Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-11
Where are the fruitful places for sharing the gospel?
In short, any place where we abide in Jesus. Acts tells us that Philip is sent by an angel of the Lord to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. “This is a desert road.” And yet even desert roads, when God directs us to them, contain people looking to worship, ready to receive the Word of the Lord, eager to be baptized. Desert roads, when our abiding in Jesus sends us to abide with others, contain water, living water that flows from the believer’s heart and is never exhausted.
Good fruit is borne wherever Jesus is. And when we follow and stay close to Jesus, we bear good fruit, whether on desert roads or city streets. All the appointed texts for this fifth Sunday of Easter invite us to consider what draws us closer to Jesus and what, in contrast, pushes us farther from him. But how do we know which is which? How do we figure out which branches God will throw on the burn pile and which are worthy of attentive pruning? If we don’t have an angel of the Lord directing us to our mission field, how do we know when we are headed in the direction in which God wants us to go?
I confess that my deference for church polity might have left the Ethiopian eunuch dry on that desert road. I would have happily expounded upon the Scripture, but I might have balked at presiding over an unauthorized sacrament. We have rules about such matters. The session must approve. Authorized representatives of the church must be present. Baptism is no private matter. Has the eunuch been properly instructed in the meaning and implications of baptism? Perhaps we could schedule a time to get together in a week and talk more about his request. Meanwhile, the fruit on the vine rots, and the branch begins to die.
How many times do we well-intended, committed church folk become barren branches in our earnest quest for decency and order? We put in place wedding policies, building use policies, funeral policies, rules for who is eligible to be an official church leader, a check list for how to respond to someone seeking help, and on and on and on. We abide in our mostly well-meaning, thoroughly-vetted, liability-preventing policy manuals even as we look around and see that we are withering. We don’t want to upset the status quo or ruffle the feathers of the faithful, even if it means dying on the vine.
The seeker, the one thirsty in the desert, asks us, “What is to prevent my being baptized?” And we get out the ever-expanding three-ring binder and say, “Well… first of all…”
Where are we abiding? Where do we live? What is nearest and dearest to our heart? The historic communion ware or the Body of Christ? The newly renovated fellowship hall or the men and women sleeping on the street? The need to be right or Jesus call to be merciful?
Branches that bear fruit are connected to the vine. They live inextricably with Jesus Christ. The litmus test they use to make decisions is not, “What’s our liability?” but instead, “What does love call us to do?”
Such a calculation flies in the face of common sense, cultural norms and prudent pragmatism. Asking the question “What does love require?” reveals answers that are always met with resistance, skepticism and often disdain. And yet, living into those answers draw us close to Christ and enable us to abide in him no less than Jesus abides with the Father.
Living out the answers to the question “What does love require of us?” will inevitably bear good fruit, and yet will always involve pruning – sometimes radical and painful pruning. That’s the rub of this text from John. The branches that bear good fruit must endure change and loss. Abiding in Jesus never allows us to get too comfortable. Jesus gives the gift of peace, not worldly security and safety. Loving as Jesus calls us to love puts us on desert roads and other less than hospitable places.
One ruling elder I know exceeds in bearing good fruit. His joy in abiding in Jesus Christ draws others to him. His stalwart reliance on the grace and power of God is like a magnet that pulls the entire faith community closer to Jesus and subsequently more apt to risk loving in ways that demand sacrifice and change. The lens through which he sees the world is not a flippant, WWJD? The filter through which he sifts every decision is one of love. This doesn’t mean the answer is always clear, and it certainly leaves room for debate and disagreement, for planning and thoughtful boundaries. But never can the body get away with using simply a policy, procedure or precedent as the final word. His call to love as Jesus loves demands serious, honest inspection of the fruit. Will our action bring us closer to what Jesus commands or not? That is the question we need to ask ourselves and one another.
Over the past several weeks I have been reading old editions of the Presbyterian Outlook. I have been reading issues from the early 1940s. I came across a statement from the Presbyterian women of a Southern state regarding the segregation of denominational conference centers. They wrote:
“After much prayer, quiet meditation and earnestly seeking His will, we are impelled to offer you our suggestions concerning the teaching of Negro women and young people in leadership training. It is our belief that separate and distinct places of meeting for each race would result in exactly the kind of Christian relationship and attitude that we feel is our responsibility.”
They went on to acknowledge their responsibility “for giving Christ to our Negroes” and noted that separate training centers “would result in true Christian social justice and properly discourage secular social intermingling.”
The statement never once mentions the gospel or Jesus. The last line read: “The report was submitted to the board meeting on October 28, 1943, and was approved.” Did anyone ask as they deliberated: What does love require? Will this action put us closer to Christ or farther away? If we are unwilling to abide with one another, how can we possibly abide in Jesus, the true vine to which all our branches are connected?
Calling out people from years ago doesn’t require much courage, however. Holding ourselves accountable here and now does. Knowing that abiding in Jesus Christ demands pruning for transformative growth to occur, if our actions keep us comfortable and safe we can be sure our branches will, sooner or later, be barren and dead, useful only as fuel for the fire. Only in taking the risks that love demands will be bear good fruit.
Where are the places ripe for sharing the gospel? Anywhere we abide in Christ. How will we bear good fruit? By following Christ’s commands. What is the greatest commandment? To love God and neighbor. What is the new commandment Jesus gives his disciples? Love one another. Therefore, in all we do, we must ask ourselves and one another: What does love require? And, further, what does loving like Jesus look like? Living out the answer to that question will not only fill us with joy, but bring joy to the world as well.
- If you are a gardener, what is the role of pruning in maintaining a healthy garden? Are there ways in which you think God is pruning you or your faith community?
- Recall a recent church meeting or discussion. What decisions were made? What questions were asked? What factored into the final decisions?
- Who are the seekers in your community? What desert roads might God be sending you to share the Good News?
- Are there things that just need to go on the burn pile for the vine to be healthy?
- What does it mean to abide in Jesus?
- Jesus says that he shares these things that his disciples might have his joy and that their joy might be full. When have you experienced this kind of joy?
Want to receive Looking into the Lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays? Click here to join our email list!