A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on May 6, 2012.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
When I began working here at Farmville Baptist in 2005, one of the first people I met was Evelyn McCluney, who was serving in her nineteenth year as our office manager. I quickly found out that she and her husband Gene grew grapes to make wine out in their home near Pamplin. My first thought was, wow, this must be a pretty progressive congregation to allow its church office manager to be a winemaker on the side. Either that or I’m in trouble because this place is driving its employees to drink! When Evelyn retired in 2007, she and her husband turned their full attention to winemaking by launching Spring Creek Wine Cellar in the basement of their home. This past week, while I was doing research for this sermon, I visited Evelyn to ask her about growing and pruning grapevines.
What I found out from Evelyn was quite interesting. I learned that it takes about three years for a newly planted vine to finally bear fruit. Once the vine is planted, you’ll see growth, but during the first year, care must be taken to prune away new shoots so that the vine grows into a hearty trunk. Then, one must carefully prune the vine trunk so that only the two healthiest branches closest to the trunk are left to form the arms of the vine called the canes, which are tied to the cordon wires. Care must be taken to thin out further growth and foliage from the canes so that whatever is left receives enough sun and ventilation. Any fruit from the first two years is not good, and can’t be used. However, during the third year, the branches from the two canes will bear good fruit that can be used.
Now, here is something interesting that I didn’t know. The branches that bore fruit the previous year will not bear much fruit the next year. Therefore, during the winter, the gardener prunes away all the branches that bore fruit. But the branch is pruned at a place above two buds that are closest to the vine. These buds will form spurs that will become the fruit-bearing branches for next season’s grapes. Pruning is a work-intensive process. But the result of that work is that all the sap and nutrients from the vine will go toward producing good and abundant fruit. For the gardener, the purpose of the grapevine is to bear fruit; that’s why such hard work is invested in pruning. If the gardener had just wanted a big sprawling grape bush, then he or she would not bother pruning. Those old branches from the previous seasons would continue to grow and sprout foliage, but they will not bear much fruit. All you’re really left with is a big, beautiful grape bush, but relatively few grapes.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses the image of the grapevine to describe the purpose of Christian disciples. The purpose of the grape branches is to remain near the vine in order to bear fruit. If Christ is the vine, and we are the branches, then a good question to ask is “What is our purpose?” What is the purpose of a Christian community? According to my reading of this passage from John, the purpose of a Christian community is to stay connected to Christ in order to become a community of disciples that produces more disciples. If you remember, Jesus gave the great commission to his disciples before he ascended into heaven, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We show ourselves to be disciples of Jesus when we bear much fruit, when we make disciples who make disciples, all to our heavenly Father’s glory.
So, what are the implications of this teaching by Jesus today? Let’s look first in the world of business. Business guru Jim Collins, in his book Built to Last, contends that core values and purpose in enduring great organizations remain fixed, while their operating practices, cultural norms, strategies, tactics, processes, structures, and methods continually change in response to changing realities. When people are nourished by unchanging purpose and vision, then they are more agreeable to change when the rules are modified concerning methods, structures and processes. Take photography, for example. If a camera and film maker is committed to the core purpose of “preserving important memories,” then it will always be looking for new ways to do that better, cheaper, and easier. At one time, Kodak (in America) and Fujifilm (in Japan) were two of the largest, most successful camera film makers in the world. Back in the old days, I bought tons of Kodak and Fuji camera film. But then things changed and digital technology replaced plastic film and emulsion for capturing images. (How many of you have digital cameras? How many of you still use film camera?) Fuji made drastic organizational reforms to direct its resources toward developing digital technology and not film technology. Kodak, however, lost sight of its core purpose, and did not embrace the new technology. Instead, Kodak became wedded to one method of preserving important memories: traditional analog film. Today, Fuji remains a major player in the photography market, even though traditional film accounts for only 3% of its sales. Kodak, despite restructuring and cost-cutting efforts, just filed for bankruptcy protection this January.
Similarly, the church must have a strong conviction about our core purpose that never changes. That purpose is for us to go and make disciples who make disciples. We can only do this when we are close to the vine and receiving nourishment and power of Christ. We too must also have a clear understanding that while we are nourished by God’s unchanging purpose, we must be willing for everything else—methods, processes, technologies—to change in order to preserve the core purpose.
