First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana

Being Branches

First United Methodist Church
April 28th, 2024
Rev. Lauren Hall

Being Branches

Do you remember Steve Jobs? He’s one of the most innovative farmers of the 20th Century and he cultivated a crop that introduced our world to a brand new variety of vegetation. He called it Apple. The world called it good. We all know that his invention was beyond ordinary. At the time of his death, his company had earned and held more cash on hand than the United States Federal Reserve.

The Apple Corporation was a manifestation of Jobs’ mind and how he perceived the world, the marketplace and computers themselves. Jobs knew this. As long as the company had its leader, it would continue to be innovative, and it would continue to challenge the world to change with it. However, he knew that he was not immortal, and as he put his affairs in order, he knew he needed to prepare the employees of his company to think in the same way that he did. Jobs believed that there was no reason that the positive impact that Apple had on the world had to end simply because he was no longer with them. And so he formed “Apple University,” where the students are taught how to think and make decisions like the company’s founder. Students are immersed in the core beliefs that Jobs taught as the key to Apple’s creative and innovative enterprise, and they are shown how those beliefs translate into business strategies that will bear more fruit in the marketplace.

This is not the first time that this strategy has been used. Our gospel reading today is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to the disciples. In John, chapters 13-17, Jesus, “knowing that he had come from God and was going to God” (John 13:3), gathers his disciples and instructs them on how to live in his absence.

Jesus’ use of grapevine imagery introduces the idea that he is forever present as the very source of his followers’ lives. Jesus uses very simple symbolism in this passage as he describes discipleship as a fruitful life sustained in relationship to Jesus, the true vine. Historically the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, was the “vine” of the metaphors of the Hebrew Scriptures. But now, Jesus is the vine in the vineyard. God is the vineyard worker, and the disciples are the branches. Jesus is the true vine because he comes from God.

Jesus is the real vine in the sense that the life he provides for disciples is not fake or false, but authentic and “real” in relation to God and God’s life-giving and loving purposes for the world. Therefore, when Jesus makes the statement, “I am the true vine and my father is the vine-grower,” he is making the claim that his life is grounded in the relationship between himself and the Father. When Jesus uses this imagery with the disciples, he is essentially saying that he expects the disciples to live lives that faithfully manifest God’s good and life-giving purposes. As he continues the metaphor, he begins to describe the disciples as branches, continuously pruned in their spiritual growth by God, in order that they might bear fruit.

This developing community must remain connected to Jesus, or they will dry up and wither away. Just as a vineyard worker tends his vines with the expectation that they will yield fruit, God works in our lives with the expectation that we will bear fruit. “Abide in me, as I abide in you,” Jesus says. “Abide,” which means “to remain” or “to stay,” means not getting distracted, but staying connected to Jesus, who offers an ongoing source of life and energy, creativity, and bearing of fruit. Our relationship with Jesus is the core of our discipleship. It is only possible to be fruitful when the branch (us) continues to draw life from the source, the vine, or Jesus.

Our Resurrection Story is a good example of what can happen when a person becomes distracted, or disconnected from the source. After a rough weekend of experiencing Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter decides to go fishing and invites the others to go with him. Jesus shows up, calls them out of the boat a second time, and tells them, “Guys, you can’t go back to doing the same thing you did before you met me. I’ve changed. You’ve changed. And you have a mission. Go out and do it. I have made you fishers of men. You don’t have time to sit in a fishing boat all day.”

When we read this passage in light of the vineyard imagery, we see that Jesus is doing some necessary “pruning” in the disciples’ lives so that they realize that they need to approach life differently now that they have experienced the resurrection. It takes an incredible amount of energy to be a first century fisherman. Christ called them out of the boats so that he could equip them for their future of evangelism. They couldn’t go back to their old lives.

And this is where both of these passages speak to us today. As we get ready to show the community our church and our ministries, we can celebrate our past and our present, but we also need to look forward to our future. While some pruning may be necessary, pruning does not mean digging up and getting rid of the whole plant. It is important, however, to ask ourselves the question: Where do we want to put our energies, and how do we prune those things that take our energy without any real return?

When it comes to our personal lives, we need to think about what it means to be a branch. When Jesus says, “I am the vine. You are the branches,” he is giving us a very vivid image.

What is the significance of being a branch? Well the obvious explanation is that if a branch becomes separated from the vine, it can’t survive. If we disconnect, or separate, ourselves from Christ, we lose our source of life. That one’s easy.

