Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Organic Gardener

Texts: Colossians 1:9-23: John 15:1- 4

IF YOU TUNE IN TO radio station KDKA between 7:00 and 9:00 on a Sunday morning you’ll hear a program called The Organic Gardeners. Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser answer callers’ gardening questions, and they make a point of promoting the use of organic products and procedures to help the garden grow.

I’m only a beginner at this organic gardening thing. But if I understand it correctly, though, the principle behind it is to work with nature and not in spite of it. Even if there’s something natural you have to work against, like a deadly bug or a fungus of some kind, you use its natural enemies to oppose it, not some artificial compound that might do as much harm as good. Organic gardening means remembering that everything in your garden has its own characteristics, its own way of growing, but at the same time, you keep in mind that your garden is a system that’s all connected together. Every element influences every other element, and everything-- the soil, the plant stock, the sunlight, the watering, the fertilizer, the pest control-- work in harmony to make the garden fruitful.

In the gospel according to St. John, chapter 15, our Lord Jesus Christ refers to a very particular organic garden, the vineyard belonging to His heavenly Father. It’s in this vineyard that we His disciples are intended to grow and bear fruit.

A vineyard wasn’t a new figure of speech for the disciples. For centuries before them the prophets of God had likened Israel to a vineyard, planted by the Lord.

But Jesus makes a change to that traditional metaphor. He says, "I am the true vine." In other words, He, Jesus, is the one and only proper grape vine planted in the Father’s vineyard.

But what happened to the vines that were God’s people Israel?

Well, as we know, all sorts of problems can crop up in a garden, whether you’re going organic or keep on applying the Miracle-Gro and the Malathion. You could say that for centuries the divine Gardener had tried all sorts of cultivars and varieties in His vineyard. He’d tried people, priests, and kings. He’d tried prophets, scribes, and Pharisees. Some varieties were better than others. Some failed miserably and had to be rooted out altogether. But every rootstock was blighted by sin. No vine in His holy vineyard could ever give God the precious fruit of total obedience and joyful praise that He has a right to expect.

So in His marvellous wisdom, our God ordained that there would be but one Vine in His vineyard, one perfect and productive rootstock, and that one Vine is His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. If anyone wishes to be productive, he or she must be organically joined in as a branch to Christ, the one true Vine. You can’t bear the fruit that God desires if you’re off on your own. There is no pleasing God by your own good works or your own niceness. How can you? If you’re separate from Jesus Christ, you’re spiritually dead! To produce the luscious fruit God is looking for, you absolutely must share in the nourishment drawn up by Christ the Vine.

So if you by faith are joined to Christ the true Vine, is it now all up to you to work really hard to bear fruit and stay joined to Him? I remember being told this as a young Christian. I was taught that "fruit" equals converts, and the way you stay joined to the Vine is to bring more and more and more people to Christ. Personally. They have to commit right in front of you. Recite the Four Spiritual Laws. And if not, beware! You’re about to be cut off!

Certainly, it’s a wonderful and God-pleasing thing for us to tell others the good news about the Lord who saved us. It exalts His holy name when sinners confess His Son as their Savior and Lord. But making converts is not the only kind of fruit our God desires. And, Christian friends, we don’t stay joined to Christ the Vine by our frenzied efforts to bear fruit; no, we bear fruit by staying joined to Christ the Vine!

As Jesus says in verse 4, "Remain in me and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine." Bearing fruit for God will come naturally and organically simply by our being joined to our Lord, by receiving His power, His strength, His virtue, His wisdom, His perfect ability to please His Father in heaven.

But what about where Jesus says in verse 2, "He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit"? Doesn’t that sound like it’s up to us to work hard to do good works for God and stay joined?

Well, those of you who are gardeners: What have you noticed as you’ve done your pruning this spring? That the branches that aren’t popping leaves tend to be the dead ones! They’re the ones that’ve formed a hard nub of tissue between themselves and the main tree or shrub or whatever. No nutrients are getting through, and that branch withers and dies. It may look like part of the plant, but it really isn’t. It’s cut itself off from what it needs to live, and has to be pruned off for the good of the whole plant. Whereas the branches where the cells are open, the juices are getting through and you see growth.

Jesus says, "Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me." There is no other way. On the other hand, if we remain in Him, we will bear much fruit. We won’t be able to help it, because we organically are part of Him.

This is what the Holy Spirit, speaking through our brother Paul, wants us to understand in the letter to the Colossians.

Paul’s prayer for the Colossians and for us is that we be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. Is this some esoteric higher knowledge that you have to study long years to attain? Do you have to read strange long-lost books in mysterious ancient languages to attain this wisdom of God?

No! Paul’s prayer is that we should grasp who and what Jesus Christ is, both in His divine essence and in His relationship to us. Paul wants us to get our minds and hearts around the fact that Jesus is the one and only true Vine and we through holy faith are His branches. That understanding and honoring Jesus is the only way we can live lives worthy of the Lord and please Him, as Paul says, in every way.

The life-giving nourishment of Christ the Vine comes into branches, into disciples who are open, aware, and ready to receive the strength and virtue He gives. It involves our whole heart, mind, and will. It’s not enough to say, "I love Jesus"; you must be eager to learn more about Him, drinking in the wonder of who He is and what He has done for you. As Paul says in verse 10 onward of our Colossians passage, bearing fruit in every good work happens as we grow in the knowledge of God, as we’re strengthened with all power according to His glorious might, and as we joyfully give thanks to the Father!

