Threat or Promise?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Easter 5
April 28, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In this passage, Jesus defines the disciples' -- and our -- primary responsibility: to abide in him. Any bearing fruit or taking action on our part must be a direct result of our first abiding in him

This passage gives us some of Jesus's final words to his disciples, his final commands, right before his death. These words are addressed to the people upon whom Jesus will rely to carry his teaching and example forward after he has departed from earth.

So it's not stretching a point too far at all to say that these words are addressed to us. We sitting here today are the direct spiritual descendants of those disciples who first received these words, straight from the mind and heart of Jesus, that we are hearing now.

There are a number of symbols and metaphors that Jesus uses in this final discourse to convey to those first disciples -- and to us -- what he has to say. Lest we should miss his meaning, he defines the metaphors for us. Vine, he says? I am the vine. And "My father is the vinegrower" -- the keeper of the vines. "I am the vine; you are the branches."

It would appear that we are being warned: God will remove any branch that does not bear fruit. So ... shape up! Bear fruit -- or else!

But there is also a promise: "Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit."

A threat and a promise, right? If you don't bear fruit -- you're gone! Bear fruit -- and you'll be pruned so that you bear more fruit.

Well ... okay, if one wants to see it that way, if one needs a threat hanging over one's head in order to keep on the right path. But verse 3 shows us that there's more to this relationship Jesus is establishing here between "vine" and "branches" and "vinegrower" than simple threats and promises.

"You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you," Jesus says, in verse 3. And it must be noted that virtually any commentary will explain that the Greek word translated "cleansed" in this verse is basically the same word translated "pruned" in other verses -- the Common English Bible makes this abundantly clear by using the word "trim" or "trimmed" exclusively in this passage. We have already been trimmed/pruned/cleansed. Hence, whether we realize it or not, we have already "borne fruit." So all we need expect is to be trimmed or pruned or cleansed even further, in order that we may bear even more fruit than we already have.

No, this passage is not primarily a warning to shape up or we will be chopped off and tossed into the fire. We "have already been trimmed"; we are poised to produce fruit and more fruit. Although it might be argued that there is a kind of warning in verse 2 -- "he removes any branch in me that bears no fruit" -- really, this passage is all promise. If you are sitting here, listening to these words, you are already bearing fruit -- whether you realize it or not. So, let us move past any worry or guilt we may have that we are not producing fruit, or bearing sufficient fruit, and so are going to get lopped off, and just focus on what we need to become more and more fruitful.

Abiding in him

What does it mean to "produce fruit"? "You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you," Jesus said. That's right: you are sitting here today because you already have been cleansed or pruned or trimmed. Hearing Jesus' words is enough to result in one's producing fruit and being trimmed and bearing more fruit.

So is that it? What do we do? Where do we go from here? How shall we carry on this sacred tradition that is being handed in these verses to those earliest of the disciples -- this mission that has been passed along to us? Well, we can learn to identify the fruit that we're already bearing, whether we realize it or not, and take ownership of that.

But there is something that comes before even that -- something more important than even owning our "fruit," being pruned and bearing more fruit -- something without which we cannot even begin to bear any fruit. Above all, we need to continue to abide in him. That is where it begins, and where it ends.

Our first and primary task is simply to "abide" (NRSVue), or "remain" (CEB) in him. To "abide in him" comes before any action on our part. Any action we take, any "fruit" we might presume to produce on our own whim or motivation must be a direct result of our abiding or remaining in him -- or it is no "fruit" at all, but only an ego trip on our part, something we're doing to make ourselves look good. If we cease to abide in him, we wither and die -- that, I suppose, is the threat, if we must have a threat to motivate us.

When we take action, or take it upon ourselves to produce fruit, we need to be certain that our motivation comes from our abiding in him, and not out of some vain desire to make ourselves look good or to prove that we are better than others or to show the world how wonderful we are. We may very well be called to produce fruit that the world looks upon with disdain, or worse.

What we have here is not a threat to "produce fruit/works or else!" This is above all a calling to abide in him. This is primarily a promise, not a demand. The promise is that if we abide in him, we will bear fruit. It's worth noting that "remain" or "abide" appears in this text 11 times, whereas "bear fruit" appears seven times.1

It's worth pointing out that the same source notes that "'Producing fruit' can mean both love among believers and mission to the world."2 So what does it look like, this fruit that we are already bearing, whether we realized it or not? It could look like a major mission to do good in the world. Or it could look like a very simple, unassuming love of one's neighbor as oneself -- hardly noticeable -- that does not seem to make any dramatic splash in the world at all.

The command here is to abide in him. That comes first. Therein lies both the threat (if there can be said to be one) and above all the promise. Abide in him -- and we will bear fruit. Abide in him -- and we can do anything ... anything. Talk about a promise!

But there is an "if/then" that we need to contend with ....


Our first task is to abide in him. This will lead inevitably to the second, which is producing the fruit we are meant to be producing. Notes on this passage in the New Interpreter's Study Bible tell us that "To be clean [pruned; cleansed] is to abide in Jesus and his word."3

Abide in him. Walk daily with Jesus Christ, through daily study of his word to us, through daily prayer, attendance at worship, participation in the life of the church through membership in a congregation -- if we abide in him in that way, if we abide in him, and his words abide in us, then we may ask for whatever we wish, and it will be granted. Remaining or abiding in Jesus offers us a solid promise: "ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you"! Can't beat that with a stick!

This is not a promise that God will work magic tricks for us, if we just pray, pay our dues and make our demands. When we abide in Christ, fully and completely -- when anything that separates us from him is pruned from our lives, and when his words, his teachings and his example abide completely in us, to the complete exclusion of anything other than God and God's will -- then, yes, we may ask for whatever we wish, and it will be granted. When our orientation, as individuals, as a church, is completely aligned with the will of God in Jesus Christ, then we will not think to ask for anything apart from God's will. When we are that focused, and with God, yes, whatever we ask will be granted.

Needless to say, we are not there yet. Not as individuals, not as a church. What we must do is continue our good work of abiding in him. Love God. Love our neighbors, our friends, our enemies, as ourselves. Seek first God's kingdom, as we see it enacted in Jesus Christ, and all these things, and more, will be added unto us. Whatever we wish, it will be done for us.

Until then, abide in him!

May God be glorified in that we bear much fruit and be Christ's disciples.