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Easter 5B: Fruitfulness or Productivity

Leonard Vander Zee

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Jesus says, “Remain in me as I remain in you.” To my mind, that’s one of the lousiest translations I can think of. It completely ignores the personal and spiritual dimensions of what Jesus is talking about here.

In Greek, the word is menein. It’s one of the most important words in this whole gospel, and John uses it all the way through.

In the very first chapter Peter and John follow after Jesus.  Jesus turns around and asks them, “What are you looking for?”  They asked him where he was staying, and he replied, “Come and see”. And, then it says, they remained (same word) with him.

In John 6, where Jesus reveals himself as the true bread from heaven he says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide (same word) in me and I in them.”

In chapter 14 Jesus says to the disciples, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home (same word) with them.”

Three different, but warm and inviting translations of the same word.

So, in this metaphor of the vine and the branches, it seems strangely stiff and impersonal that Jesus invites us to remain (again, the same word) in the him. It sounds as though we are just hanging around. I like the older translation much better. Abide.

“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Make me your home. This is an invitation to live in the house of God’s love.

This has always been God’s desire, to dwell with his people, to be at home with them. The spiritual life is coming home to where we belong and listening to the voice deep inside that welcomes us with love.

To abide in Jesus, to abide in the vine, is to dwell in the house of love. It’s to make him our base of operations in the world. It’s to return to him over and over, as one returns home for the night.

It means living in the consciousness of his presence in us every hour of every day. It means seeking that special home in our hearts in prayer each day.  It means listening to the voice of our friend (as he calls himself later in this chapter) as we go through each day.

The result of abiding in the vine of Christ is fruitfulness. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

We are here to bear fruit. That’s the whole purpose of the vine.  But what is this fruit, what does it look like?  How can you tell whether a life is fruitful? If you read the whole chapter it’s clear that Jesus has in mind something like what Paul describes In Galatians 5: “The fruit of the Spirit: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

The whole purpose of the vine is to bear the glorious fruit of God’s love and character into the world.

I once had the privilege of taking a course from Henri Nouwen on the spirituality of the Gospel of John. When he came to this chapter, he suggested a distinction that I have always found very helpful. The distinction is between productivity  and fruitfulness.  Here’s how he explained it.

Productivity is about our own efforts to be more effective in what we do or make. A productive person gets more done. The results of productivity are tangible. They can be measured, quantified, graphed.  Productivity cares about the bottom line.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with productivity. It’s a good thing.  Productivity can enhance our lives, and add immeasurably to the well-being of a whole society.  Productive people build cities, finance projects, run great philanthropic organizations, provide work for others, uncover new knowledge, cure diseases. They clean houses and puts meals on the table.

Productivity is a worthy goal for all of us.  Work hard.  Make your labor and time count for something good that enhances the life of the world. But it’s not everything.

There are some seductive dangers to our romance with productivity.  We live in a culture that values productivity above all. We celebrate productive people who work hard and produce tangible results with their labor.  We reward productive people with status, money, and more power over others.  How much can you produce?  How much do you make?  How many do you have?

And we want everyone to know how productive we are.  “Hi, how you doin’, it’s been a while”.  “Oh, I’ve been so busy.” we reply, with a great big smile of satisfaction on our face.

The translation is: I’m a productive and valuable person because I am constantly running out of time, constantly engaged in one project or another, forever on the run.  Isn’t it great?  Aren’t I worthwhile?

The model of productivity has also crept into the church.  God calls us to be fruitful, but we tend to measure it by the busyness of congregational life, the programs we offer, the size of the budget, the percentages of growth.

While Christ calls his people to the fruitfulness of abiding in his love, we tend to place them on a treadmill of activity, as though their fruitfulness could be measured by time spent in church programs.

Of course there are jobs to be done, important and even fruitful programs to be staffed.  The fact is, people can be both productive and fruitful. But Jesus is reminding us that our real fruitfulness is measured more in relationships than in committees, it’s nurtured in quiet prayer more than in harried activity.

In a recent article, Eugene Petersen warns pastors about the seductions of mere pastoral productivity.  He says, “Listening, paying attention to people, is the most inefficient way to do anything.  It’s tedious, and it’s boring, and when you do it, it feels like you’re wasting time and not getting anything done.  So when the pressures start to mount, when there are committees to run and budgets to fix, what’s got to go?  Listening to people, seeing them in their uniqueness, without expecting anything from them.”

I think this message to pastors applies to all of us, in our work, our families.  It’s this long, slow, inefficient process of paying attention to the Christ in us and to Christ in the people around us that makes us really fruitful.

