleluia. Christ is risen. – The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. But without the faith to put that belief into action we will stagnate and die.
Faith will challenge us. Faith will scare us. Sometimes we will suffer pain because of our faith. But it is through our faith that we will grow and produce much fruit. But for that to happen we must be willing to put our belief into action. We must be willing to be challenged and changed. We must be willing to live into resurrection. Because if we don't, we will eventually dry up and need to be removed.
So as we look at the difference between belief and faith, as we examine where we might have failed to put our resurrection belief into action, or where we've taken a few tentative steps in faith into the unknown, where might we need to be pruned in order to produce more abundantly?