But let’s think about being a branch for a couple of minutes. First the branch is the thing in between the vine and the fruit. Without the branch there can be no fruit. You can have grape vines all over the place, but if they don’t grow any branches, they will never produce any fruit. The Israeli people identified themselves as God’s vineyard; but Jesus is taking them one step further. He is saying, “God didn’t simply plant you and create a vineyard for someone else to prune and nurture. You are a vineyard, yes. But I have expectations for you. I am the vine and you are the branches.” Jesus is giving us a job to do. We are to produce fruit. Our mission is not simply to grow spiritually, but to grow spiritually so that our lives might make a difference in this world.

The third truth about grape vine branches is that they need to be pruned in order to keep the vine healthy. It is important to prune off the branches that are not producing fruit in order to prevent them from draining energy and resources from those that are.

Most of you are probably familiar with growing tomatoes. Tomato plants send out shoots, which if left unattended will sprout up as little mini tomato plants, too small to produce any fruit. But they sap energy from the main vine, and that lowers the quality of the tomatoes, so a good tomato farmer will pinch them off. They call this practice “pinching off the suckers.”

Since we are thinking of ourselves as branches, it is important that we don’t begin to prune our members based on their fruitfulness. Pinching off the shoots of tomato or pruning a non-producing branch does not refer to people as a whole. And it doesn’t mean entire churches either. If we begin judging each other and cutting each other off, then we are no better than the righteous Pharisees and religious leaders that Jesus was trying to redirect. Pruning from a spiritual perspective means eliminating habits or practices that are draining our energy and resources that could be used to glorify God.

If we truly examine our lives, we may discover areas that are weighing us down. These are the dead branches that need to be pruned away because it takes a lot of energy just to hold onto them and thus lowers the quality of our fruit. These things might be something like regrets, living in the past, resentments, bitterness, or envy. I once had a friend who was a recovering alcoholic. One of the things I realized after several conversations with him was that he continuously celebrated the life he lived while he was drinking. Although he was sober, he struggled to keep up with his day-to-day living. To be fully alive in recovery he needed to prune away the hold his past life had on him and find reasons to celebrate the life he was living now.

The final thing we have to remember about being branches is that we have to stay focused on the vine. Remember that Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” The world that we live in forces us to focus on the fruit at the end of our branches, and our worth is measured by how much we produce, or by how it compares to what others are producing. We can feel fine until we begin to look around. Focusing on the success, achievements, and appearance of others can truly undo us.

But Jesus reminds us that our job is to be the branches. Yes, we are to produce fruit, but producing the fruit is not up to us. Our job is to be a branch and allow God’s power to flow through us. When we focus too much on the fruit, we begin to believe that our self-worth derives from our fruit. Our fruit and how it compares with others begins to determine our identity. We begin to think we are the vine and are our own source of strength. Did you see how quickly that happened? In just a few sentences we moved from Jesus as the vine and the source of our strength to being the vine ourselves. It is incredibly easy to lose sight of our mission when we place more focus on being fruitful than being faithful. When we focus on the vine, we realize that Christ produces through us and therefore we need to remain connected and focused on Christ, the vine. Sometimes, God might prune a dead branch or two. Sometimes God might pinch off a sucker. But the one thing we have to remember all the time is that God is responsible for producing the fruit. Our job is to be the branch. Let us pray:

Pastoral Prayer:

Gracious God, yours is the love that changes the world, inside and out. The ones unclean in the world's eyes, your love makes clean. The ones mighty in the world's eyes, your love makes humble. The ones guilty in the world's eyes, your love ushers into paradise.

Lord, for this we praise you, that you first and last love us. Now what remains is for you to teach us how better to love one another. Teach us, Lord, the truth of life, before the hour is late; lead us in the way we should go, before the gate is closed.

Bring us now into your vineyard, Lord. Prune us and tend us, that we may grow into strong branches able to withstand all the elements that would try to destroy us. Strengthen us that we may grow into your likeness with courage and conviction. Live in us, that we may live in you, and live as your abiding presence in the world. In faith and trust, we pray. Amen.

Invitation to Discipleship:

Jesus made it very clear that we are not the vine; we are the branches. Our role as branches is to be faithful and to work on abiding in Christ. As disciples, “our job is to be a branch and let God’s power flow through us.” Go home, and love like God loves. Amen.