In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus quotes Psalm 118, an Old Testament passage that comes up repeatedly in chapter 21 of Matthew, and describes Himself as the stone rejected by the builders. Jesus claims to be the foundation stone of the universe, the God Who makes us and Who makes new and everlasting life for all who believe in Him possible. But he’s also saying that many who claim to build their lives on God will spurn Him and demand His execution on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. The crucified and risen Jesus ushers the kingdom of God into our world and into our lives, but He says that this kingdom will be taken away from those who fail to bear fruit.
What on earth does that mean?
And how does a person go about producing fruit?
Before tackling those two questions, a little background is in order.
Jesus often used fruit as a metaphor for Christians and the lives we lead.
In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus is quoted as saying that believers should produce the fruit of repentance. He says that trees that produce bad fruit will be cut down. He says that every tree produces either good fruit or bad fruit. He also says that a tree will be known by its fruit.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that He is the true vine and the Father is the vinedresser. Each believer, drawing life from Him, is a branch. Occasionally, to foster our growth, to prevent us from being disconnected from God, and to ensure that we keep bearing fruit, God will cleanse or prune us, subjecting us to challenging circumstances that will find us either depending more deeply on God or turning away from Him. God’s purpose is to help us to live fruitful lives.
So, what does it mean to lead a fruitful life? Simply put, a Christian bearing fruit is someone who, by their daily interaction with Christ, is living a life that honors God.
Often, Christians who are, in Jesus’ terms, “bearing fruit” will hardly notice what God is producing in them. They’re focused on following Christ, not on looking like Christians.
I once knew a man, we’ll call him Joe, who worked as an engineer for a major manufacturing firm. He learned that another man, I’ll call him John, had joined the congregation where I was the pastor.
“John is an incredible man,” Joe told me. “We worked briefly side-by-side twenty-five years ago and occasionally in the years since, we’ve come in contact when our divisions had to work together on things.”
Joe went on to explain that among the things that impressed him about John were that he was ethical, a hard worker, deeply dedicated to his wife and children, and, in spite of his busy-ness, one who managed both to be involved with his church and to take excellent care of himself, eating right and running several miles a day.
“And John is such a real person,” Joe went on. “But what I really appreciate about him is that he loves Christ without pushing his faith onto anyone. That earned him lots of chances with me—and I was a hard case at the time—to talk about faith issues. In his way, John, more than anybody I know won me over to Christ.”
When I told John about my conversation with Joe, he was shocked. “I don’t remember any of that,” he told me.
There’s a lesson in John’s reaction. Sometimes we Lutheran Christians feel guilty because we don’t go door-to-door asking people if they’ve been saved. Now, I absolutely believe in sharing our faith with others. I absolutely believe that we should tell others about Jesus and invite them to worship, study, pray, and serve with us in Jesus’ Name.
But I’m convinced that the Christians who have the biggest positive impact on others aren’t the ones who spout four spiritual laws and try to guilt others into following Christ.
They aren’t the ones who go around shouting about the need for justice and compassion in our world and then treat those who disagree with them like dirt.
Fruit is a byproduct of our connection to the God we meet in Jesus Christ. John was unaware of the good fruit he was bearing, the witness of his life with Jesus, because he wasn’t following Christ to impress anybody else. He was following Christ because He knew that it’s Christ Who gives us forgiveness, life, hope, confidence, and joy, in good times and bad here, and in eternity. Fruit is Jesus working in our lives, just as the apples from a healthy tree result not from anything that the tree itself has done, but from sun, rain, and cultivation. The more connected to Christ you and I remain, the more fruitful our lives will be.
But unlike a fruit tree that has no control over its exposure to sun, rain, or cultivation, you and I can choose whether we’ll remain close enough to bear the good fruit Jesus talks about. As Pastor Scott Salsman wrote some years ago, “God will produce fruit in our lives if we honor him in the garden of the soul.” So, how exactly does that happen?
