September 12, 2004
FRUIT THAT LASTS
THE RESULTS OF CHURCH HEALTH
John 15:8, 16
In Hampton Court, near London, there is a grapevine 1,000 years old. This grapevine has one root that is at least two feet thick, and some of the branches are 200 feet long. Despite its age the vine produces several tons of grapes each year. Although some of the smaller branches are 200 feet from the main stem, they still bear the sweet and delicious fruit because they are connected to the vine. Life flows from that single root and throughout the vine bringing nourishment and strength to each of the branches, producing luscious, plump, abundant grapes. The sole purpose of a branch is to produce fruit.
The grapevine and its branches wont give adequate shade or covering from the heat of the noon-day sun. They wont provide good fuel for a fire to keep you warm. They wont produce the right kind of lumber to build your house or a beautiful piece of furniture. But the grapevine has a very important function. It lives not for itself, but entirely for those to whom its fruits brings refreshment and life.
Jesus said in John 15:8 My true disciples produce much fruit. This brings great glory to my Father. And in John 15:16 You didnt choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. As believers in Christ who are connected to the vine, the scriptures are clear. The Father expects us, as His disciples, to bear fruit. The relationship the believer has with Christ, the vine, and His ongoing work in our lives as branches, is for one purpose only that we will become productive fruit-bearing Christians.
Images of the vineyard, the vine, and the grape clusters were commonly used throughout the Mediterranean world. Scriptures are rich with the metaphor of the vine and the branches, and many references to fruit. Most significant in the Old Testament is the metaphor of the vine representing the nation of Israel. Isaiah 5 contains the Song of the Vineyard. It tells of a vineyard on a fertile hill planted with the choicest vine expected to produce good grapes, but instead it produced only worthless ones. Jesus greatest desire for His soon- to- be established new community was that it would be fruitful. It must bear fruit for God, in contrast to Israel and its fruitlessness. During Jesus ministry as he traveled about, I can imagine one day he was walking with his disciples through a vineyard and undoubtedly noticed vines heavy with lush, purple grapes. The sweet aroma filled the air. As the master of images, I am sure He must have thought this is it, the perfect picture of the new community of disciples! All of my disciples are the branches; and a branch, which is healthy, will bear lots of fruit. Today we, too, are walking alongside Jesus as He teaches us about what it means to be healthy and fruit-bearing disciples.
What is fruitfulness? What is a healthy Christian? What is a healthy church? How do we know if we are bearing much fruit? Would it be possible to use the wrong yardstick to measure fruitfulness? Or if we did have the right yardstick, might we still come up short?
Is attending church a sign of fruitfulness? Is fruitfulness measured by whether we are active participants? Perhaps but not necessarily! The two verses of our text help us in our thinking. In John 15:8 Jesus states: My true disciples produce much fruit. This brings great glory to my Father.
A HEALTHY CHURCH PRODUCES TRUE DISCIPLES
The question remains: What is a true disciple? Or what is the profile of a true disciple, and what kind of fruit will be in evidence?
Galatians 5:21-23 provides an answer. This is what the Apostle Paul wrote about the true disciple who produces fruit, as written in The Message by Eugene Peterson:
What happens when we live Gods way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Making disciples was vital in Jesus ministry. He said, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. And His final instruction given in Acts 1:8 to His disciples was this: You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria and to the end of the earth.
A healthy church believes that disciple-making is so important they will continually examine themselves and measure their fruitfulness by asking such questions as, Is our church producing true disciples? How is our church responding to the current culture? Are we speaking the language 21st century people understand? Are we looking at and adjusting our methods if necessary so we will become more effective in evangelism and in making new disciples? Are we effectively reaching out beyond ourselves?
In the last several years, Dan Kimball has written two significantly insightful books, The Emerging Church and Emerging Worship. In The Emerging Church, he describes the form that effective evangelism and discipleship need to take in this current culture. Our previously held methods of discipleship and evangelism may no longer be as effective in reaching this present generation.
Kimball says that ..we have often presented evangelism (or sharing the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ) as an event you invite people to. The 21st Century Emerging Church will see evangelism is a process that occurs through relationships, trust, and example. We have emphasized evangelism as primarily being concerned with getting people into heaven. The 21st Century Emerging Church will emphasize that Jesus died for your sins so you can be his redeemed co-worker now in what he is doing in this world as well as in heaven. We have expected that evangelism (spreading this good news) is done by evangelists or by ministers. The 21st Century Emerging Church anticipates that evangelism is done by disciples. We have long believed that evangelism is something you do in addition to discipleship. The 21st Century Emerging Church believes that evangelism is part of being a disciple.
Its no longer an invitation to an event. It is a conversation; a lot of dialogue and listening - more than preaching and telling. We have depended on evangelism methods to use reason and proofs to explain the Gospel. The 21st Century Emerging Church sees our church just being the church (demonstrating the qualities of a true disciple) to explain the Gospel.