Will Mancini, a Christian consultant, writes that when churches lose sight of their vision and are not nourished by God’s unchanging purpose, they will often settle for spiritual “fast food.” He provocatively identifies four kinds of fast food that congregants substitute.
The first substitute is “French Fried Places.” Now, the places where we encounter God matter. But place and space itself has addictive features, just like your favorite French fries, and sometimes we become more wedded to our place and space than to our purpose. Fishermen who are clear about their purpose would never stay in place in one part of the lake while the fish are hopping in another part. They go and move to where the fish are. But for churches at the end of a capital campaign or after a big new building is built, it is entirely possible that the building itself becomes the cheap substitute for real vision and purpose. However, we remember Jesus saying in John 4 that “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” in contrast to location, “neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem.”
The second substitute is “Big Mac Personalities.” In his research, Mancini regularly sees numbers ranging from 15 to 35 percent of people who feel more connected to paid staff than to each other. This dynamic is made worse by pastors who encourage a cult of personality so that even when a clearly unproductive or unethical minister leaves the church, scores of people follow. In the absence of vision and purpose, people in our churches will cling to a Big Mac personality, and many times that’s the pastor. But we must remember, the pastor is only the under-shepherd, and is not a substitute for the Good Shepherd.
The third substitute is “Supersized Programs.” We all enjoy being a part of growing, successful programs; we all enjoy the tradition and history of doing things as we have done them previously. However, one must be clear that programs are only methods to achieve the core purpose. Jesus reminded us that it is futile to put new wine in old wineskins and that God is always doing a new thing. Let me just say that I’m not trying to cut any particular program in our church. I’m simply warning about the dangers of us allowing programs to become more important than our purpose, and not go down the path of Kodak.
The fourth and final substitute is “Apple Pie People.” This is perhaps the most tempting substitution. We hunger for connection and community, for being with a group where people know my name and know my story. Please hear me correctly, I am not against community. But I do worry about community being an end in itself, which is both unbiblical and common. That’s why one of the requirements of our discipleship groups is that participants must be open to the possibility of eventually leading their own group to make new disciples. If that doesn’t happen, then we can’t call what we’re doing discipleship; it’s merely community. Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
What Mancini’s research shows is that for churches, without God’s core vision and purpose, then place, personality, programs and people will fill in as substitutes. When churches are not remaining near the vine of Christ and tapping into His nourishment, they will eat spiritual “fast food.” They may grow and branch out for a season, but they won’t be fruitful in disciple making, and eventually they will be cut off. When churches remain near the vine of Christ and tapping into His nourishment, the will also branch out and bear fruit for a season, and they too will be pruned so that the core purpose of disciple making can be preserved. So, here’s the thing, either way, we’re going to be pruned. The question is, are we going to be pruned because we’re not fruitful, or are we going to be pruned so that we can be more fruitful?
The churches that are most fruitful today are so passionate about their purpose that they willingly allow God to prune their members and leaders away from the people and location they love, so that they can be the seed planted in a new place to share the love of Christ. The churches that are most alive today are so passionate about their vision that they willingly allow God to prune away programs so that they can innovate and grow new ways to reach and make more disciples of Christ. The churches that are most fruitful today are so passionate about their purpose that their members – and especially their pastors – allow God to prune their egos and their need for affirmation and recognition so that the church can be more fruitful in fulfilling their purpose. Is it painful for those churches to do that? You bet. But for them, the pain of pruning pales in comparison to the pain of not fulfilling their purpose.
Jesus speaks a very challenging word to us today. But as always, every word of challenge by Jesus is accompanied by a word of graceful invitation. All this talk about bearing fruit and making disciples may make it sound like it is all up to us to do this work. But that is not the case at all. God does the pruning; God bears the fruit. All Jesus invites us to do today, is not to do something, but to remain in Him! Jesus issues this loving invitation: “Remain in me. Abide in me. Make yourself at home in me just as I do in you.” Taste and see that the Lord is good, and the Lord will bear the fruit that shows that you are Jesus’ disciples. Amen.
 The following is taken from Will Mancini, Church Unique, pps. 41-46.