You might say that this divine knowledge and strength and thankfulness are the organic fertilizer our Lord applies to make us stronger and more fruitful branches! As it says, the Lord is doing this in us so we "may have great endurance and patience." Strong, enduring branches bear strong, wholesome fruit.

Our fruitfulness in Christ is organically connected to our awareness of what the Father has done for us in joining us to the Son. For formerly we were no branches of the true Vine at all. But now God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of His Son. In Him we have redemption. In Him we have forgiveness of sins. Not by any good work or effort of our own, but through being grafted into our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

But who is this Jesus we are joined into? By Whom do we bear fruit? Is He just another way to heaven, as some people say? Is He just another great world teacher, just another voice in human history telling us how to be good and find fulfillment?

Oh, no, no! This Jesus our true Vine is unimaginably beyond that. Every time I read this passage beginning with verse 15 I think it should be accompanied by a full orchestra of thousands of instruments and millions of voices, not forgetting a few hundred pipe organs as well. Who is this Jesus who joins us organically to Himself? Christian, fall on your knees, for He is the exact image of the invisible God! He is the firstborn over all creation-- by which is meant the supreme One, the ruler, the eternal heir. Everything that exists-- stars, planets, nebulae, mountains, rivers, animals, you, me, everything down to the least element and atom-- came into being through our Lord Jesus Christ. By Him was created not only this physical universe, but the unseen, spiritual universe as well: angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, all principalities and powers-- all were created by Christ and for Christ. The Father made all things through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, for Jesus of Nazareth, our true Vine, is nothing less than eternal and ever-living God!

No other religious figure, no other being can make that claim! Not Buddha, not Mohammed, not Krishna, not Moses, not you, not me, not any other creature, human or superhuman, animal, vegetable, or mineral can be the one true Vine through whom alone we or anyone can please the one God of earth and heaven. Only Jesus Christ, Son of David and Son of Mary, only He was and is God, eternally begotten of His Father before anything was made. In Christ and in Christ alone all things hold together in one glorious organic unity.

And this Christ, this Jesus is our Head! A body is also an organism; it must be joined to its head to live. We who believe in Jesus Christ in all times and in all places, we who are the branches in Him, the one true Vine, we are His church, His body. He has made it so! Our very existence is bound up organically with His resurrection from the dead. Jesus has triumphed over death by His cross and empty tomb, and He communicates that triumphant new life to us as we remain and thrive in Him.

Jesus is our living Vine, and in and with His Father, He is also our organic Gardener. Jesus did not resort to artificial means to make us alive. No, He has reconciled us to God by the blood of his cross. And not just us, but all things, whether on earth or in heaven. By His all-sufficient death and resurrection, Jesus will make all creation, everything that is, into one harmonious, healthy, fruit-bearing organic garden.

Let’s not take this wonder for granted! It’s so easy for us to sit in church week after week, singing and praying, so easy for us to do our good things in Jesus’ name, and forget how easily it could have been otherwise! We aren’t volunteer plants that just happened to grow up in this garden called the Christian Church; no, God our gardener deliberately planted us here to be branches of His Son, the true Vine!

For once we all were very noxious weeds. As the Scripture says, we were alienated from God and enemies to Him in our minds because of our evil behavior. And a lot of that evil behavior was in our minds, and let’s not think it’s any less evil because we never got the chance to act on it. We were just like any other human being who ever lived on this earth: worthless to God and deserving only to be swept away and burned. But in God’s infinite mercy and grace He sent His Son to be our Gardener and our true Vine. Now through the death of Christ’s physical body we have been transformed into clean, blight-free, productive branches in Him, without blemish or accusation-- assuming, as Paul says, that we continue in our faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out to us in the gospel.

That gospel is the good news--yes, the good soil that Jesus Christ died for your sins and rose again to give you life eternal. It is the rain of having your sins washed away in His blood and the warm sunshine of the Father’s forgiveness and love shining on you for Jesus’ sake. It’s the strength and nourishment of Christ’s righteousness and obedience rising up through the root that is He alone, flowing into your whole being and making you able and eager to bear good fruit in every good work. That gospel is the good news that we can and must give up working and striving to bear fruit in our own feeble strength; that we can trust instead in Jesus Christ and the life and virtue He alone can give.

This is the gospel this church and every true church around the world joyfully proclaims to every creature under heaven. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, the One supreme over all things, the head of the church, the beginning and the end, the firstborn from among the dead. Jesus is our reconciler, our peacemaker, and our awesome Lord and God. He has joined us organically with Himself; in Him our Gardener and true Vine, we will bear much fruit; to the glory of God the Father. Amen.


Toby Brown said...

I like the image that Jesus uses. He really brings into the fore how God--who knows and cares for vines as well as humanity--grows His people into that which will bring Him glory. The way that we grow by the Father's loving hand is just simply wonderful.

Amazing grace indeed.

St. Blogwen said...

And I love the way that Jesus sanctifies the ordinary things of this world, so that every time we eat a grape we're reminded how God has incorporated us into His Son, to His praise and glory.