First: We seed the garden. One of my favorite passages of Scripture in Isaiah 43:19. It’s in the Old Testament and comes as part of a section of that book, written at least five centuries before Jesus’ birth, which foretells the coming of a saving king. In the verse, the prophet quotes God as saying, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
The point? The living eternal God isn’t stuck in the past. God is always doing new things and often God is doing them in older people. Pastor John Maxwell cites an interview with a doctor he read. The doctor had studied people 100 years of age and older. This doctor found that all these people had one thing in common. Maxwell thought it might be good diets and exercise programs. The doctor could have mentioned good genetics. (In line with that old saying, "The best way to ensure a long life is to pick the right partents.") No doubt each of those things are helpful for long living. But, Maxwell says, “the one thing these centenarians had in common was purpose.” For them, “the future looked bright; they had a reason to live.”
I meet a lot of people who are stuck in ruts. You know what a rut is, don’t you? It’s a grave with the ends kicked out! But people who keep bearing fruit are people who keep seeding their garden. They continue to look for new ways to serve God and neighbor. They keep trying to learn new things so that they can continue living useful Christian lives. So, seed the garden. Be open to God doing new things in your life.
Second: Weed the garden. I’m a terrible gardener. Back when we lived in northwest Ohio, I tried for several years to keep a garden. I should have had a great garden. The soil up there is rich, as you know, part of the old Black Swamp. On top of that, the farmers would always disc the soil for me and then bring good manure for me to spread. In spite of all that though, every year I tried my hand at gardening, I managed to let the weeds get the better of me. But we can’t afford to let that happen to our relationship with Christ. We need to weed our garden.
A fellow I read about had developed a bad habit of misusing God’s Name. That happens any time we use God’s Name for anything other than prayer, praise, or thanksgiving. We tend to think that misusing God's Name is an insignificant thing these days. But whenever we use God’s Name in ways other than God intended, we cheapen God’s Name and dishonor God, we clog up the line of communication between God and us with pointless static.
This fellow became convinced that he needed to break his bad habit. He enlisted his wife and a good friend in helping him to do so. He put a thick rubber band on his wrist. Every time his wife or friend heard him misuse God’s Name, they were to snap him good. After a while, the fellow got tired of having a sore wrist.
However you choose to weed your garden, you’ll be clearing the way for God to bear fruit in your life.
Finally, to bear fruit: Feed the garden. By this, I mean, for one thing, doing what you’re doing right now. (No, not sleeping!) I mean worshiping. We also feed the garden when we regularly spend time in prayer, whenever we receive Holy Communion, and when we read the Bible on our own and with others, in Bible studies. We feed the garden when we connect with Christ every day and with the Church whenever it's possible.
Finding time for this can be really hard, I know. A young mother once told me that with her three kids, all under age of five, the only peace and quiet she ever got was in the shower. She used this time to pray. Her daily shower became the most important few minutes of her day.
A man I know bought a small Bible--one of those slimline editions--and kept it and a daily devotional like Christ in Our Home or Our Daily Bread, in the top drawer of his desk at work. Each day, just before he had lunch, he pulled out the Bible and the devotional and read and prayed.
A farmer, profiled by Mosaic, the ELCA’s video magazine, always gathered with farm hands in the barn in the predawn hours each day in order to read the Bible, what he called “the owner’s maual.”
Each of these three people were feeding the garden, keeping in touch with Christ and the Church.
Jesus Christ came into the world to give us citizenship in the kingdom of God. It’s a free gift to all who turn from sin and trust in Him.
But sometimes our life with Christ can be choked off by indifference and the demands of daily life. If we will commit ourselves to a lifestyle that includes
- being open to the new things God wants to do in our lives,
- ridding ourselves of the old things that drag us away from God, and
- staying in daily close contact with Christ and His Church,
Jesus, the cornerstone, builds great lives in those who follow Him intently.
[Seed the garden, weed the garden, and feed the garden are the three points for this text suggested by Pastor Scott Salsman in the sermon cited above. I'm grateful for the inspiration!]