In light of these cultural shifts, we will want to ask ourselves searching questions Are we communicating the good news effectively? Are we making true disciples? Are we dialoguing and listening or only preaching and telling? Do we use many avenues such as stories, symbols, and visuals to better communicate? Are we aware that the most effective discipling will most likely not take place in the sanctuary but in more informal settings such as S.S. classes or especially small groups? Are we practicing hospitality to the newcomer, or are we polite and friendly but superficial and aloof? Do we take seriously how we can best provide a home for new attenders who cautiously come venturing in to check out our services or our programs?
A church focused on making true disciples also acknowledges that growing as a Christian is much more than a Christian education exercise or just accumulating knowledge and information. Christian formation involves the radical re-shaping of this person. As the word formation implies, it means to form, to shape, to mold. Anthony Robinson states in his book , Transforming Congregational Culture: it involves the whole person molded in the context of the whole community resulting in a community of people who love God with all our being and who love people so much we cant help but produce disciples. The yardstick question is this: Are we, as potential disciples in our church being shaped and formed into the likeness of Jesus? Then, are we in turn helping to disciple others? This kind of fruit-bearing brings great glory to God!
A HEALTHY DISCIPLE AND A HEALTHY CHURCH FOCUSES ON SERVING.
Jesus said in John 15:16: You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit. This is a simple yet profound statement and command to the disciple I chose you and I appointed you to go. A healthy church doesnt focus inward but outward; it hears the mandate to go out and serve, making a vital difference in the world as they bear fruit for the kingdom.
Robinson in his book also talks about serving as an integral part of spiritual formation. He quotes a leading churchman and pastor, Martin Copenhaver, who states: I have concluded that we need to approach ministries of service as opportunities for Christian formation, without apology, and with great expectation. Many of us can point to times when we were given the opportunity to serve as perhaps the most formative experience of all.
How often have we stayed at the listening, watching and learning stage of things instead of feeling the passion and having the motivation go out as true disciples to serve others? Are we helping believers discover their spiritual gifts and offering encouragement as gifts and passions are expressed? Joyful serving is contagious and indeed helps true disciples to produce even more fruit.
Bob, a revitalized believer right here in the Grantham Church, has been growing and developing a big heart to serve the Lord, but he wasnt sure how best to get involved. He said, I have four weeks vacation and I decided to dedicate to God two of my vacation weeks to serve others. Immediately after Bob prayed that prayer, he came upon a man walking with his children along the street in our little town of Grantham, Pa. After they exchanged casual greetings, that man introduced himself as John Allen Brubaker. In the course of their conversation Bob learned that John worked with missions for the Brethren in Christ in this building adjacent to the church. Bob almost immediately made the connection with his prayer desire to serve, and the chance meeting with his neighbor. To make a long story short, Bob is now looking forward to giving two weeks of his vacation very soon to serve with the TIMS Organization in Honduras. Like Bob, you might find that serving could change your vacation plans. Or maybe redefine your educational goals? For me, it meant a professional career change. What is God asking of you?
Serving can also happen in creative ways in a congregation as the church prays and asks, How can we together serve in more effective ways? In recent years, there have been some great examples of Brethren in Christ churches taking seriously the idea of serving and bearing fruit by birthing a new church. In 2001 the Cedar Grove Church in Mifflintown, Pa. did just that by blessing and sending out nearly 50 people, including three deacons, to begin a ministry in a location 15 miles east in Millerstown. I know of the significant spiritual benefits of that serving venture because I was one of those 50 people. Today that church plant, New Harvest Community Church is bearing much fruit for the Kingdom of God. Recently, that same mother church at Cedar Grove sent out more fruit-bearing disciples to begin a second daughter church, this time 15 miles west in another community.
There are still other possibilities in reaching out. Through the years the Grantham Church has helped to plant a number of churches in our local area; but in recent years there still has been the question: how else can we get involved in an outward journey. This led to the Harrisburg Grantham Partnership, uniting the Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church, an inner city multi-ethnic church, and the Grantham Church, a mostly Caucasian church nestled in the countryside. What a unique opportunity our churches are having to give, to learn, and to serve the Lord together in ministry. Serving collectively has taken place through such events as a street fair in Harrisburg; a joint Sunday evening Spring festival with great food, wonderfully diverse music, and awesome fellowship; and recently, with a summer Saturday Brunch for women from both of our churches. This past year another initiative was launched resulting in two of our Grantham members teaching a computer class to interested adults in Harrisburg. When the class is successfully completed, each student is given their own personal computer.
Earlier this summer, Pastor Cedra Washington took me on a tour to explain about other opportunities for service by way of the food pantry, a home for women released from prison, and opportunities for ministry at low income housing at Edison Village. She also talked about the fruit of serving. These experiences undoubtedly will offer a profound kind of spiritual formation for us at the Grantham and Harrisburg churches. I appointed you to go and produce fruit fruit that will last Are we willing to take a risk? Are we willing to reach out in new ways? Are you wondering how you might get involved?
The third characteristic we discover in the second half of John 15:16 :
A TRUE DISCIPLE AND A HEALTHY CHURCH EXPERIENCES ANSWERS TO PRAYERS.