Fruitfulness grows out of abiding with Christ in prayer, it flourishes in the atmosphere of the Word and sacrament. The closer we are to Jesus, the more fruitful we can be.

It’s not a quick fix.  It’s a slow, life-long process.  Some of our greatest fruitfulness grows out of what seems like wasted time.  Just being there with Christ and with others.

There’s an often unseen side effect to all our emphasis on productivity.  What about the people who aren’t productive in ways that we recognize and reward?  What about the unemployed or under-employed, stay-at-home parents, the disabled, the elderly?

What about those who are needy and struggling with all kinds of problems and sins.  They tend to be marginalized and are made to feel worthless in a community that worships and rewards productivity.

Among the many remembrances that appeared after Henri Nouwen’s death a few years ago was one that illustrates this difference between fruitfulness and productivity. After he left his academic aside, he became a chaplain in a L’Arche community, caring for severely developmentally disabled people.

He also made it a regular practice that in his lecture appearances he took with him one of his developmentally disabled friends. So, standing or sitting somewhere near him would be an obviously disabled young man.

The remembrance was an incident that happened when Nouwen was speaking before a rather august group of theologians. At one point in the lecture the young man seemed agitated and disturbed for some reason, and he started to cry and thrash about.  You could feel the discomfort sweep over the audience.

But Nouwen just stopped his lecture, walked over to the young man and immediately wrapped his arms around him and rocked him back and forth with soothing words until he was calm again.

A great hush fell over the gathering.  That one image, the author suggested, was worth ten theological lectures.  Here was a picture of fruitfulness over against mere productivity. Nouwen took the time to live in love in the middle of a great theological lecture about the God who is love.

This points to another aspect of our fruitfulness.  It comes when we pay attention to our own pain and vulnerability and that of people around us.  Earlier in John Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains a single grain, but it if dies, it bears much fruit.”

I think that’s part of what Jesus has in mind when he talks about the pruning or cleaning the vinedresser does.  We are often most fruitful in those areas of our lives where we have been pruned and pinched.   It often has more to do with our pains, failures and vulnerabilities than our successes.

Years ago I was a pastor in Iowa City.  I loved it there. I was appreciated and even admired by many in the congregation. I was at the peak of my powers. Then we learned that my wife had MS, and we were devastated.

I decided to visit a monastery. It was my first visit to a monastery. I thought that three days alone, and in silence, would help me think things through. I could work it all out. It didn’t take long in those hours of solitude that instead of my working it out, God had something else in mind. I had to come face to face with myself.

I faced my pride, that allowed me to think that my success was because of my superior insights and my great interpersonal abilities. And then there was the sting of realizing that a part of my feeling devastation at my wife’s diagnosis was the limitations it might place on me.

All alone in that monastery, I began to see a very different side of myself I avoided looking at. It was not the pretty picture of myself I had in my mind. This was a hard and necessary pruning.

But along with the painful pruning, I also experienced the overwhelming grace of God. I realized that real fruitfulness could not come from my self-reliance, but only by relying on God. I needed to abide in the vine. And since that time, I’ve undergone some regular and necessary pruning.

Spiritual fruitfulness comes out of living in the house of Christ’s love.  In that house of love, it isn’t just our strengths and gifts that become fruitful, even our pain and vulnerability, our struggles and failures, can bear fruit in the Kingdom of God, where fruit grows out of a cross.

We can measure our productivity.  That’s one of its seductive dangers.  But fruitfulness often escapes our notice.  We may not even know it’s happening ourselves.  Our actual spiritual fruitfulness is in the hands of the gardener, who prunes and cleans the vine that it might bear more fruit.  His trained eye sees all the fruit that might be hidden from our eyes and the eyes of others.

I wonder whether one day, in the revealing light of eternity, the most surprising thing we might discover about our lives is the astounding fruitfulness of our most ordinary acts, our seemingly wasted time, or our most painful experiences. Maybe these things glorify the Father more than what we might count as our successes,

“Apart from me you can do nothing”.  Whether it comes from our gifts or our failures.  Whether it’s born out of our joy or our pain, true fruitfulness only comes when we make our home in Jesus, the vine.

The self-giving love of Jesus is the vital nectar that flows into our hearts, and then through us to others. It is the source of all fruitfulness.

Here is the promise:  when we live in the house of Jesus’ love, when we make our home in his grace, our lives will produce the fruit that gives glory to the Father.

Preached on April 22, 2018 at Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, MI

©Leonard J. Vander Zee


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