Remember, Jesus promises that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my Name. That sentence is also mentioned in three other passages in Johns gospel - John 14:13, John 15:7, and John 16:23. Does Jesus want us to get the point? In the context of the branches producing fruit, could it be that Jesus means to make it perfectly clear so that we cant miss the point that a by-product of a healthy fruit-bearing relationship is that we receive answers to our prayers: The Father will respond! Proverbs 15:8 says The Lord .delights in the prayers of the upright. God is so honored by the lives of true disciples and their desire to serve him that He lavishly and abundantly wants to give them what they ask for and this brings glory to His Name. Just as parents who are thrilled with the way their child brings joy to the family, so our Father opens his heart of generosity and bestows power and blessing on the fruit-bearing disciple who asks in His name. Healthy churches will see a demonstration of the power of answered prayer. Richard Foster says Prayer remains primary throughout our lives because we are forever dependent on God.
In New York City Jim Cymbala and the Brooklyn Tabernacle have symbolized a ministry known for power through prayer in the life of their church. This spring I was privileged to visit their Tuesday evening prayer meeting to learn more about their prayer emphasis. As we arrived about an hour before the service started, many people had come early, not just to get a seat, but to pray. Scattered throughout the auditorium were probably more than 200 people sitting quietly, obviously engaged in praying individually before the corporate service started. No doubt many had come to the church directly from their days work, foregoing their evening meal. One young adult woman who escorted us to our seats enthusiastically shared that she is part of the Prayer Band whose major ministry responsibility is to pray at specific times during the week, which also includes a Friday meeting of the Prayer Band Our visiting group from Pennsylvania was truly inspired. However, it wasnt until more than a month later that I was able to see first-hand the lasting fruit of power in their prayer ministry in Brooklyn.
Liz, a special friend of mine who came on Grand Opening as well as a new believer, has been praying for her daughter, Selene. However, Selene has not been interested in the God of her mother. Selene is a proud, self-sufficient, successful woman. She has made it big, working as a model in large eastern cities. Recently she took a modeling job in New York City, and Liz called to tell me she was planning a visit to her daughter in Brooklyn, hoping to find a church to suggest that Selene attend. I asked Liz if she had heard of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. She immediately said, No, but assured me that she would not only tell her daughter, but plan to attend and invite Selene to go along with her.take Liz long to call me after her return home. On the Sunday of her visit to New York, her daughter and son-in-law agreed to accompany her to the church door on Smith Street, but after they checked the web-site, they made it quite clear they had no intention of going inside since this was not their style of church.
Liz was terribly disappointed, but she committed the situation to God. The young couple promised to walk her to the church which they did. To her surprise and delight, they both followed her inside and found seats in time for the service. The music was awesome, as we might expect. God was there, and following his message, when Pastor Cymbala asked for a response to the call of God, Liz could barely believe what happened next. Selene stood to take a first step in following Christ. Since that Sunday, Selenes marriage, which from all indications, was nearly over, is now showing encouraging signs of new life. She has also been talking to another friend who is also a model, and has invited her to attend her newly discovered church.
In his book The Promise of Gods Power Jim Cymbala states, No matter the society or culture, the city or town, God has never lacked the power to work through available people to glorify His name. When we sincerely turn to God, we will find His church always moves forward, not backward.
God simply cannot not release His power when we imply by our actions that we can manage and build our lives on our own. On the other hand, when we come humbly to God, admitting our weakness and inadequacy, God acts. Prayer is the key to unlocking Gods prevailing power.
Last month, I watched again the movie Schindlers List and was overcome with emotion. Many of you, no doubt, have seen it, too. Its the story of Oskar Schindler and the Jews whom he rescued. The ones Hitler sought to kill, Schindler sought to save. Do you remember how the movie ends? Oskar stands motionless before the 1100 Jews who came to thank him for sparing their lives from the brutal hands of the Germans. Row after row of faces. Husbands and wives, parents with children. They know what Schindler did for them. They will never forget.
Schindler looks in the faces of those he rescued from torture and death. In the brisk air of the Polish night, Schindler is surrounded by the liberated as they thank him for their lives. What thoughts go through his mind? Do you remember what happens next? Does he gloat with pride at his accomplishment? Does he page through his list and savor the statistics? Does he remind them of the day he had to risk his life to go to Auschwitz and plead with the Nazis when they took his workers to the wrong train station? No, instead he leans forward, and says something in a voice so low, Isaac Stern, the factory foreman asks him to repeat it. For the first time, he shows emotion when he sinks to the floor sobbing as he says, I could have done more, I could have done more, I could have done more.
Do you know the feelings of discouragement and defeat? Do you wonder at times if what you are doing is really making any difference? Does your service for God and for others really count? Is it producing true disciples? We look for the day when Gods redeemed will be forever free. Perhaps its an image akin to the one of Schindler and the survivors; the company of those rescued from death and destruction. The Apostle Paul is looking for a new day. He writes with anticipation in I Thessalonians 2:19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy. This is the lasting fruit for which we long. In that moment, when we are united with those God has given us the grand and wonderful privilege to disciple, well say, I would do it again. I would do it again. I would do it again.